Regardless of the government’s undoubted problems over Brexit, the last few days have demonstrated that Labour also faces acute difficulties. The government’s defeat in the High Court last Thursday on the invocation of Article 50 has energised supporters of EU membership. For all the talk of constitutional procedures and parliamentary sovereignty, there can be little doubt that many “Remainers” hope to use the ruling as the basis for a war of attrition either to achieve a “soft Brexit” or possibly to avert Brexit altogether.
That might have been expected to embolden the Labour Party, all of whose leading figures campaigned for “Remain” in the referendum. In fact, Labour has once again wobbled on Article 50 and struggled to produce a coherent line.
The day after the referendum in June, Jeremy Corbyn seemingly demanded the immediate invocation of Article 50, only to back down a month later saying, “I may not have put that as well as I should have done.” Following the court case last week, he gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror, in which he set out four “Brexit bottom lines,” including full access to the Single Market, protection of workers’ rights, safeguards for consumers and the environment, and a promise that Britain will pick up the shortfall left by the loss of EU investment. Corbyn’s intervention was widely interpreted by the media to mean that, if the government failed to deliver on these areas, Labour would vote against invoking Article 50, possibly leading to an early election.
That position was “clarified” later on Sunday by Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, who told BBC Radio Five that Labour wanted the government to be held accountable in parliament. But he added: “We’re not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster.” On Monday, the shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, echoed Watson’s position. In an article for the Guardian he wrote: “there is a mandate to leave [the EU] and Labour will not frustrate it by voting down Article 50. But there is no mandate for the terms upon which we exit, and the stakes are too high for the prime minister to decide this by herself.”
Labour’s confusion over Article 50 reflects the enormous dilemma that Brexit has created for the party. For a generation, Labour has been solidly pro-EU, sharing the cosmopolitan values of the European project while looking to the bloc as a protector of workplace rights. This consensus stretched from Blairites to the soft left to union leaders (though not the Bennite left, from which Corbyn hailed). Many middle-class Labour voters are also staunch supporters of the EU.
However, in the referendum swathes of Labour’s working-class Northern English heartlands voted for Brexit. These core Labour voters were hostile to the mass migration that EU membership brought. Not only did they have to compete with the migrants for jobs and public services, they also sensed that their culture and way of life were under threat. Over a third of Labour voters supported Brexit, against the advice of their party’s collective leadership. A similar level of core-voter revolt occurred during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and was the precursor to the collapse of Labour’s hegemony north of the border. There is deep nervousness within the party that the EU referendum could precipitate a large-scale desertion by the Northern English working class now that it has the alternative of voting for UKIP.
Such a delicate predicament requires a steady hand on the tiller. Instead, Labour is discovering the dangers of choosing a leader who had never previously held a senior post in government or opposition and had spent the last 30 years not needing to be careful about what he said or how he said it. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Corbyn is deemed unfit for the job of leader by most of his MPs—their no-confidence vote in the summer was in response to his performance during the EU referendum—but is impossible to remove because of his grassroots support. Corbyn’s latest travails over Article 50 appear to have left him being side-lined, with Watson and Starmer taking the lead.
But competence is only part of the battle. Sooner or later, Labour will have to make clear its own policy on Brexit. Starmer’s assertion that Labour will not oppose the invocation of Article 50 but wants the government to be accountable to parliament is essentially a holding pattern. Without the credible threat of voting against the government, it may struggle to extract many concessions. And even if it does win concessions in the form of amendments to a bill, what would they entail? If Labour insists that retaining full access to the Single Market is essential, how will it keep its northern working-class voters onside if that requires accepting free movement? Despite making Single Market access a “bottom line,” there has been no agreed position on free movement. If there is an early election with the Conservatives seeking a mandate for a Brexit towards the harder end of the scale, Labour will have to answer questions about free movement sooner than it hoped.
It would not be a surprise to see a division open up within Labour’s non-Corbynite factions between Northern moderates and metropolitan moderates. The former might be more willing to countenance “hard Brexit” as the price for restrictions on free movement, while the latter would prefer a softer Brexit (and might be backed by the left). Starmer’s intervention gives Labour more time to formulate its own position though it will be a challenge to devise a policy that pleases everyone. One thing might yet ease Labour’s dilemma: a government victory in its appeal at the Supreme Court, which would authorise the prime minister to invoke Article 50 without requiring parliamentary approval. However, that would leave Labour side-lined in the debate and possibly forced to accept a form of Brexit it does not want. Whatever happens next, there are no easy choices.
On the 17th of November, Prospect launched Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. A publication designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. To see the complete contents of the report please click here.
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