Corbyn should hope that May rejects his Brexit olive branch. Then Labour must redouble efforts towards an election and referendumby Jonathan Lis / February 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
This week’s YouGov poll offered wintry gloom to anyone interested in either curbing nationalism or promoting progressive politics. The Conservatives were up two points from mid-January at 41 per cent, while Labour was unchanged on 34 per cent. An Ipsos MORI poll had the two parties level-pegging on 38 per cent, which was slightly more cheering but hardly cause for celebration. A government that is literally threatening voters with martial law and food shortages in seven weeks’ time should not be seven points ahead of the Opposition by any metric, in any poll, by any polling company. What is going on?
To take one subject at random: Brexit. The most disruptive and chaotic force in modern British history has infused itself like a virus through the nation’s political ecosystem. All conventions and rules lie scattered and overturned. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows how to win.
Labour does have a plan, spelled out in Jeremy Corbyn’s letter this week to Theresa May. Promisingly, both Council president Donald Tusk and European parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt have commended it to the prime minister. The party has abandoned the nonsense of “exact same benefits”—tacitly accepting that Brexit will do us harm in all circumstances. Instead, Corbyn offers Labour’s support for a Brexit deal in return for a permanent customs union with a UK say on trade deals, “close alignment” with the single market, dynamic alignment on rights (so the UK will never fall behind), commitments to participate in EU agencies, and a clear outline on future security arrangements.
In some ways this is very clever. Mindful that May cannot be trusted, Corbyn is insisting that the Tories put these commitments into law. The mention of the European Arrest Warrant is also smart, because it boosts one of Labour’s weak spots, a perceived softness on crime and security—and highlights the casual neglect of this issue by the so-called party of law and order. But it doesn’t matter how firmly the UK parliament resolves to negotiate Labour’s Brexit. The EU has to agree. And this is where we unearth the potential cakeism.
A customs union “with a say” is simply impossible if Labour wants that say to be genuinely meaningful. Certainly, Britain would be consulted on trade deals, much like Norway’s informal consultations on single market legislation, and there could even be joint events and communiqués. But as a non-member, the UK would not be allowed to negotiate the EU’s trade deals, still less vote on them. Imagine the fury in Brussels if a Labour government decided, for example, to block a new deal with the US. Conversely, imagine the fury in Westminster if a Labour government had no power to veto that deal. The customs union would fall apart in either scenario, and the UK would have to default to the rule-taking backstop.
Then there is the single market. After nearly three years, and despite admirable pressure by pro-immigration activists, Labour still cannot bring itself to utter the magic words “retain free movement of people.” My friend Ian Dunt thinks Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer may be planning a Swiss-style adaptation to free movement, involving preference for local populations in job vacancies, which the EU would almost certainly accept. If it did, this would not only prove a benefit in itself—immigration is a good thing—but it would unlock the rest of the single market as well. Under May’s deal, goods would need to be checked for regulatory compliance, massively disrupting traffic at the Channel ports, and services would be reduced to the level of Canada’s or Japan’s, creating an exodus of jobs and investment from the British economy’s most lucrative cash cow. Our full membership of the single market, in contrast, would prevent disruption and keep that wealth here. But, seven weeks from Brexit day, Labour needs to stop being so coy. If it wants free movement, it must actually say so.
The plan is a decent attempt to forge a compromise. The key risk for Labour is that the prime minister accepts it. Even without the hint of free movement, a commitment to a customs union would bulldoze one of May’s most hardened red lines. The promise of an independent trade policy taps into Brexit’s mythological foundations. It has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with dreams of autonomy and global expansion. The Brexiters would rather a negligible economic boost from a UK-only trade deal than a massive one from the EU’s global portfolio. In accepting that customs union, then, May would be ditching the Tory right for an alliance with the Labour left. That would blast kryptonite through both frontbenches. The Brexit wing would be attempting to defenestrate the prime minister for her Brexit “betrayal” while Corbyn, of all people, rode to her rescue and kept the government alive. The parties’ grassroots would not forgive either leader. Labour, in particular, would not only have propped up a uniquely unpopular prime minister, but also facilitated a deeply unpopular policy. It would repel voters who hated the deal, while voters who liked it would stick with the Tories.
Corbyn is far more of a politician than his supporters portray and far more skilled at it than his opponents concede. His tightrope walk is borne out of an unenviable predicament: Labour’s members are overwhelmingly pro-Remain, and its voters are significantly pro-Remain, but a majority of Labour MPs represent Leave seats. Even in those seats, a majority of Labour voters wanted to stay in the EU, but the jitters set in early. Labour had to triangulate its policy to keep both Remainers and Leavers on side. But that triangulation now threatens to strangulate the party instead.
And so Labour needs to hope that the government rejects its olive branch. If the ship is sinking, it should be seeking to escape rather than fighting for the helm. But the party needs to be open about what comes next. In line with its stated policy, it must still vote against May’s unchanged deal—and, if it still can’t force a general election, subsequently come out for a second referendum. Few people want that referendum. It will be deeply unpleasant. Some suspect it will embolden the far right. But a Tory Brexit will be incomparably worse—and giving the far right what they want has rarely managed to subdue them.
If the government is in flames, the Labour Party should not seek to put out the fire. Labour has engineered a clever long game under difficult circumstances. But seven weeks from potential disaster and seven points behind in a new poll, the party can no longer afford to play it, still less hand the advantage to the other side. Now it needs to win.