Labour’s new policy will only win the support of the country if couched in the right languageby Steve Bloomfield / February 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
For the first time since before the EU referendum campaign began, a major political party has a stance on Brexit that most of its politicians and members can support. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to back a customs union has, for the moment, managed to unite the vast majority of his party. There are still those who want to stop Brexit and there remains a minority within the party that will expect nothing other than a hard Brexit, but even those two groups found something to be happy about—arch Remainer Chris Leslie said the speech was “welcome,” but didn’t go far enough, while Frank Field told the Financial Times the position was “marvellous” because, in his view, it would make no difference.
Labour’s new position is also one that several Tory MPs should be willing to back—something Theresa May is all too aware of, hence her decision to postpone a vote on the Trade Bill, which supporters of a customs union had threatened to amend.
But winning the support of politicians is not the same as winning the support of the country. And to do that, Soft Brexiteers and Remainers alike will need to start talking in a different language. Put simply, those in favour of Britain remaining in a customs union need to stop calling for Britain to remain in a customs union.
Too often those involved in politics—politicians, journalists and those obsessed with the minutiae of policy (for example Prospect readers)—forget that most people only take a passing interest. They are not following detailed debates about the pros and cons of a customs union (let alone the very real differences between “a” customs union and “the” customs union). If a politician says Britain should remain in a customs union, they will hear the words “remain,” “in” and “union” and—understandably—assume that the speaker wants Britain to remain in the European Union.
To win the battle outside Westminster, Soft Brexiteers and Remainers need to focus on the benefits of a customs union—that is, the ability for Britain to trade more freely with the rest of Europe. The EU, as no-one now needs reminding, is Britain’s largest trade partner. So talk about that. Talk about cutting red tape and reducing bureaucracy. Talk about making trade between the UK and the EU as free and easy as possible. Don’t use the word “union.” (If you really want to use the word “union,” talk about the United Kingdom and how difficult it will be for the four nations to remain united if Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have different rules on trade.)
Corbyn’s speech touched on these issues, most notably when he talked about the “frictionless, interwoven supply chain” that enables a Mini made in Oxford to cross the Channel three times during its production as parts are added in France and Germany before it is completed in the UK.
Most people haven’t changed their mind about Brexit—nor is there any evidence to suggest that enough of them will in order to change the result were there to be a second referendum. But with the right language, a case can be made for a soft Brexit. Just don’t talk about a union.