© Håkan Dahlström / Wikimedia Commons; Chris McAndrew / Wikimedia Common; Chris Tilbury / Prospect

Labour could talk about Brexit—this is how

The opposition’s silence could blow up in its face
June 16, 2022

According to the British public, Brexit isn’t going well. A YouGov poll in May found just 17 per cent were prepared to say it was. Of course, the reasons Leave voters think it’s going badly aren’t necessarily the same as for Remain voters.

Even so, by 49 per cent-39 per cent people now think we were wrong to leave the EU, and by 55 per cent-45 per cent they say they would choose to rejoin if we could do so on the same terms (which of course we could not). This is partly due to growing economic concerns. Sixty-seven per cent of voters and 48 per cent of Leave voters think that Brexit has increased their living costs, while almost no one thinks it’s made them lower. Just 28 per cent of voters (40 per cent of Leavers) think Brexit is “done” as the Conservatives promised it would be at the last election.

Given this, more fervent Remainers are increasingly annoyed that Labour MPs refuse to talk about Brexit. Surely they should seize their chance to point out the harm it’s doing? Yet Labour’s position is politically understandable. Remain voters are already very likely to vote for it or another anti-Tory party. Leave voters may not be happy with how things are going but would still, by a considerable majority, vote the same way again—they’re frustrated with the implementation of Brexit, not the idea of it. Labour needs at least some of the voters who went Tory last time if it is to have a hope of winning the next election well enough to avoid relying on the SNP.

The right focus for these voters is economic insecurity, given inflation and a likely recession. But this is Labour’s bind: it’s quite hard to talk convincingly about economic growth while ignoring Brexit. To the extent that the Tories have any long-term economic messaging, it’s to emphasise the potential deregulatory benefits of Brexit and highlight new trade deals. Does Labour think this is the right approach? And if not, what is the alternative?

Labour MPs may feel they’re better off keeping quiet, but the apparently safe option could blow up in their faces if they find themselves having to answer questions in an election without a clear position. There’s no doubt the Conservatives will do everything they can to try and push a narrative that Labour would backslide on Brexit. In addition, taking a bolder stance has the potential of closing off two of its weaker areas. It now leads the ­Tories on almost all issues—but not on economic growth or Brexit handling.

So what might the party’s position look like? For a start, it would need to be extremely carefully drawn. There would, for instance, need to be upfront clarity that the big red line for Leave voters—the end of free movement—is here to stay. This would no doubt upset some Remainers but is necessary to get any kind of hearing; it also appears to have created the space for a big increase in skilled migration from outside the EU, which is a clear positive.

Secondly, it would need to focus on specific benefits rather than vague assertions about a “closer relationship”—which would sound, to Leave voters, like a threat to reopen the whole question. These specific benefits could include things like regaining access to EU police databases of criminal records, wanted persons and fingerprints, given crime is a growing concern.

Most of all, though, it would need to focus on the economy; by far and away the number one issue for people at the moment. There is an understanding, in focus groups, that trade has got harder with the EU and this involves a lot of new bureaucracy, particularly for small firms, which tend to be a lot more popular than big businesses. Proposing a new deal that freed these businesses and cut red tape would have the advantage of using the language of Brexit to offer an alternative path. Conservatives would no doubt retort that any better deal with Europe would limit our ability to deregulate and agree deals elsewhere, but then it just becomes an argument about which market is more valuable, rather than sovereignty or control.

Framing this as a “trade and security deal” would focus attention on the Tories’ inability to implement Brexit, while offering to reduce costs and help the police. Labour could simultaneously highlight government failure and offer a convincing pitch of its own. Moreover, there aren’t many economic policies around that are free, would genuinely make the lives of businesses easier and definitely improve GDP. Remainers might feel underwhelmed, but there is no plausible short-to-medium term route for anything more dramatic. Right now we do need to find a way to make life outside the EU work; with the government caught between reality and its more extreme MPs, Labour has a chance to be the party that does so.