Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 22 March 2019

Labour’s Brexit stance is a tragedy for Labour but the current Brexit mess is an entirely Tory failure.

Before deciding that I’m writing about Labour when I should be writing about the disaster that is Theresa May, please read to the end.

As it becomes obvious (sort of) that there is no majority among MPs for a People’s Vote (something that has actually been clear for some time), the argument has been made that this justifies Labour’s failure to support a People’s vote and instead to seek a compromise, a softer Brexit. I have talked about the wisdom of compromise over Brexit before, but I want to make a different point here, about the stance that Labour has taken over Brexit.

In 2015 Labour lost a General Election where the strong card, perhaps the only strong card, of the Conservatives was their handling of the economy: in other words austerity. It would therefore not be ridiculous to claim that the vote was a verdict on austerity. Some Labour MPs did just that, and argued that if Labour were to win the next election it had to match George Osborne’s policy.

Thankfully on that occasion a new Labour leadership did not take their advice. There were three compelling reasons to continue to argue against austerity - indeed to argue against it much more strongly than Balls and Miliband had done. First and most importantly, it was a policy that made pretty well everyone worse off, and almost certainly led to premature deaths. Second, austerity was a policy that was very unpopular among party members. Third, there were good reasons to believe that the popularity of austerity among the public at large would fade away over time.

I think all these points apply to Brexit as well. Does the fact that 2016 was a referendum while 2015 was a General Election make a difference? Here we have to talk about the nature of the 2016 referendum result. It was not, and could never be, an unconditional instruction to leave under any circumstances. As the form of leaving was unspecified, and the conditions under which we would leave were strongly disputed (with the winning side proving to be completely wrong), it should only have been a request for the government to investigate how we might leave.

It was also won narrowly, with the winning side spending significantly more than was legal. That alone casts a question of legitimacy over the result. I find it extremely odd that some on the left say otherwise, and suggest Remainers have to prove that the additional spending made the difference, something that it is almost impossible to do. Do they realise the precedent they are setting? The right always has more money for obvious reasons, and if the only consequence of overspending by the right is a fine then that is an open invitation to try and buy elections.

Labour’s early approach to Brexit was successful in avoiding the 2017 election being a rerun of the referendum, but there were other ways of doing that. A reasonable strategy that would have achieved the same end was to accept the vote (obviously), but to reserve judgement while the government was negotiating. It would make sense to put down markers about being extremely skeptical that Brexit promises could be met and, crucially, whether a deal that was beneficial could be found.

As the outlines of the government’s deal became clear, Labour should have done what was right and what its members wanted, and campaigned for a second referendum. Once Labour had to put its cards on the table, triangulation ran out of road. The case for a vote on the final deal became unassailable once it was clear Leave promises about what the EU would do were worthless, that there were alternative ways of leaving each of which had some public support, and the public were not getting behind Brexit but were still deeply divided about whether to Leave and how to Leave. 

The Labour leadership’s arguments against doing that were of exactly the same form of those who wanted to adopt Osborne austerity after 2015: the policy that members wanted was seen as a vote loser. Even if they are right about backing a second referendum being a vote loser (and I strongly suspect they are wrong), the only argument I can see for treating austerity and Brexit differently is a belief that one matters much more than the other, and such a belief is very misguided.

What about the argument that there are not enough MPs in parliament to support a second referendum? In my view that is an entirely separate point. In general opposition parties cannot get their way, but that does not mean they stop campaigning for what they think is right. It may well be that parliament will never vote for a second referendum, and some compromise - a softer Brexit - is all that can be achieved. I hope that is not the case, but it could well be. But that does not mean a party should start off campaigning for the compromise you may be forced to reach, rather than campaigning for what is right.

Some people argue that we have to support Brexit to show solidarity with those left behind who support it. That ignores those left behind who voted against it, but even so it is not a good way to proceed. You could say exactly the same about immigration, which many of those left behind blame for their situation. It would be quite wrong for Labour to adopt an anti-immigration policy they did not believe in just to show solidarity with those who wanted it. The same is true of Brexit.

But I have to make one final, and critical, point. I think Labour’s Brexit policy is tragic because it has, directly or indirectly, diminished support for Labour and its leadership among many people who might vote Labour. By triggering Article 50 Labour bear some responsibility for Brexit, and I have suggested before that the successors to the current leadership should come from those who voted otherwise. However I cannot say with any certainty at all that Labour’s policy has had any effect on the Brexit process as such. It is not at all clear that if Labour had adopted the stance I suggest above it could have stopped Brexit, This Brexit mess is entirely Tory affair. To quote Alison McGovern, “This is a Tory problem, a Tory solution and a Tory obsession.” It is Tory disunity and madness that has delayed Brexit. It is a terrible Tory Prime Minister that has made democracy in the UK become a laughing stock among the rest of the world. Those who claim the Tories and Labour are equally to blame or equally responsible for Brexit are wrong. 

May's speech to the public on Wednesday night was Trumpesque, and extremely dangerous. She blamed MPs for delaying Brexit when she had delayed one vote for no good reason, and then basically said its my deal or no deal. She pretended she was acting for the people while parliament was frustrating the people’s will, when in reality less than 40% of voters support her deal and parliament is reflecting that. She seems on the point of taking us over the cliff edge and it is only Tory MPs that can stop her. To make such an authoritarian, populist speech without realising what she was doing tells you all you need to know about her character and political ability.

Her proposal to the EU only made sense if she was prepared to leave with No Deal, which in turn signals to the ERG that they should not vote for her deal. The EU is much too sensible to agree with that, and has in effect given parliament three weeks to work out an alternative to May’s deal. That requires Tory MPs to cooperate with the Labour leadership, something they have not yet been prepared to do [1]. To the many who suggest that somehow the Labour leadership could have prevented the mess we are in I say show me how you can be sure of that, because to me this looks like all the Tories own work from David Cameron to today.

[1] If Tory MPs do finally have serious discussions with the Labour leadership, the Single Market is critical. If all the leadership does is demand to stay in a Customs Union (something inevitable with May's deal given the backstop), it will be equally responsible for the damage caused by leaving the Single Market. Phrases about 'access to' or 'staying close to' the Single Market bind the government to nothing. 


  1. What's the advantage of CU&SM over staying in the EU? It's just BINO, and the brexiters would be right in saying that it's a bad deal. Labour ought to take the position that what the Leave side campaigned for isn't possible and that Article 50 should to be revoked. But Corbyn won't do that. He won't even agree to the single market (state aid).

  2. But Labour’s stance will be a failure for the country in the near future.

    No one understands Brexit, they see the customs union as a pragmatic halfway house with all the benefits of the single market without freedom of movement. It is absolute rubbish and the epitome of having our cake and eating it.

    As well as that, single market membership will be seen as leavers (rightly in my view) as BINO. A second referendum is the only way forward if you don’t want such a bad deal as Turkey’s.

    If we get changes to the political declaration for a customs union, I believe we’ll be in the same position as now in the next stage where we are unable to pass the customs deal because only then will MPs understand the implications of customs union membership.

    It is taking years for our representatives to actually understand that the EU won’t let us ‘have our cake and eat it’. Labour doesn’t understand it even more than the Tories. It is embarrassing and an utter waste of time.

    1. What do you think is wrong with CU membership?

  3. "This looks like all the Tories own work from David Cameron to today."

    No it started with John Major who choose not to consult the public on the Maastricht Treaty. Because the transition from Common Market to EU was implemented with no public say, then the vote in the 2016 Referendum has far more significance. It does not sit very well with Brexiteers that people should be calling for a second people's vote when the electorate weren't allowed even one vote on Maastricht.

    1. You assume the public were not aware of the core of the debate in the seventies: "ever closer union". I doubt that since it is on the front page of the treaty of Rome and pooling of sovereignty was front and centre in the debates. So please stop peddling the myth that the EU was just about trade back when we had two big majorities for joining. It is a myth.

    2. This is the pamphlet that was sent to every household in the UK in advance of the 1975 referendum.

      It doesn't mention 'ever closer union' and one couldn't expect the average person to infer 'ever closer union from its contents.

  4. "She pretended she was acting for the people while parliament was frustrating the people’s will, when in reality less than 40% of voters support her deal and parliament is reflecting that.”

    That is totally disingenuous and you know it. MPs would only be reflecting voters if 28% of them refrained from voting at all. If you want to address an intelligent readership then need to show more intellectual rigour and less slovenly argument.

    1. This objection is itself disingenuous. SWL didn't claim that Parliament's role is to directly mirror the wider electorate's views, but just pointed out that May's framing is inaccurate. It is certainly true that the distribution of MPs' opinions of May's deal are better aligned with public opinion than May's characterisation, regardless of the mechanism by which that correlation was achieved.

  5. "Her proposal to the EU only made sense if she was prepared to leave with No Deal, which in turn signals to the ERG that they should not vote for her deal. The EU is much too sensible to agree with that, and has in effect given parliament three weeks to work out an alternative to May’s deal. That requires Tory MPs to cooperate with the Labour leadership, something they have not yet been prepared to do [1]. To the many who suggest that somehow the Labour leadership could have prevented the mess we are in I say show me how you can be sure of that, because to me this looks like all the Tories own work from David Cameron to today"

    I voted remain not because I believed in Europe but because I did not want this futile debate to happen in the first place. None of this has anything to do with Labour unless one holds the view that supports a second referendum, where people who still know little about Europe think they know everything.

    The pro Europeans have been used to once again attack Jeremy Corbyn and that is why they get huge support in the mass media, any right wing member that accuses Jeremy Corbyn of ignoring the call for the will of the people to have a second vote, gets instant front line coverage, where their ridiculous claims are posted as main stream rather than a small group of MPs with a Neo-Liberal political agenda.

    Europe in the short term even in a worst case scenario will have a negative impact on us as a country - but this of course depends on who is in government after Brexit, if the Tories remain then we can look to a prolonged downturn and poverty into the future, but should we return a Labour government then over time we can re-balance the downsides with effective reorganisation that will mitigate any shortcomings due to loss of trade or border issues.

    In short the Tories are working for the interests of the corporate sector and do not care in the slightest what happens to ordinary people, as we witness with May's persistent pressure to force through her version of Brexit. Tories don't care if we crash out, because their sole objective is to enshrine Neo-Liberal dogma into being a permanent feature of British life.

    That is their one and only agenda, which should be obvious to any observer since Thatcher proclaimed that she would "roll back the state and socialism with it".

    Where poverty will be maintained to divide the country between the haves and have not's into perpetuity, because as they have done in Europe with the Lisbon and Maastricht treaty, enshrined corporate power into law.

    1. I'm not anti JC but please explain by what alchemy JC will "mitigate" the effects of a no deal Brexit? I'm curious since from what I can see there maybe only one other JC who can do that and he hasn't been around for a couple of millennia...

    2. Fiscal stimulus can mitigate it and so can state bailouts

  6. Its become increasingly difficult for 'progressive politics' to shatter the Right Wing Hegemony dominant in UK media mainly the press, i.e.Sun( biggest selling) Mail ( also 2nd biggest seller), Telegraph, Express and Times( slightly more Centre Right except at elections). Whatever, 80% or so of press readers absorb their daily Right Wing 'Drip Drip', Right Wing Tory content & this News Agenda is reflected by a BBC which has lost since the Referendum all credibility of being informed & giving 'proportional' coverage.For example Farage was and is an ex leader of UKIP party with no MPs and Mogg/Johnson represent less than 15% of Parliament's views. Progressives always ignore the media & believe its 'old hat', irrelevant or youngsters ignore it.

    Young Ed Milliband lost, Remain campaign lost, Corbyn lost...faced with ugly press attacks. OK yes often weak leaders which McCluskey put their but also a press led discourse which discredit anything to towards the Centre or Left. But the progressives will never , never win with leaders appointed by their ideology or dogma. Labour is in crises. Its leader is shocking. Look at who wins for progressives: Tony Blair,Justin Trudeau,Emmanuel Macron, Jacinda Ardern, Nicola Sturgeon- why they win? by meritocracy, by intelligence, by smartness, by empathy, by persuasion,by pragmatism, by vision and most critically, appealing to most groups young, old, working & middle class,male, female,and by region ( Blair won both Glasgow and Wimbledon).

    Until Labour choose such leaders the Tory Hegemony here will win and win again. Corbyn respectfully has little chance of being PM as he is too ideological, conflict driven,a disturbing past,parochial and has unpopular voter appeal. With a new Tory leader soon it will be as the bookies predicted back in 2015 Labour out of office until the mid to late 2020s.

  7. Proponents of a second referendum want it to deliver a desired result: Remain. Fine, that result would be the best for the UK, but skirts the hard reality that we already have had one - albeit ill-conceived and unnecessary - that voted in principle to Leave.

    The dangers and problems of a second referendum become apparent immediately when one considers the design of the question. Well, of course, its proponents want it to a choice between either May Deal or a softer variant and Remain:such a binary choice maximises the prospect of a Remain victory.

    But on what democratic grounds, should a No-deal option be excluded? One could argue that if Parliament - a tall order- could agree on an option and voted for it, after excluding No Deal, that would justify the exclusion, but accepting that principle rather undermines taking the question back to the electorate at all.

    A large minority of the electorate - perhaps even the majority - are likely to have felt cheated, and the result - whatever it was - would be considered illegitimate, causing further instability and division.

    Any referendum in logic should really be a straight binary yes or no, to the deal being offered.

    Another point not to lose sight out, is that the indicative votes next week - if they take place - will not be on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), which will stand regardless assuming that the UK does leave - but the content of the Political Declaration: that is the direction and destination of the negotiations that will follow.

    We are in a total mess. One possible scenario is that the Commons - by a tiny majority - votes for a softer Brexit - Common Market 2.0 would do the least damage - but that is unlikely to be taken on board by the executive: at least while May is still PM.

    If the Commons and the executive are at odds, a general Election would appear to offer the only appropriate response, but that would require both main parties to offer the electorate a coherent choice.

    Labour could seek one through another no confidence vote on the ground that the government was incapable of resolving the issue, indicating it would seek to re-negotiate with Brussels in line with a Commons vote in favour of a softer Brexit, coupled with a transformative economic and social programme tilted towards the addressing the causes of Brexit.

    The Conservative party would be thrown into disarray, torn between its Remainer and ERG wings. Even, if the electorate still voted for a Conservative party, it could possibly be the last one.


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