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09 Jan 2020

Politics and Society

Labour leadership

One of the starkest illustrations of the Labour Party’s loss of influence is how comprehensively the nature of the party’s internal Brexit debate has become about the past, rather than the present or the future.

Insofar as Brexit has featured in the Labour Party’s current main preoccupation, the selection of a new leader, it has been about the extent to which Brexit, or rather Labour’s refusal to accept that the election was ever only going to be about Brexit, was the cause of its severe defeat on 12 December.

Jess Philips did briefly enter the realm of the future when she suggested that her party could argue for re-joining the EU, but very swiftly ‘clarified’ her way out of that position.

This change in tense of the Labour Party’s Brexit debate is hardly surprising.

During the 2017-2019 hung Parliament the Labour Party actually had very real influence on the Brexit process, and if the party had had different priorities it could very well have achieved a second referendum on a specific deal vs. remain.

Now the Labour Party has returned to the position it has held throughout the majority of its existence: as a legislatively powerless opposition railing against the actions of a single party majority Conservative government (‘The Resistance’, in Corbyn-speak).

Barring unexpected events, and this certainly is the age of unexpected events, the next time the Labour Party will need to have something resembling a firm position on the exact nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU is in 2024, at the next scheduled general election.

Nevertheless, Brexit still features in the Labour leadership contest.

However, when it does it is less about the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU and more about the seats it will need to win back in order to return to power.

So, in Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership launch article in Tribune Magazine she mentions ‘the communities that voted to leave in the North and the Midlands’ as an example of Labour heartlands that the party will need to regain.

All the 60 seats that Labour lost in December had a majority for Leave in the 2016 referendum, many by significant margins.

To what extent it was Labour voters in those constituencies that supported Leave is debatable, but it is illustrative of the challenge facing Labour in rebuilding an election winning coalition.

This is not to say that wider Brexit issues are not being mentioned.

Clearly the leadership contestants have opinions on issues such as employment rights, environmental standards, our future trading relation with the EU, deep scepticism about any trade deal with Trump’s America and the rights of EU27 citizens.

However, these are not the issues that will matter for the contest itself, or Labour’s immediate future – simply because Labour will have no effective influence on any of these issues.

So, to the extent that Brexit will feature in any meaningful sense between now and the end of the Labour leadership contest in early April, it is likely to be in those two forms: as a debate over why Labour lost; and a debate over how Labour wins again – which will involve rebuilding an electoral coalition with a very diverse range of voters.

Rebuilding this coalition may not be directly linked to Brexit, but ‘Leave voting’ is still going to be a convenient, if slightly misleading, shorthand for the kind of constituencies the party will need to regain.

Obviously, ‘Remain voting’ also captures something about the constituencies the party will have to defend, and therein lies one of Labour’s problems – the sheer diversity of the electoral coalition it will have to build.

Eventually of course whoever wins the leadership contest will have to decide what the Labour Party’s next general election manifesto will say about UK-EU relations.

However, by then the debate will have changed out of all recognition – including the distinct possibility that the country’s only land border with the EU will be along the Solway-Tweed line, rather than on the island of Ireland.

In short, Brexit, its causes and effects, will be part of the political landscape any new Labour leader will have to navigate, and it is unlikely that it will feel particularly ‘done’.

By Dr Robin Pettitt, Senior Lecturer at Kingston University.

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