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A general election will not solve our Brexit woes

It's not only that neither party has a viable Brexit policy. Neither Labour or the Tories even have a unified Brexit platform to campaign on

By Chaminda Jayanetti  

Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia Dugdal campaigning for Remain. But would Labour have a defined Brexit stance if there were an election now? Photo: PA

You can’t blame them for trying. From the moment Labour lost the last election, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been demanding another one.

Armed with a formidable campaigning machine, bolstered by union funds and membership fees, and riding the backlash against austerity, they seem certain they are one public vote from power.

Given that, it’s not surprising that Labour’s reaction to the Brexit crisis is to repeat its demand for a general election.

It’s also easy to see why many MPs and members have rallied behind this call. For those who—entirely legitimately—prioritise the ending of austerity over anything pertaining to Brexit, a general election offers the chance to put an immediate end to the eight-year squeeze on public spending.

But Labour is not merely pitching an election as a chance for the country to change course on domestic policy. A new election is Labour’s response to the Brexit crisis: it is Corbyn and McDonnell’s stated solution to the questions we face.

Fundamentally, those questions are: what sort of Brexit deal does the government have a mandate for; whether to seek a fresh mandate for a different Brexit, or no Brexit at all; and how to make any progress through a fractured and fractious parliament.

A general election is likely to solve none of these things.

For an election to deliver a mandate for any particular form of Brexit—one that keeps free movement, or restores sovereignty over rulemaking, for example—the winning party must be united behind a clear, specific Brexit policy in its manifesto.

The Tories are unlikely to enjoy such unity. Members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group may run on their own “personal” manifestos, committing to a harder Brexit than that allowed under the “backstop” in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.

If re-elected, these MPs could then claim their mandate is to reject the very deal the party itself would be pledging to implement.

But the Conservatives at least have something resembling a Brexit policy in the form of the backstop.

Labour’s policy is nonsense. Even as the witching hour draws near, Labour continues to indulge in cake-ism and ambiguity of a sort that would be totally unviable in government.

May has prioritised cutting immigration over reclaiming sovereignty and signing new trade deals. Labour wants the moon on a stick: an end to free movement of people, but also an unspecified relationship with the EU ‘based on’ the single market; membership of a customs union, but also more sovereignty.

In other words, a deal which is self-contradicting, which the EU has made it clear is not on the table, and which the party has no way of forcing onto the table. Labour would be seeking a mandate for magic.

And then there’s the thorny issue of a second referendum. Thus far the party has kept a “People’s Vote” at arm’s length as an option should its demand for an election go unheeded.

But were an election to take place, it is an open question what approach Labour would take.

Keep a referendum as an option, and the party tacitly admits it does not have confidence in its ability to deliver its own Brexit deal. Ditch the referendum, and risk alienating its anti-Brexit voters—especially those less exercised by austerity than the party base.

Nor would the party be united. Again, it’s plausible that fervently pro-Remain MPs could make personal pledges to back a second referendum, and then claim a personal mandate at odds with that of the party leadership.

This is particularly so if, as in 2017, Labour bases its campaign not on Brexit but on austerity—almost a given in any new election.

This may suit the party’s strategy, but it would also embolden backbenchers to claim that voters were not backing Labour’s Brexit policy at all. After all, nobody can seriously argue that everyone who voted Labour last year was doing so in support of a “Labour Brexit.” Certainly, the regular Brexit rebels against the Labour whip, led by Chuka Umunna, don’t buy it.

This would matter less were one party able to take a vice-like grip of the Commons. But whilst Labour has the resources to increase its current poll share during an election campaign, to secure an overall majority it needs to gain 63 seats—and with SNP support holding up, these would likely have to come from the Tories.

That would require Labour to secure a hefty swing of more than five percent, routinely winning seats that currently have Tory majorities of more than 5,000. To have a remotely secure majority, they’d need to either rout the Scottish Nationalists, or start claiming seats that are barely considered marginal. Given the current polarisation of the electorate, this seems unlikely.

As a result, Labour—and, for that matter, the Tories—would likely preside over a small majority or indeed a minority government, trying to cobble together deals with reluctant nationalists and smaller parties who all have conflicting Brexit policies and who would all, like the DUP, demand their pound of flesh. Recalcitrant backbenchers would be able to hold leaderships to ransom.

We would be back where we started.

Why, then, is Labour fixated on an election? The main answer is the obvious one: to win power. But it also reflects the Labour leadership’s fundamental lack of interest in Brexit as a problem to be solved.

Corbyn has no interest in the details of matters outside his political hinterland—beyond workers’ rights and environmental protections, he has displayed zero interest in the minutiae of Brexit.

McDonnell sees it as a strategic opportunity to open up the space for a radical Labour government. Actually making Brexit work, or reversing it as unworkable, is cast as the humdrum of technocrats, not radicals.

Labour would like Brexit to either just happen or disappear—but to do so of its own accord, without harming Labour’s chances of winning power. Corbyn and McDonnell can see the throne; they can only see the throne. That they can only see the throne because the castle walls are collapsing is neither here nor there. They will rule whatever is left.

It is easy to see how this works for Labour. It is harder to see how it works for Britain.

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