Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ is past its sell-by date. It’s time to come clean about Brexit

After a torrid summer dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism and rumours about a party split, the Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool will offer its leader Jeremy Corbyn much needed warmth and succour.

However, Corbynmania will be somewhat more subdued this week than it was at last year’s annual conference, when the party celebrated the better than expected results of the June general election. This time around, Labour members and activists will be showing Corbyn that they are becoming frustrated with the party’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ about Brexit.

Signs of that growing impatience are the 151 motions (out of 272) submitted by constituency parties to this week’s annual conference asking for a second referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Similarly, Labour-leaning groups like Another Europe is Possible, Our Future our Choice, Labour for a People’s Vote, For Future’s Sake, and several trade unions, are now campaigning for a second referendum and are pressuring Jeremy Corbyn to clarify the party’s position on Brexit.

The noises around the conference and the momentum created by the collapse of the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan at Thursday’s Salzburg summit, suggest that the party leadership will concede to the members’ demand to hold a second referendum on EU membership if the government’s plans are defeated in Parliament. However, it is unlikely that this gesture will be sufficient to reassure most Labour members and activists.

Thus far, the membership and activists accepted that Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ about Brexit has been a successful political tactic: it enabled the party to show it respected the results of the EU referendum; it kept on board Leave supporters in many Labour constituencies; and it has maintained the semblance of party unity.

However, there is now a growing sense that Corbyn’s tactics are in effect facilitating a hard or no-deal Brexit whose effects will be especially detrimental to Labour voters. There are also doubts about the wisdom of an approach that relies on the far-from-certain likelihood that the government’s Brexit plan (whatever that may be) will be defeated in Parliament, thus precipitating an early election.

In the meantime, the collapse of the Chequers Plan at the Salzburg summit has increased the likelihood of Britain leaving the EU next March without deal, a prospect that few Labour members and voters desire.

There are signs that this frustration is spreading to the Shadow Cabinet. A few days ago, Keir Starmer tweeted his frustration with the Prime Minister’s defence of the (now dead) Chequers Plan. ‘The idea that the choice is binary – accept my deal or get worse – is completely unacceptable’, he wrote.

Starmer is right, of course, but Labour’s paralysis and opacity has enabled the Prime Minister to do precisely that. Until now, the party has had little to no influence on the debate about the nature and format of Brexit. Instead, Labour accepted the government’s terms and most of its red lines.

If Starmer and others wants to change this state of affairs the party has to come clean about its approach to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. In particular, the party should clarify, and potentially change, its stance on freedom of movement. This is so because the only way to deliver the Brexit that Labour wants is through membership of the single market.

Labour’s frontbench has been fearful of questioning the government’s red lines because it fears disunity in the Labour benches (there’s a vocal group of MPs who interprets the result of the EU referendum as the public desire to end freedom of movement from Europe) as well as an electoral backlash. But in truth, sticking to ‘constructive ambiguity’ in the current volatile context is a politically irresponsible approach which has the added disadvantage of being a risky electoral strategy.

The party’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ towards Brexit assumes that the EU27 will offer a flexible deal on freedom of movement to a Labour government. But this assumption has no credibility whatsoever. As has been hammered out countless of times by European leaders, the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible. Perhaps more importantly, freedom of movement is not a concern for the other EU member states (whilst immigration from outside the EU certainly is).

In this context, the best that Britain can aspire to is to a rewording of the existing principles that will emphasise the powers of member states to use ‘emergency breaks’ and to enforce the existing rules of the single market.

‘Constructive ambiguity’ is also a risky electoral strategy because it takes for granted the electoral gains of the 2017 general election. The party should bear in mind that 71% of Labour supporters voted Remain whilst only 29% voted Leave in the EU referendum.  Moreover, many voters chose Labour because they believed the party would protect Britain’s ‘access’ to the single market.

Labour is also failing to notice the subtle change in public attitudes towards Brexit. The latest survey conducted by NatCen, and analysed by Sir John Curtice, revealed that there has been a softening of public attitudes about freedom of movement: 60% of those asked believed that Britain should allow freedom of movement from the EU.

Interestingly, the same survey showed that only 47% of Leave supporters would vote again to leave the EU if given the chance to vote in a second referendum. On the other hand, a YouGov showed that 69% of voters think the Brexit negotiations are going badly.

In politics, it is rare to encounter a perfect alignment of time, context and resources in which decisions can be made. Politicians must make the most of what they’ve got and content themselves with ‘just about right moments’ to make important decisions.

The current changing public mood, the growing prospects of Britain withdrawing from the EU without a deal and voters’ growing impatience with politicians who play careless political games with their lives should convince Corbyn and his team that the time is ripe to come clean about Brexit.

By Dr Eunice Goes, Associate Professor of Politics at Richmond University.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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