The Brexit debate has now become very unclear, with in my view many activists and quite a few MPs either confused or failing to understand that Labour’s position was and is the only one it is possible to take if the object is to minimise the damage to Labour and lay the basis for a future return of support.
Labour was put in a very difficult position by the outcome of the referendum vote. As the YouGov article by Anthony Wells makes clear: (), Labour took the line that was likely, based on polling, to be least damaging, i.e. respecting the result by not voting against Article 50, even without any amendments being agreed, and seeking to remain within the Single Market. The former retains some of those who might otherwise have gone to UKIP or the Tories, the latter those who might otherwise have gone to the Lib-Dems or Greens. There has of course been some movement of this kind anyway, but it could have been far worse if either a total Leave or Remain position had been taken.
A Leave only position, with about two thirds of both current members and 2015 voters in favour of Remain, would have been suicidal for Labour to take, and would have resulted in a massive loss of members and a serious reduction in support to probably below 20% in the polls. Yes, it would have gained some returners from UKIP and the Tories, but the corresponding losses to the Lib-Dems and Greens would have been far greater.
But it was never going to happen, as although left wing members and right wing MPs are at loggerheads the one thing most of them agree on is this.7
A Remain only position, while it would have been easier to carry within the party, would have had two very damaging results. Firstly, it would have caused a substantial loss of support among Labour Leavers, predominantly traditional working class Labour voters in non metropolitan areas. The strong implication would have been that the middle class elite that run Labour have disdain for working class Labour voters in the North who it suspects are somewhat racist and unprogressive in their views. Such sentiments would certainly have been spread by UKIP and the Tories, and would have been accepted by many such Labour voters because they would have appeared true.The loss of support would have been far greater than any retention of Remain voters who might otherwise have gone to the Lib-Dems.
Secondly, voting against triggering Article 50 would have been portrayed as being undemocratic and denying the will of the people. This is a serious argument and there is evidence that many Remain voters agree. Indeed, this and the lack of any significant change from Leave to Remain so far could well give the same result in the unlikely event of a second referendum.
The argument that the referendum was advisory, while constitutionally correct, is in practice nonsense. It was popularly conceived as binding, with otherwise no point in running it. The argument that people were misled is even worse. This can be said to be the case whenever the Tories win an election, but we do not then immediately call for another one.
There is a better argument that it was right for Labour to support Article 50 , but only if the amendments had been carried. However, if followed this would have barely registered. The crucial point would still have been seen as voting against the people’s will.
A ‘Norway EEA’ solution would retain single market membership and with the greater flexibility on immigration that it gives would be the least unacceptable solution for Remainers, avoiding a hard Brexit.
Some of the second referendum now campaigners allege that if an acceptable deal is not agreed then the UK will have to leave. However, much legal opinion thinks that if Article 50 is withdrawn within two years of it having been triggered then the UK could remain within the EU on the same basis as before. A case is due to be heard in Dublin shortly which should settle the matter.
What I have tried to do in this article is to demonstrate that Labour had no alternative to taking the line that it did, and that other alternatives would have been far more damaging, although the current line will still lose us some support, and is partly the reason for Labour’s deterioration in the polls since the referendum.
However, the situation has now changed. There will be no second referendum before Article 50 is triggered, which is likely to be next month. Labour will now be able to switch to the attack, positioning itself as the only genuine defender of the jobs, employment rights and living standards of ordinary people against a Tory government that will inevitably be seen to be sacrificing them, simply because there can be no favourable Brexit deal – the EU have made that perfectly clear. Coupled with what is likely to be mounting concern over job losses as more firms indicate they are considering quitting the UK, there could then be a switch back to Remain and to Labour as the one party that consistently sought to represent the interests of the majority. Under these circumstances a second referendum may well choose to reject a Tory deal, along with the Tories at the following election, without having to leave the EU after all if the two year period of grace (see above) proves valid.
Pigs might fly, I hear some of you say, but this is a credible scenario, and the only basis for Labour winning in 2020. The problem of reforming the EU would remain, but that’s another story.