Labour, Brexit and political leadership

James Coldwell

​28 Feb. 2017

The by-election results are in, and this time the forecasters were correct. Labour sustained a UKIP charge to hold on in Stoke Central, but lost historically-safe Copeland to the Conservatives. What do these results add to the ongoing debate within the Labour Party about how to approach Brexit?

By-elections are, almost necessarily, driven by a local narrative. In Copeland, the futures of West Cumberland hospital and the Sellafield nuclear power station were put front and centre by Labour and the Conservatives, respectively. In Stoke, meanwhile, Labour leaflets warned of the threat to a district A&E hospital and local children’s centres. But the five by-elections held since last year’s EU referendum have also been substantially influenced by voters’ views on Brexit. And here, for Labour, the news is not good.

In each by-election since June 2016, Labour’s vote has fallen compared to when the seats were contested in the 2015 general election. The party’s vote declined by 2% in Witney, 9% in Richmond, 7% in Sleaford and North Hykeham, 2% in Stoke Central and 5% in Copeland. These declines are mirrored by increases in the Liberal Democrat vote shares in each seat: +23%, +30%, +5%, +6%, +4%. As seasoned psephologist John Curtice points out, most 2015 Labour voters backed remain. That includes those in northern and midlands Labour constituencies. It is the Lib Dems who have benefited from Labour’s sudden pro-Brexit conversion. Lib Dem gains in council by-elections since June tell a similar story, even if national voting intention polls point to more modest improvements for Tim Farron’s party.

May is consolidating her strategy – right from the start her priority has been to squeeze UKIP, and this is now happening (UKIP was squeezed by 9 points in Copeland), further entrenching the Tories in power.

Viewed in this light, it is hard to understand the pro-Brexit stance taken by the majority of Labour’s MPs. True, they are coming under sustained attack, from multiple angles. From the right, newspaper columnists and Conservative politicians alike insist that the issue is settled. Daniel Finkelstein labels as “delusional” anyone who dares to suggest that the conversation about Brexit might continue. Though the process Britain is currently embarked on is entirely without precedent, Finkelstein nonetheless insists that any reconsideration of the question is “politically impossible.”

From the left, the language is more friendly but the message effectively the same. Andrew Marr, for example, who presents his view as an “optimist’s guide”, seeks to generate enthusiasm for the “huge opportunities for change” offered up by Brexit. (Unfortunately for him, the version of Brexit he presents is one of unmanageable chaos). But he is just as dismissive of those Remainers who would seek to prolong the discussion. Labour MPs now regularly deploy both of elements of Marr’s approach: bullishness about the possibilities for a ‘left-wing’ version of Brexit, coupled with a veiled threat that it is undemocratic to repeat the arguments they themselves made last summer.

All this puts Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, in an unenviable position. Yet the path he, along with a large majority of Labour MPs, has taken is the wrong one. Starmer suggests that opposing Brexit would amount to having “no greater ambition than to represent half the country.” To which the obvious retort is: does Starmer’s newfound support for Brexit mean that Labour’s ambition is to represent “slightly more than half the country”? His instinct to seek to “heal the wounds” opened up by the referendum result is admirable, but there is no evidence to support his contention that support for Brexit is the way to achieve this. Slavishly chasing public opinion, as if it were a fixed entity that can be captured and retained, is a hardly a serious electoral strategy, in any case. As Lord Liddle argued in the Lords recently, Labour should not “bow the knee” to the populism of Brexit, but instead “campaign for public opinion to shift.” 

Most unforgivably, all parties seeking to shut down the Brexit debate are guilty of a staggering ignorance (wilful or otherwise) about the strength of Britain’s hand when negotiations for leaving the EU begin. British politicians appear to have no appreciation of the political context of continental Europe. Major threats from right-wing populists in the Netherlands, France and Germany, all of whom celebrated the referendum result, are emboldening those within ruling parties in those countries to double down on their commitment to preserving the EU – at the expense of Britain, if need be. Emmanuel Macron and Martin Schulz, favourites to become leaders of France and Germany later this year, are both preparing to take a hard line against Britain in the upcoming negotiations. Their comments alone should provide sufficient ammunition for Labour to mount a sustained, principled and clear critique of the government’s entire Brexit strategy.

Against this backdrop, Labour should be exposing May’s posturing as a ‘hard bargainer’ as grossly irresponsible. By overstating the strength of Britain’s position, and misunderstanding the political pressures facing European leaders, May increases the likelihood that Britain will crash out of the EU with no deal in place. Whilst this may please the most strongly Eurosceptic elements of the electorate, it is highly likely that a resulting serious economic deterioration will harden opinion against leaving the EU. In such a scenario, it is simply common sense for Labour to argue for a second referendum, to ratify or reject the vote from June 2016.

Labour’s refusal to do so could almost be excused if MPs could point to any evidence that the party is winning over Leave voters. But there is none. The latest by-election results confirm trends observed in national polls: Labour has lost Remain voters – as well as shedding a few thousand members – but failed to gain any credibility among Leavers. Voters appear to be seeing Labour’s about-turn on Brexit for what it is: unthinking, short-termist and half-hearted.

Upcoming court cases will provide Remainers with the courage that voters will indeed have the legal right to “change their minds”. It is not too late for Labour to provide the political leadership necessary to ensure that this possibility remains open in practice, too. Nor should it be a difficult choice. “Can you count?” is often cited as the first rule of politics. If Labour can’t learn the lessons from by-election results since the referendum, it may increasingly appear to voters as the party of the 0%.  

James Coldwell

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