Labour and the Fallacy of ‘Maximum Weakness’

In attempting to hedge its bets on Brexit, the party is likely to destroy any chance it had of getting into government.

The run up to Christmas is hectic in any profession. Whether it’s trying to wrap up administrative tasks before the festive period, or finding the time to cram in some Christmas shopping, few are left twiddling their thumbs as Christmas Day approaches.

Nowhere else is this more true than in Parliament this December. After a string of Commons defeats, a botched no-confidence vote and a rebuff by the European Union, ministers on both sides of the house are anxiously waiting to see what the next week brings.

After a tumultuous ten days, the next could prove to be the most dramatic, or the most peaceful, in some time, and the Labour Party will play a starring role in deciding which way things fall. After much speculation and hyperbole, Labour appear close to finally tabling a no-confidence motion in the government, attempting to capitalise on the Tory party’s division over their own vote to force Mrs May out of No 10.

This may all come to nothing however. Labour has long hedged its bets on when exactly the best time to strike would be. The party hopes to capitalise on the moment of ‘maximum weakness’ for Theresa May, only tabling a no-confidence motion at a moment that would guarantee defeat for the government.

Yet the window for this ‘moment’ seems rather nebulous, and appears to move depending on which shadow cabinet minister is asked for comment. Some see this week as the optimal time, whilst others want to wait until after the meaningful vote, and more still see March 29th as the real target for a vote.

What this ultimately underscores is what few wish to admit; Labour is still deeply divided on fundamental issues that will decide the future of the party.

Labour’s current strategy is indicative of this. Their primary agenda is to force a general election; a fairly logical objective. But even their approach to this seems muddled and confused. Despite their repeated protestations that they wish to force one as soon as possible, they’ve taken few steps to truly capitalise on the vulnerabilities of the Conservatives, either at the dispatch box or in the committee rooms.

The party should be at the forefront of the current discourse, running rings around a cabinet that is divided and confused in its agenda. Instead, Labour often seems to get lost in the background of the Tory psychodrama.

This, in reality, is because Labour aren’t entirely being honest about their own objectives, and because of Jeremy Corbyn’s own stance on Brexit. There’s no denying that Corbyn is a eurosceptic; though he campaigned halfheartedly for remain, he’s long been a critic of the technocratic elitism of the EU.

For him, a break from the Union would provide the Labour Party with the opportunity to pursue a more radical policy agenda, such as taking the UK over the EU’s 3% deficit threshold, without fear of intervention or regulation by an external body. Corbyn sees Brexit as an opportunity for his party, and as such is keen to maintain his stance, even as the membership pushes strongly in the other direction.

For all of Corbyn’s talk of Labour being a ‘member-lead’ party, it seems that this only applies as long as the membership agree with him. And whilst the pressure of a second referendum seems to have forced its way through to the party’s front bench, with even John McDonnell entertaining the idea, Corbyn remains resistant.

In reality, Corbyn would prefer to leave Brexit, and its contaminating fallout, to the Conservative Party, and only force an election once the matter is dealt with. Labour hopes that by staying out of the firing line, it can build support in both leave and remain camps equally, enough to secure them a majority in the next election.

Any attempt to stray from this, either by supporting a second referendum or by formulating a more cogent alternative to May’s Withdrawal Agreement, risks isolating segments of a broad coalition that Labour believes it needs to win a general election.

Yet, in attempting to capture the street, Labour is failing to tend to its own backyard. A spectrum of polls have consistently placed Labour level with or behind the Conservative Party, and a YouGov poll this week suggested that Labour would lose 20 percentage points in the polls if they in any way help the government pass its current deal.

In trying to utilise a political tactic that would be wise in another era, Labour is placing itself in a dangerous position; the public don’t vote for weak governance, and if Labour are seen to have shirked their responsibilities on the greatest political issue in a generation, then voters on both sides of the debate are likely to turn their backs on the party. By trying to please everyone, the party is instead in danger of pleasing no-one.

If Labour do truly wish to make it to power, they must change tact; all this talk of ‘maximum weakness’ is irrelevant if the party isn’t in a strong enough position to exploit it, and right now Labour are doing little to suggest that they’re ready to take control.

The party must form a coherent and logical plan to tackle Brexit, one that deals with the realities of our negotiating position, or risk losing the support of the base they so dearly rely on, even if it angers some on the other side of the political divide.

If they’re unwilling to make these changes they’ll come to realise, all too late, that they don’t have the political capital to take down even a fractured and weakened Conservative Party.

For now, all we can do is wait to see if, for Labour, the moment of ‘maximum weakness’ has arrived this week.

Former Engagement journalist at The Times & Former Editor in Chief of The Boar. Writing on gaming, politics and culture.