To have a chance of stopping a disastrous Brexit, Labour must choose their poison

Will Sadler
Jul 2, 2019 · 10 min read
Credit: Sophie Brown. Used under Creative Commons Licence

It is three years since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to get her Brexit deal through parliament eventually led to her resignation finally bringing to an end what must have been the slowest car-crash-premiership in British history.

As I write, Boris Johnson, the charismatic but divisive friend of Donald Trump is the favourite to become the next Prime Minister. He promises that no matter what happens — deal or no deal — the U.K. will leave the bloc by the next Article 50 deadline: 31st October 2019. Over the weekend, his rival Jeremy Hunt said that he would tell businesses that went bust because of a no-deal exit from the E.U. that ‘their sacrifice had been worth it.

Even in the mad world of Brexit Britain, such rhetoric is quite staggering. It seems that the Conservatives truly have become the party of “fuck business”. And whilst there at it, ‘fuck’ the thousands and thousands of jobs that would be lost as a result of an unprecedented, and entirely avoidable, crash out of the largest trading bloc in the world. ‘Fuck’ the parents terrified of the impact that a no deal Brexit could have on the life-saving medication their children rely on — and whilst we are at it ‘fuck’ disabled people who rely on medication too. Maybe none of the headline-grabbing effects of a ‘No Deal’ will happen. Maybe it’ll all be fine. Maybe we’ll just be converted gradually into a disaster capitalist dystopia: a deregulated hellhole of even lower worker’s rights, environmental standards and consumer protections.

Over the past three months, British politics seems to have been going through a gradual recalibration. It’s decreasingly about a two-horse race between the Conservative and Labour parties, which dominated the narrative as recently as the 2017 snap general election. As the axis of political identity continues to shift, we now find ourselves in the realm of the four-horse race. On the one hand, we have the traditional progressive / conservative divide between Labour and the Conservatives; on the other an increasingly evident split between nationalist and internationalist ideologies, encapsulated through the rise in the polls of the no-need-to-explain-the-name Brexit Party, and the pro-E.U. Liberal Democrats.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have struggled to accommodate this new dichotomy. Both parties are being slowly torn apart over in-fighting over Brexit policy. Regardless of how temporary this new political divide may be in broader historical terms, in order to have any chance of winning a possible autumn general election, each party must choose their poison: that is, each party must decide which side of the Brexit debate to appeal to and accept that there will be an unavoidable price to pay.

Boris Johnson has chosen his poison. If — as is widely expected — he becomes Prime Minister, by moving the party to an unashamedly nationalist pro-hard Brexit stance, he accepts that he will lose the support of his own ‘moderate’ MPs in a parliament where he is likely to have a majority of just three, meaning he will probably have to call an election or face losing a no-confidence vote in the autumn. He can do so under the relatively recent Fixed Term Parliament Act by achieving a two-thirds parliamentary majority for one. In such an election, he is already resigned to losing 30–40 or so seats to the Liberal Democrats — largely in the South West — but he is banking on the Conservatives taking Labour seats in pro-Brexit northern English seats — possibly through an electoral pact with the Brexit Party.

Meanwhile, in the runup to the European elections, by going into talks with the Conservative government in what became a failed attempt to try and break the Brexit impasse, Labour made a huge strategic error.

The Labour Party — and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, don’t have the best track record when it comes to cross-party working. Corbyn refused to join the ‘remain-and-reform’ cross-party campaign Another Europe is Possible during the referendum campaign. He ignored calls from fellow opposition leaders to consolidate around a position in favour of ongoing membership of the single market. In the 2016 Richmond Park by-election, when the local Labour Party decided to not field a candidate in order to give the Liberal Democrats the best chance of beating the incumbent Conservative MP, Labour HQ overruled them. If it hadn’t been for the Greens standing down their candidate, the Conservatives would probably have retained the seat. Since then, the Labour NEC (National Executive Committee) has confirmed that it will impose candidates on Constituency Labour Parties that refuse to nominate one.

So, the irony of Jeremy Corbyn sending his team into cosy chit chats with a floundering Tory government to try and salvage their doomed Brexit deal that — no matter what concessions Labour achieved — could pave the way to a bonfire of all the worker protections he claims to stand for, really stuck in the throats of Labour voters and members who had remained loyal to this point. Members could not comprehend why their leadership was contemplating facilitating something that wasn’t mentioned in the composite motion agreed at the 2018 party conference — namely a Tory Brexit — whilst ignoring the one remaining option that was: a second referendum. As even Corbyn-loyalist Owen Jones admitted recently, Labour’s position on this divisive issue is utterly confusing.

The idea of a second referendum is an issue that continues to deeply divide the party, with figures like the party chairman Ian Lavery, Labour’s most influential union-backer Len McClusky, several — mainly northern English — Labour MPs and Corbyn’s inner circle of advisers dead against the idea. Meanwhile, the party’s membership is overwhelmingly in favour of a second vote, and recently: Corbyn ally, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell has added his voice to the case that Labour need to swing convincingly behind a second referendum, and do it now.

We can debate the merits and pitfalls of whether Labour should unequivocally back a second E.U. referendum till we are blue in the face. What should matter to the party– potentially just three or four months away from another snap general election — is what works from an electoral perspective. Otherwise, there is a grave danger that a reinvigorated no-deal Conservatives in cahoots with the Brexit Party, could sweep to victory as Labour haemorrhages voters to parties with clearer Brexit positions.

The ‘no deal’ Brexit Party poses a threat to Labour, but as the highly respected analyst John Curtis points out, the numbers lost to these maniacs are far outweighed by losses to the pro-second referendum Lib Dems and Greens — by a factor of three to one.

Defenders of the Labour leadership’s position may trot out ‘the polls can’t be relied upon’ argument and point to Labour’s remarkable achievement in the 2017 snap general election despite polls suggesting the Tories were on course for a landslide victory. Their theory will be that if a general election takes place, voters will return to the fold when confronted with the hard facts of Westminster’s first-past-the-post voting system. Jeremy Corbyn will do the same thing he did last time: jump into campaign mode and turn the numbers around.

However, I believe that this is a very risky strategy to take.

Firstly, it is worth noting that broadly speaking, the pollsters correctly called the outcome of the European elections. If anything, they overestimated support for Labour and the Conservatives whilst underestimating Lib Dem and Green support. (Final poll of polls here; results here). These numbers are now being reflected in national polling. The current Electoral Calculus projection estimates that Labour could lose twenty-five seats if a general election were held tomorrow and be easily outnumbered by the combined number of seats won by the Conservative and Brexit Parties. YouGov polling is the most curious. It stands out because it consistently shows level pegging between the four main parties. If they are right (and they were one of the more accurate pollsters for the European election), then Labour could be expected to lose up to 106 seats.

Secondly, and in my view, more significant than polling numbers, is the direction of travel we see in the polls. Here, we get a startling insight. Around the time that Labour went into the ill-fated talks with the Conservatives, the polls rapidly changed direction: as if voters on both sides of the Brexit divide finally lost any remaining patience. At the end of April, the two main parties were each polling about 34%. By the end of June they were each averaging around 22%. Whilst the pollsters (with a couple of exceptions) got the 2017 general election result wrong, what they did correctly detect was the shift in vote-share towards Labour — from an average 26% to 42% — in the closing days of the election campaign, meaning that the recent sudden about turn in the polls should be very worrying indeed to Labour strategists.

John McDonnell is right. Labour must swing unashamedly, unequivocally and convincingly behind a second referendum and they must do it now. That doesn’t mean it should be treated as it has to date: a technicality, where Corbyn whips his MPs to vote for a particular amendment in parliament but does everything he can to avoid talking about the subject. It means actually making a case for it, something that so far, the leadership has completely failed to do; to provide clarity on how it would work and what the question would be on the ballot paper.

How Labour frame a second referendum is up to them. I have long argued that they could have done what the ‘People’s Vote’ failed to do: pitch the benefits of a second referendum to moderate ‘leave’ supporters too. Many leavers are looking on in horror as their vote to leave the E.U. is weaponised by the hard right as a greenlight for a ‘no deal’ or hard Brexit that cuts ties with Europe and pivots the country towards U.S.-facing deregulation. A second referendum, where the party behind the wheel of government provides a choice between a viable form of Brexit through ongoing membership of the Single Market and a Customs Union versus the opportunity to reconsider and ‘remain’ may seem a rather attractive proposition. In short, the pitch would be: if parliament can’t decide what kind of Brexit we should have, then who should?

But perhaps now it’s too late to make this argument. Maybe, this late in the day, from an electoral perspective, as the country re-polarises to hard ‘leave’ and ‘remain’, Labour’s only viable option is to call for a second referendum that pits Theresa May’s deal (which, whether we like it or not is the only deal that is currently on the table) against remaining in the E.U., with Labour campaigning for ‘remain’. As another Corbyn-loyalist Ash Sarkar points out, in this situation, far from arguing for remaining in Europe under the current status quo, Labour could campaign on an aggressive remain-and-reform agenda.

The bitter pill that Labour may have to swallow, is to accept that acting on this so belatedly could mean that it unavoidably suffers losses if there is an autumn general election. It isn’t just about the message. It’s about the messenger too, and Jeremy Corbyn is now deeply distrusted by many on the left who will struggle to believe him if and when he clarifies his position. This could lead to an unavoidable fragmentation of the pro-second referendum vote, which will benefit the Conservative/Brexit Party in some Labour seats.

Nevertheless, the evidence appears to suggest that these losses will not be as heavy as if Labour keep equivocating over a second referendum. In addition to John Curtis’ analysis mentioned above, the People’s Vote campaign commissioned a poll that used MRP analysis: the new method that YouGov used to correctly predict the 2017 snap election result. This suggested that a majority of Labour voters in all constituencies Labour won in 2017 now back Britain remaining in the E.U. Furthermore, a leaked internal TSSA Union poll warned that not opposing Brexit could cost Labour 45 seats.

If the polls don’t shift significantly, and if there is an election in the autumn, then as analyst Ian Warren points out, Labour must be prepared to fight it defensively. They should focus on minimising losses rather than making gains, and prepare for a coalition or confidence and supply government with the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Scottish/Welsh nationalists.

The Labour Party were jubilant after they retained Peterborough in the recent by-election. But in reality, it was nothing to celebrate. They clung onto a seat that was already theirs, fighting off the Brexit Party by a whisker of just 683 votes. They did so by throwing the kitchen sink at the campaign. They are going to struggle to sustain the same level of resources to hundreds of constituencies around the country during a general election.

The Labour Party must respect the democratic decisions of its local constituency associations that decide to pull resources from — or even stand down — their candidate to give another party with a better chance of beating the Conservatives or Brexit Party a clear run. This will be particularly imperative if the Conservatives and Brexit Party enter some form of electoral pact. Doing so would have the advantage of Labour being able to divert volunteers and resources into their more winnable, or most vulnerable seats.

The chances of Labour doing this is — of course — microscopic.

But there is still hope. As much as people obsessed with the “Westminster Village” like to compete over who can most self-effacingly say to what extent the public at large have no interest in the “Westminster Village”, I think that the average voter is more savvy that is often given credit.

It’s estimated that in 2017, around 6.5 million voters did so tactically. That is: rather than vote for the party they wanted, they voted for the least bad option that was most likely to win the seat.

So, in the highly likely absence of cross-party arrangements by Labour, it may be up to a similarly informed electorate in an autumn general election — should one happen — to ensure that Boris Johnson, or Jeremy Hunt, and their job destroying Brexit plans never come to fruition.

It’s doable. But finally, to repeat the words of John McDonnell, on the question of a second referendum, Labour needs to move now.

You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mrwillsadler

Will Sadler

Written by

Have just rejoined the Labour Party after an 18-year gap; no expert, just a self-educated geek; write about Brexit, Labour & the politics of NE England

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade