If you think from the title that this post will argue that the poor showing of Labour in the polls means it must change course on Brexit I’m afraid I will disappoint you. Unfortunately I am not at all surprised that Labour’s lead in the polls that it achieved after the election has now all but disappeared. It is certainly true that for anyone who takes an active interest in politics the performance of this government has been as bad as you can get, but most people do not take an active interest. Instead their view is guided by a media environment which aims (actively or passively) to show a very different picture. This is increasingly true as the BBC becomes little more than a mouthpiece for the press.
I am sure Labour could do better at handling this naturally antagonistic environment, but to put this all at the door of Corbyn or Brexit misses the bigger picture. The lesson of the Labour surge during the 2017 election is that once the party gets direct access to voters they like what they see. Once the media filter goes back on, voters see a very different picture. This is the lesson of 2017 that hardly anyone in the media wants to admit.
Having said all that, it remains the case that the one issue in the news all the time is Brexit, and Labour are failing to capitalise on the current divisions within the Conservative party, and the consequent damage the government is creating. Watching the Labour leadership trying not to talk about Brexit is looking more and more like Labour under Miliband trying not to talk about austerity. In both cases we may be seeing triangulation (moving to the middle ground), as I set out in detail here and here. As I was always careful to say, we do not know for sure that this is what Labour are trying to do right now. They may instead by divided over policy. This uncertainty is important, because it means that Labour supporters who might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt over Brexit are also uncertain whether they should
For that reason, as I have also emphasised, a party that triangulates has to be very careful to always appear to lean away from their opponents side in the direction of their supporters. In the case of Brexit, that means appearing significantly less pro-Brexit than the government. Polls suggest that was achieved during the 2017 election, but that was still in a period where the parties talked in generalities. Since then things have inevitably become more concrete, with the issue of the moment being the Customs Union. The position of the two parties after transition remains different: May is committed to leaving the Customs Union, whereas Labour say everything is on the table. However sometimes Labour’s position looks as much cake and eat it as their opponents.
Sometime this month Labour will discuss its strategy over Brexit. The danger of its current position is clear. Theresa May is going at some point be forced to admit that we will stay in some form of customs union with the EU because of the Irish border issue. The only alternative is to leave with no deal, or dump the DUP. Whichever occurs, Labour’s non-position on the Customs Union will look bad. If she goes for a deal Labour will be the wrong side of the government in terms of triangulation, which will be fatal to its support. If she goes for No Deal because of the Customs Union Labour will be immediately asked what it would do. Deciding to stay in the Customs Union just at the point when the issue becomes critical will look like the political opportunism that it is.
Given that, there is a clear advantage from coming off the fence sooner rather than later. The benefit of declaring to be in favour of staying in the customs union is that they will, once more, create clear distance between their own position and the government. The Conservatives will of course claim that in doing so Labour are no longer supporting the ‘will of the people’, but I doubt that will resonate. People did not vote Leave in the referendum in order to make separate trade deals with other countries. Any voters that do desert Labour on this issue will come back pretty quickly as May is forced to face reality. The government’s own analysis, which Labour should use, suggests deals with non-EU countries cannot make up for the impact of leaving the Customs Union. Above all else, it is very difficult to see why Labour would ever want to leave the Customs Union, given that doing so would do so much harm to its traditional electoral base.