Labour’s Indecisive Brexit Stance Risks UK Election Annihilation

Why trying to please everybody is likely to please nobody.

Matt Clarke
Sep 16, 2019 · 5 min read
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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Emphyrio on Pixabay.

rexit has completely polarised the UK. The divisive referendum on its European Union (EU) membership in June 2016 saw it vote to leave by a margin of 52% to 48% leading to three years of division within the country and its politics. Families and friends have been split down the middle on the European question and that’s reflected in the state of the political parties.

The latest news is that the ruling Conservative Party now wants a general election to try to give it a better mandate to leave the EU with or without an agreement in place on October 31st 2019. The UK Parliament has so far voted down any negotiated deal as well as leaving without one. It has recently passed a law to stop the UK leaving without an agreement which mandates UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request an extension to the UK’s membership if a deal has not been agreed and ratified by Parliament. The Prime Minister appears very resistant to do so, but that's another story.

The creation of that law led to some Conservative MP’s losing their affiliation in Parliament (known as the whip) as they voted against their own party to ensure the UK cannot leave without a deal. The government argued that it needed no deal on the table as a negotiation tactic to get a better deal from the EU and that Parliament would “plainly chop the legs out from under the UK position” by removing it. This leaves the Conservative party with no majority in Parliament and very little room to manoeuvre.

“Families and friends have been split down the middle on the European question and that’s reflected in the state of the political parties.”

The continued impasse in Parliament means that a general election within the next couple of months is inevitable. Each political party is currently establishing where they stand on the issue with some wanting to cancel leaving altogether and others wanting a clean break from the EU without an agreement in place. The party in the trickiest position is the main opposition party better known as The Labour Party.

Labour’s Brexit Dilemma

abour’s Members of Parliament and its membership overwhelmingly supported remaining in the EU in 2016. Over the past few months, the party has been campaigning for a second referendum to give the British people a chance to change their mind. The problem this poses is that a significant proportion of Labour voters at the last general election voted to leave in 2016. I have seen estimates ranging from 25%-33% which would be well over 3 million people. To be able to win a general election, Labour needs to keep these people on side as well as appealing to new voters and remain supporters.

It’s trying to do this by promising that if elected, it will negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU and then put it to the people along with the option of remaining. Where it gets a little confusing is that they haven’t committed to which side they would campaign on which could lead to a surreal situation where they were campaigning against their own deal. Many would be concerned about the strength of such a deal and whether that would offer the “credible leave option” promised. Why would the EU give Labour a deal of any substance if it didn't even think Labour itself would back it?

Brexit has tribalized politics. You are either leave or remain; on my team or not. In trying to appeal to both teams, Labour risks not being decisive enough to appeal to either. If I was a strong advocate of remain, I would be very tempted by the Liberal Democrats position who if elected with a majority, want to stop Brexit without any further votes. Why would I risk another referendum with Labour where leave would still be a threat when I can go straight to what I want unequivocally?

Contrastingly, if I was a strong supporter of leave, why would I support a party who may not even campaign for my side after renegotiating a Brexit deal? I would want to support a party campaigning to get the job done and if I couldn't bring myself to vote Conservative, the newly formed Brexit Party committed to leaving in the cleanest way possible would offer a very attractive option.

“Brexit has tribalized politics. You are either leave or remain; on my team or not. In trying to appeal to both teams, Labour risks not being decisive enough to appeal to either.”

What is absolutely clear is that the current election strategy risks annihilating Labour. For many decades, you could count on Labour heartlands in the north of England returning a Labour MP; it was simply a procession. Brexit has changed everything and the entire structure of UK politics. Take Sunderland Central for example, an ultra-safe Labour safe since its recent creation in 2010, yet a constituency where over 60% voted to leave the EU in 2016. Could it become vulnerable to the Conservatives or Brexit Party in 2019? I certainly think so. What about Sheffield Hallam? A Labour gain from the Liberal Democrats at the last election, but now with significant policy differences on Brexit, will the 3.8% majority now be overturned? It looks inevitable in my book.

The verdict

The pressure from both sides on Labour will be telling. Politics is realigning into remain and leave camps regardless of previous party allegiances. Will Labour smell the danger and change their Brexit strategy before the upcoming general election? Time will tell, but with the current policy unlikely to appeal to either side, they look set for a crushing defeat.

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