Richard Corbett's blog

The welcome shift of emphasis of Labour policy on Brexit

The shift of emphasis of Labour’s Brexit stance to demanding a public vote on any Brexit outcome may be taking a long time, hopefully in order to get (almost) everyone on board, but it is happening. Moreover, it is fully justified.

Two years ago, Labour had said in its manifesto that it respected the result of the 2016 referendum (not because it thought that this was the right result for the country – Labour had unanimously backed “Remain” at its conference before the referendum – but, as democrats, out of respect for what then appeared to be the will of the people). But a manifesto sets out what you would do in government if you win the election. Labour didn’t win the election, didn’t enter government and we are in a different situation – hence party conference adopting new policy on Brexit (and indeed on many subjects) last year. That policy explicitly rejected a no-deal Brexit and a bad-deal Brexit and envisaged the possibility of a public vote.

A new referendum is now fully justified, as Brexit is turning out to be very different from what was promised by the Leave campaign and by Tory ministers:

  • They said it would be easy – it’s in fact complex with ramifications they kept quiet about. 
  • They said it would save lots of money that would all go to the NHS – it’s actually costing a fortune that will hit public finances and make it more costly to finance our public services 
  • They said there would be new trade deals with the rest of the world, ready on day one, to replace lost trade with Europe – in fact we’re losing the deals we currently have with such countries via the EU, negotiated with the clout that brings. 
  • They said it would help our economy – in fact we’re losing jobs in manufacturing and services alike

People who voted Leave are entitled to say that this is not what they were told and not what they voted for. Indeed, there is every indication that public opinion has shifted against proceeding with Brexit.

In these circumstances, it is perfectly reasonable to demand a public vote on the actual Brexit outcome. In fact, not to do so would be tantamount to saying to the public: “You had your say three years ago, now you must shut up and accept whatever the government comes up with.”

Right for the country and right for Labour

This is the right thing to do for the country. It is also right in terms of electoral support for Labour. The European elections showed that not taking a clear position in favour of a new public vote led to Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Greens and the LibDems, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Those parties knew that, even in Leave seats, most Labour voters oppose Brexit, and they targeted them. Labour lost nearly four times more to them than to the Brexit party. The loss even included many Labour party members.

Most polling confirms that this is still a risk for Labour. Although European elections are not typical, falling to our lowest figure ever (and losing half our seats) was devastating. Unless we win those votes back, the chances of a majority Labour government diminish significantly. Winning even 90% back is not enough. 

Polling also shows that those Labour voters who did vote Leave back in 2016 are the category of voters whose views have since shifted the most on Brexit. Not surprising, as Brexit is increasingly associated with the most neo-liberal, right-wing elements of the Tory party that are driving it.

But some will, and Labour must recognise that we in any case need to emphasise our wider policies aimed at bringing the country together, fighting austerity and investing in our public services and regions. These are all, by the way, policies that would be hindered by the economic consequences of Brexit. And we don’t want an incoming Labour government to be lumbered with the multiple costs and other consequences of Brexit and the political divisions they trigger.

Visibilty and clarity

We must also make the shift of emphasis of our position clear and unambiguous. We cannot allow a perception to develop that we are reluctant or half-hearted.

That means that, given that it is obvious that in any vote on whether to proceed with Brexit on the basis of a Tory deal or no-deal, we will be opposing it, we should say already now that we will be campaigning to remain. Not to say that loud and clear would mean that we would fail to stem the loss of support to the Greens, the LibDems, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. It would also mean further wrangles within our own party where the overwhelming majority of members want us to campaign to remain. It would make the Labour leadership vulnerable to the accusation that it is not listening to party members. 

To sum up: full support to demanding a public vote on the Brexit outcome and campaigning to remain is the only credible way forward for Labour.