An election is inevitable—so why are Labour still making excuses?

In trying to out-Remain the Lib Dems, Jeremy Corbyn's party has chosen a course at odds with the unavoidable consequences of the current parliamentary arithmetic

October 29, 2019
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves after speaking at an activists training event in Motherwell. Photo: PA
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves after speaking at an activists training event in Motherwell. Photo: PA

These are not normal times. But the 2019 twist few of us saw coming was one of Labour’s most traditional Eurosceptics attempting to out-Remain the Liberal Democrats.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, now a full referendum convert but who for years adopted a Bennite suspicion of the EU, has in the last couple of days accused Jo Swinson’s party of ‘selling out’ the People’s Vote campaign in order to win power and side with the Conservatives.

If the claim seems outlandish, it is because it is. For all Swinson’s missteps since she became leader, she has not abandoned her desire to stop Brexit—or shown any desire to ally with Boris Johnson. Indeed, Swinson has literally promised to revoke Article 50 if she wins a majority. So what is Labour doing?

A generous reading is that the party is now trying to cover all its bases. The message to Leavers is that the party cannot support a Brexit bill which threatens to decimate workers’ rights and environmental standards. The message to Remainers is that Labour is working harder than ever to secure a referendum, and in fact wants to do so before an election.

The latter, as conveyed through McDonnell’s recent communications, is not formal party policy but represents a major departure. Officially, Labour wants to hold an election, renegotiate Brexit on friendlier terms and then put that deal to the public in a referendum, with the alternative of remaining.

A party in chaos

The less generous reading is that the party is in chaos. Although Labour has been calling for an election for two years, it has now resisted every concrete opportunity to have one—partly because it fears it will lose one heavily. This may or may not be true—we all remember that the party began the 2017 election campaign with similarly dire polling and vastly outperformed expectations—but it is terrifying Labour MPs across the political spectrum.

The problem for Labour is that it cannot hold out on an election for much longer. It was shrewd, at the time, for Jeremy Corbyn to deny the Conservatives an election when they called for one (twice) in September. That would have led to an election in the middle of October and might have precipitated no-deal. (An interesting counterfactual exercise is to question how Johnson could possibly have negotiated his EU deal by 31 October if he was in the middle of an election campaign, and forbidden by electoral rules from advancing government policy.) It was also a useful device to force Johnson to break his ‘do or die’ pledge and delay Brexit—as has now happened.

But how can Labour still refuse an election now? Certainly, it was justified in opposing Johnson’s effort on Monday evening, when the prime minister attempted to call an election for 12 December after pushing through Brexit. An election after Brexit would be a disaster for both Labour and the Lib Dems: alienated and demoralised Remainers would have little incentive to vote for either, while Johnson would be riding a euphoric wave of ‘having delivered Brexit.’

Corbyn has specified one key condition for supporting an election: that no-deal is taken off the table first. The joint Lib Dem/SNP proposed bill, published over the weekend, duly requires an extension of 31 January in return for an election on 9 December. Crucially, it also renders it impossible for the government to have delivered its Brexit legislation beforehand. A referendum to stop Brexit therefore remains a valid electoral offer. On Monday night, following its defeat on the election motion, the government declared that it would present its own bill, and, in an attempt to woo the Lib Dems and SNP, promised not to bring back the Brexit deal for parliament's consideration.

Deal or no-deal

Some Labour figures are suggesting that the EU extension is insufficient for ruling out no-deal. The reasoning is that no-deal remains the legal default at the end of December 2020, as specified in the withdrawal agreement. The response to that, of course, is that if the election comes before Brexit, our withdrawal can be overturned altogether in the next parliament. At the very least, UK legislation can be amended to ensure that parliament is able to force a request to extend the transition period beyond 2020 and therefore avoid trading on WTO terms.

Conversely, if Labour really wants to insist on altering the withdrawal agreement before an election, it requires bringing the deal back before parliament. That incurs the enormous risk that parliament—with the help of Leave-sympathetic Labour MPs—could, in fact, pass the deal (even in amended form), meaning that we leave the EU on Johnson’s watch without a referendum and before an election. An election now is by far the less dangerous path.

This is of course not to say that only Labour is thinking of its own interests. The Lib Dems’ central platform is a referendum, and they know this is their optimal moment to campaign for it. Similarly, the SNP know that they are on course to win back a swathe of seats from all their rivals in Scotland, and want that election to come before Alex Salmond’s full trial begins. (The ex-leader is charged with 13 sexual offences, including allegations of attempted rape, all of which he strenuously denies.)

Into No 10, out of Europe?

The Lib Dems are right on one essential point. There are not currently the numbers in parliament for a referendum and it is not clear how there could ever be. The Tory independents are largely opposed, and so are the 19 Labour MPs who voted for Johnson’s deal at second reading. A referendum could have happened if no-deal was a realistic prospect, but seems almost impossible now a deal is on offer. Even if parliament did endorse a referendum, it would require government support to push it through—and that will never come under this government.

And so we must accept reality. A referendum cannot happen before an election. The only alternative to an election now is one after Brexit has already happened. The EU has, contrary to many expectations, granted an extension all the way to the end of January, which makes it impossible for no-deal to happen during an election campaign. The time for excuses is over. If Labour does not endorse an election now, it will simply be forced into one.