The Brexit conundrum


Was there ever such a dishonest government as Theresa May’s? She promised to leave the EU on March 29th but changed the date. She said she would not accept a delay beyond the end of June - and accepted October 31st. She said we would not take part in the EU elections. Now we will.

No wonder Labour’s leaders are cautious in their negotiations with this perfidious government. What’s to stop any agreement from being reneged on - if not by May herself, then by her successor? May’s downfall may come soon: although she survived a vote of no confidence late last year and is theoretically prevented from facing one again for twelve months, Conservative activists have found an arcane rule that allows a number of constituency associations to trigger a special conference to do the job, and the Tory grassroots are seizing on it with enthusiasm.

The Conservative crisis has turned into a meltdown, which is welcome, but also makes an early general election increasingly unlikely. But there are dilemmas here for Labour too. So far May has not budged on her red lines so the inter-party negotiations have gone nowhere. Her strategy - if it can be dignified with such a name - remains running down the clock. But if she did suddenly agree to Labour’s demands on the benefits of the single market and membership of the customs union, what then? There is a danger that Labour’s helping to deliver a softer Brexit could get the Tories out of their self-inflicted crisis. Under a new leader, the government could put Brexit behind it and concentrate again on de-legitimising the Labour Opposition. We would have facilitated that.

And if a cross-party deal could be struck, should it be subject to a confirmatory referendum? The polls remain unclear on voters’ intentions on this - most just seem to want it over with. A new referendum could replicate all the problems of the last one - with dark money pouring into the Brexiteers’ campaign, a polarised country and a rise in far right violence and racial attacks. And if it were held, should Labour be committed to the deal it may have helped negotiate, or follow the majority of its members in calling for Remain?

There may not be an imminent general election, but the European elections pose similar problems. Should Labour’s candidates remain committed to delivering the 2016 referendum verdict, which Labour in the 2017 general election pledged to honour, in conditions where they would be one more pro-Brexit party in an already crowded field, alongside the Tories, Farage - now backed by George Galloway - UKIP and other far right parties? Or, in the interests of electoral choice and the logic of the positions for which they are running, should our candidates in these elections take a Remain and Reform stance? And how would that be compatible with the official position taken so far by the leadership?

More questions than answers, but Labour’s positioning on these issues is critical. Most members want to Remain and Reform, while significant sections of the Labour vote outside the metropolitan areas want to Leave. Balancing these interests is important, but there is a bigger consideration: what is the right thing to do?

The closer Labour gets to government, the more crucial it becomes to articulate a clear narrative that leads Britain out of the crisis into which Tory in-fighting has pitched it. If this is the worst government in living memory as we fervently believe, then why is Labour’s poll lead still so narrow and what steps do we need to take to strengthen it?

Labour has to look more like a government in waiting. On public ownership, benefits, poverty and a range of other core themes, we are already making the running on policy. Thanks to our agenda, some Tories are thinking afresh about ending disastrous privatisations. The U-turn on no-fault evictions shows they are quite capable of reversing policy disasters to cling to power.

If we are to replace them, we need to have answers to the entire range of ills that this government has inflicted on the country. Trying to change the agenda from the awkward questions to something more comfortable may be tempting but won’t convince. Developing and disseminating our ideas across every area of policy remains the key to getting the levels of popular support we need in order to effect a transformational change.