Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Labour’s Brexit policy is long past its sell-by date

Labour cannot bring the country together with any kind of deal because a large majority will always hate the deal they have done.

Most people think about Brexit as a binary divide. While true in terms of Remaining or Leaving, this framework is misleading when thinking about any Brexit deal. A better model is to think about three different groups. The first comprise Remainers who see no value in compromising over Brexit. The second is made up of people who will be satisfied with nothing less than a complete break i.e. No Deal. Finally you have a group, that includes some Remainers, who would be prepared to accept some kind of Brexit deal that falls short of No Deal: the compromisers.

The size of the compromiser group may vary depend on how hard the deal we are considering is. As the deal becomes softer it loses some Leavers to No Deal and gains some Remainers. But in no case does this group of compromisers come close to being a majority of the population.

Exactly the same divisions apply to MPs in parliament, although the exact proportions may be different. This is why it is so hard, and perhaps impossible, to get a majority in parliament for any type of agreement. It is why any type of agreement is likely to fail It will be blocked by some combination of uncompromising Remainers and No Deal Leavers, who together will form a majority. This also applies to No Deal, which will be blocked by the other two groups. The only option that has any chance of getting a majority in a referendum is Remain, because both uncompromising and compromising Remainers will vote for it.

The reason we have these three minority groups when it comes to any deal is twofold. First the 2016 referendum did not specify the type of deal that people were voting for, and indeed the Leave side suggested a variety of deals. This is why compromising Remainers are wrong to think they ought to compromise. 2016 did not provide a mandate for any particular form of Brexit and could never amount to a blank cheque for any kind of Brexit. Leavers voted for one of the variety of deals suggested at the time, which all involved more money for the NHS and the EU giving us the benefits of membership without the obligations. They most certainly were not voting for no deal at all.

Second, the Brexiters have realised along with many Leave voters that the only way the UK as a whole can avoid being bound by EU decisions is to leave with no deal at all. Unsurprisingly, the EU will not allow the UK to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market when the UK can also decide its own tariffs and regulations. Brexiter ideas of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU has been spoilt in their minds by the EU’s (and anyone who cares about peace in Ireland) insistence on a backstop. In time I suspect they will embrace a limited Northern Ireland backstop, but for a variety of reasons they are not there yet.

It is the reality of these three minority groups that Labour’s current Brexit stance fails to recognise. They cannot bring the country together with any kind of deal because a large majority will always hate the deal they have done. This is the basis for my argument that they could never get agreement for any kind of Brexit if they were the government. They would be opposed by Conservatives and many of their MPs in parliament and in any referendum (which parliament would force on them if they didn’t choose to have one themselves) they would lose badly. The only possible (but unlikely) exception to this rule is a deal between Labour and the government without a public vote attached that might just scrape through parliament. Even in this case the deal would be hated by most people in the country and both parties would be punished for it.

The upshot of all this is that no one, including Labour, can enact Brexit. Their current policy is simply a non-starter for very good reasons. Their policy did make much more sense in 2017. At that point it was not clear that the Brexiters themselves would scupper any kind of deal. But during 2018 that became clear, and at that point Labour should have acknowledged reality and changed its policy to embrace not just a People’s Vote but also the Remain cause.

The main excuse for Labour supporting something that cannot happen is to keep the votes of Leavers. The argument goes that if they supported Remain they would lose seats in the old Labour heartlands. Embracing Remain might win them a few votes, but in seats they have comfortable majorities in already. At the end of the day most Remainers will vote Labour whatever its Brexit policy because they want the other things a Labour government would bring.

In 2016 and 2017 that argument had some force. However it is no longer valid. Let’s take the Remain side first. There is CHUK which explicitly aimed to capture disaffected Labour voters on the Remain side. The fact that CHUK contains former Conservative MPs will limit their appeal to Labour voters, but they do pose a threat to the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems are as a result likely to stress their more radical side, which makes them more appealing to Labour voters. The days when their history as part of the Coalition government was a millstone around their neck are dying, as recent polls show. Finally you have the Greens, who are likely to look increasingly attractive as the perceived threat of climate change grows.

In it certainly true that if Labour embraced Remain they would lose some voters who support Leave. But comparisons with voting patterns in 2016 are now out of date, because more Leave voters have changed their minds than Remain voters. Crucially, minds have changed predominantly among Leave voters who find their financial situation difficult, who are also likely to be Labour voters. This was confirmed by a recent UCL study.To quote
“Of Labour voters who chose Leave in 2016, fully 18% have changed their minds and say they now prefer Remain as their top outcome. In contrast only 4% Conservative Leave voters have changed their mind. One reason might be differences in economic circumstances between Leave voters in the parties.”

Peter Kellner now estimates that in Leave areas Remain supporters now outnumber Leave supporters three to one. That is a huge margin. It means that seats that voted Leave in 2016 are more vulnerable to switching Remain supporters than if Labour loses Leave supporters.

None of this would matter of it was only Leave supporters who were likely to forsake Labour, with Remain voters staying loyal. But poll after poll has shown the opposite is true. To quote from the UCL study again:
“For Labour, at least a fifth of their voters in every region say they are going to vote for a different party – and in every region defecting voters are overwhelming plumping for parties holding a definite Remain position (assuming the bulk of the “Other” vote is likely to be Green, particularly in London and Scotland). Only in Wales is Labour losing significant voter share to UKIP and the Conservatives, and even that is outnumbered by those switching to Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and Others. The picture is particularly stark in Scotland where almost half of Labour voters are intending to vote for a different party, mostly the SNP. In London too, the Labour vote could be hit hard by a shift to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.”

This is confirmed by polling analysis after the council elections.

Does the rise of the Brexit party change any of this? In fact it reinforces it. It splits the Leave vote, which reduces the impact any switching from Labour by Leave supporters as a result of adopting a Remain position would have.

Would Labour lose too much face if it moved to support Remain? I don’t think so. The story they should tell is that the 2016 referendum has been respected because all the government’s resources, and Labour’s energy, have been devoted to trying to find a form of Brexit that a majority could accept, but it has become clear that a feasible deal does not exist. In particular there is no possible way of getting parliament or the country to support the kind of Brexit Labour prefers. As a result, Labour will now unconditionally support the Remain side.

The logic of the argument I have put forward would also be as, if not more, consistent with revoking Article 50. That would avoid the anger at not including No Deal in any referendum question. No Deal cannot be an option. To make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum. One of its lessons is don’t put to the people options that MPs know would be a disaster for the country, and with a rabid Brexit press and broadcasters that balance facts with lies we cannot trust the people not to vote for this disaster. The argument for revoking is that the country has already wasted too much time because Leavers cannot decide on the Brexit option they want, and we need to move on.

As Tom Kabasi argues, a campaign based on making Brexit about priorities rather than about staying in the EU or leaving is likely to be a winning strategy. People are fed up with Brexit, and they do not want it to dominate politics for years ahead. If Remain supporting Labour could convince voters that Brexit will be never ending and that we need to move on they can win the debate.

Will Labour move towards a position where it supports Remain of its own accord. The logic I set out has been clear for some time yet they look unmoved by it. That is why many Remain supporting Labour voters will continue to vote for Remain supporting parties into the indefinite future. The hope is that Labour, if it will not move through analysis of the true situation, will do so because of the fear of losing Remain supporting votes.


  1. “That would avoid the anger at not including No Deal in any referendum question. No Deal cannot be an option. To make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum.”

    That’s right if we have another people’s vote we cannot allow them a proper choice or they may make the same mistake again. Better still why allow them to vote at all? Why not have an elite group make all the decisions on their behalf? That way we will always get the right answer.

  2. “That would avoid the anger at not including No Deal in any referendum question. No Deal cannot be an option. To make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum.”

    So are you against fascism or are you just opposed to people who don’t support your brand of fascism?

  3. For the DUP an NI only backstop would meet with the approval of NI voters. If DUP agreed to such - in return for a fiscal stimulus from GB - it could clear the way for a GB decision unfettered by GFA issues. This would be better for their Union with UK than no deal.

  4. No Deal cannot be an option. To make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum.”

    Labour cannot be an option at the next General Election. To make it so learns nothing from the General Election that preceded the 2008 financial crash.

    We can all make can all make idiotic suggestions based upon idiotic logic.

  5. From this side of the world (the Antipodes) this analysis looks hopelessly flawed. It implicitly assumes the defection of Remainers to splinter parties will seriously hurt Labour. Not so, because the UK insisted on retaining its absurd and anti-democratic First Past The Post voting system.

    Corbyn understands that Labour Brexiters will if pushed defect to the Tories. THe much more numerous Labour Remainers would instead defect to parties that can't win seats, and hence are no threat to Labour members.

    I agree with you that Brexit is daft, only possible because of a stunningly ignorant electorate combined with the outcome of that FPTP system at the last election, but given these I think Corbyn's calculation is correct.

  6. Brexit is not the main issue on most peoples minds except those Centrists that only have one policy.

    Labour have been misinterpreted all along and for those that really care will note that the policy has not changed from day one - but for those wishing to make anti Labour political capital out of it.

    There are also remainers that tell lies about the so called benefits of the EU and overstate the clear disruption that will be caused by leaving the it.

    What they also forget is that nothing is permanent in real life and into the future we can modify our behaviour to accommodate any circumstance that requires change, all it takes is the political will.

    The real problem facing this country is not Brexit, it is the Neo-Liberal right wing and the Tory Party, once we get rid of them we can start concentrating on the real issues facing ordinary people.

    People really aren't convinced by hypothetical differences between remainers and Brexiteers, they just want to get on with their lives and see this futile debate as an impediment to that. Which is why Farage has seen a massive leap in his party's poll position. People just want out no matter the so called cost.

    To pretend that the EU is some sort of social democracy that will protect us from the ravages of Neo-Liberalism is delusional at best and deceitful at its worst.

    There is only one way that we can reverse the damage inflicted on us by past and present Neo-Liberal governments, and that is to get rid of the Tories and vote for a Corbyn Led Labour government. Everything else is secondary to that FACT.

  7. The New Labour and the Corbyn projects find themselves in the same position.

    To get what they want means overcoming Thatcherism, because only Thatcherism can deliver Leave and only Thatcherism can continue with shrinking the size of the state.


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