Too many Labour MPs have spent their time searching for a unicorn rather than deciding what trade-offs to make. But you can't triangulate foreverby Chaminda Jayanetti / March 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
Divining Yvette Cooper’s views on anything is difficult at the best of times.
These are not the best of times.
“I have deliberately not argued for a particular endpoint today,” she said in a speech earlier this month. “I am deliberately trying to find a process that has some legitimacy that people can sign up to whatever their view on Brexit and whatever final outcome they want to see.”
“I have done so because I see no other way through and I think we will only solve this step by step. I realise there are plenty of reasons why this might not work, but I can see far more reasons why every other option won’t work and something still has to happen.”
Such rousing rhetoric and clarity of vision make it a wonder she failed in her bid for the Labour leadership four years ago.
But regardless of how logical her approach may be—delaying Brexit to allow cross-party consensus and possibly citizens’ assemblies—the time for that is rapidly dwindling. Labour MPs must soon decide on endpoints, not processes. It’s time for them to make up their minds.
Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats have faced the biggest Brexit conundrum of all parliamentarians. Since 2017, Tory Leavers are mostly found in pro-Brexit seats. Tory Remainers tend to be soft Eurosceptics rather than true believers—Brexit doesn’t make their blood boil. Labour’s leaders are ambivalent about the EU, while it is politically painless for many of their metropolitan MPs to oppose Brexit outright.
Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats have no such luxury. They themselves are more Europhilic than Tory Remainers; Brexit is anathema to most. But many of their seats are on Tory target lists, and whole swathes of them looked set to turn blue two years ago before Theresa May self-destructed.
They know from the doorstep that in many areas public opinion remains unflinchingly pro-Brexit. Whilst most local Labour voters likely backed Remain, many MPs see their job as trying to represent all their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them.
These Labour MPs are not a homogenous blob. For the most part, they are caught in a mesh of conflicting instincts, identities, interests and opinions. Most back some form of customs union, but their views on single market membership and free movement of people are messy and conflicting.
A handful were Leavers all along—a couple of others have since joined their ranks. Scepticism towards a People’s Vote is widespread. Some, such as Cooper and Lisa Nandy, might tolerate it as a last resort; others are openly hostile. Only a hardy few support it, particularly in the North East where there is evidence Leave voters are changing their minds.
Labour’s tightrope walkers will soon have to decide once and for all whether to back Theresa May’s deal—and, if both her deal and Labour’s alternative fall in the Commons, and the Tories survive a confidence vote, whether to back a referendum, extension, or revocation, or else head over the cliff.
For once, they cannot just blame Corbyn for the mess, either. The Labour leadership’s chaotic approach to Brexit has been driven more by trying to keep Labour’s electoral coalition together—the same quandary facing backbenchers—than it has by arcane Corbynalia on state aid.
One can wholeheartedly disagree with Caroline Flint—who has turned from a Remainer to a fully-fledged Leaver since the referendum—but she, at least, has fronted up and made a choice. Too many Labour MPs have spent their time searching for a unicorn to slice through the tangled politics at the heart of Brexit rather than deciding what trade-offs to make.
Nothing sums up the confusion over Brexit on the Labour benches as the question of the length of an Article 50 extension. The length of an extension sought by the Labour leadership has been driven down by jumpy MPs—not Cooper, it should be said—nervous at a backlash from Brexit voters.
It is the job of MPs to be sensitive to their electors; it is not their job to constantly tremble in terror of every opinion uttered on the doorstep. Assuming Brexit goes ahead, how many people in ten years’ time will remember that it was delayed? Given that an extended delay would not reverse Brexit, explaining the need for such a delay to voters doesn’t even count as telling a hard truth. It’s a simple one.
Should Britain end up heading over the cliff by accident because MPs could not make up their minds, it will not simply be a failure of party leaders. All MPs have a responsibility to work out what it is they actually want in the absence of other options. Those options will soon be whittled down. There’s no other time but the present.