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Labour’s unheroic Brexit journey needed to happen

Now its positioning is starting to come good

By Jonathan Lis  

Photo: Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer. Photo: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

The moment many of us feared might never arrive finally appeared on Tuesday morning. From the podium at the Labour Party conference, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer declared: “our options must include campaigning for a public vote, and nobody is ruling out Remain as an option.”

The significance of the moment outweighs even the catharsis it unleashed in the conference hall. In the space of just over a year, Labour has gone from endorsing a hard Brexit outside the single market and customs union to holding open the possibility of not leaving the EU at all. How did we get here, and what happens next?

Remainers have roughly divided into two categories since 2016: those who have attacked Corbyn and his ambivalent stance, and those who have muted their criticism or given Labour the benefit of the doubt. I have always fallen into the latter category. Partly because I am a lifelong Labour voter; partly because Labour is the only alternative to the Conservative government; and partly because it always seemed possible they would reach this point, even if that journey was slow, unheroic and agonising.

At the beginning of the Brexit process, Labour Remainers had to face two uncomfortable realities: the Bennite Euroscepticism of Corbyn and John McDonnell (not to mention Corbyn’s communications director Seumas Milne), and the fact that dozens of Labour seats in the north and midlands had decisively voted to Leave. That could not be casually dismissed.

Labour consequently felt it had to endorse a form of Brexit to satisfy Leavers, but simultaneously make a softer offer than the Tories to appease Remainers. Inevitably that has proved to be a difficult and sometimes almost impossible triangulation.

There have been hopeful bursts and incomprehensible disappointments. Frequently Starmer has appeared to propose single market membership only for Corbyn to rule it out. Starmer’s soft Brexit “constructive ambiguity” has also clashed with Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner’s hard Brexit bravado. So afraid of alienating different parts of their base, frontbenchers have openly contradicted one another. And yet, Labour proposed a transition period, customs union, meaningful vote in parliament and a Brexit test of “exact same benefits.” This last test would, if they were honest, necessitate at least full membership of the single market, but in reality membership of the EU as well. The party has only moved in one direction.

Although Labour’s long game has proved chaotic and frustrating, it arguably had to play it. If it had come out for a people’s vote or Remain option a year ago, it would have taken all the heat off Theresa May, and finally given the government and right-wing media the solid line of attack they craved. But May’s failure is now plain. Chequers is dead, the negotiation is paralysed and her party is collapsing. Now the enemy has almost finished destroying itself, Labour has much less to fear from interrupting it.

The party has also waited for public opinion, rather than dictating it. That was not brave, but has perhaps proved effective. Polling data shows that the country now supports both a final say referendum and a Remain option, and Labour Leave seats have seen the most marked shifts. Labour Remainers outnumber Labour Leavers in all but a handful of seats, and data indicates Brexit is a more important issue for the former than the latter. Labour’s most enthusiastic constituency, young people, are also the most enthusiastic Remainers. Poll after poll demonstrates that Labour has far more to gain than lose from endorsing a people’s vote.

Of course, Labour has not yet endorsed a people’s vote, nor a Remain option. Corbyn and McDonnell remain deeply wary of that movement and its potential impact in Leave seats. That explains Corbyn’s reticence to echo Starmer’s words, and his conference speech “offer” to May to support her deal if it includes a customs union, maintains jobs and preserves an invisible Irish border. But the signs are promising.

First, Labour will do what it takes to win. Right now the party is reassuring Leavers that it is giving May a chance, but it knows full well she cannot deliver a deal which guarantees our economy and satisfies her own party. If she delivers a soft Brexit, her party will defenestrate her. If she does not, Labour will vote against her and proudly justify that decision to its Leave base. There is no chance that Labour will vote for any Tory Brexit deal. Corbyn’s conference speech line that Labour “respects the vote of the British people but not the conduct of the British government” was a convincing way to frame it.

Second, Labour knows that it would have to make a significant offer to Remainers in any new general election. It also knows that a general election remains unlikely. If parliament remains deadlocked, and particularly if the alternative is no deal, the Tories themselves could propose a people’s vote as the way out. In that scenario Labour will have to support that vote, and a Remain option.

Third, Corbyn himself. His and McDonnell’s views on the EU are of secondary importance because their primary goal is to secure power. He didn’t mention “Remain” in his keynote address but he didn’t have to. He praised Starmer, kept Leavers on board by declaring his support for a same-benefits Brexit, and appeased Remainers who know it can’t be done. He will never be a full-throated Europhile and it doesn’t matter.

Finally, Labour has revisited Tony Blair’s old strategy on crime. That is, if it is not yet tough on Brexit, it is determined to be tough on the causes of Brexit. While the Tories have woven the economic deficit into the nation’s fabric, Labour has resolved to tackle the power deficit in people’s lives. Certainly Brexit voters worried about free movement, but Labour has identified the national failures people perceive as affecting their everyday lives, and which the migration narrative conceals: the loss of secure jobs, the decline of local communities and businesses and the hollowing-out of public services. Vote Leave knew that Brexit wasn’t about leaving the EU but “taking back control.” Labour thinks it has discovered how.

The next few months will be turbulent and Labour’s long game is not yet complete. But nor can it return the people’s vote genie into its bottle. The Conservative Party does not know what to do. It appears the Labour Party now does.

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