Labour Party conference. Where debate about almost anything goes. Except, of course, on the biggest political issue of our time. And be under no illusion, Brexit isn’t just a political issue – it will have a deep and wide impact on life in the UK. So should Labour be taking a clearer stand?
For the moment, all three major national parties seem comfortable using the Brexit debate for narrow political advantage. The 2016 referendum was the product of a Tory civil war. And the prime minister is now as sensitive to intra-party dynamics as she is to what the EU might actually want when defining her Brexit strategy.
The Lib Dems, for their part, are quick to deploy the language of national interest. Yet their approach to Brexit implies a more self-serving rationale. Painting “no Brexit” bright yellow may allow the party to hoover up remainer votes, particularly if Labour is seen to betray those Remainers who flocked to it in the June election. However, it is palpably not the way to build the kind of cross-party coalition that would be needed to actually force a rethink.
Which brings us to the Labour Party. It is certainly enjoying opposition. The mood in Brighton is exuberant. And why not? Labour faces a divided government tearing itself apart while confronting the monumental task of delivering Brexit.
And, as much through good luck as good management it would seem, the party has stumbled across a thoroughly ambiguous position on Brexit that seems to work. It proved remarkably successful in allowing the party to reassure Leavers while attracting Remainers in the general election. Indeed, as John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, has recently pointed out, Labour advanced most among those groups keenest on staying in the EU and least worried about immigration.
And this posture continues to make sense, given that the division created by the Brexit referendum seems set to persist. A year after the referendum, the British Election Study found no sign of a decline in the strength of identification with the Leave and Remain camps. Indeed, at that point, those identities were far stronger than those associated with support for the political parties. A party which includes among its supporters diehards of both camps might be well advised not to be too specific about its own preferences.
Labour, then, can criticise the government whilst keeping its own options if not open then at least unclear. So far, so normal. After all, the art of opposition politics is to credibly attack the government while keeping one’s powder dry. But is Brexit a normal issue? Can it be treated in the same way as any other policy – a stick with which to beat the government’s record while declining to spell out the details of an alternative approach?
The division here is stark. It divides those for whom a hard Brexit is a price worth paying for a Corbyn government, and those for whom it is not.
For the former, winning power is all, and watching the government engineer Britain’s exit from both the single market and the customs union is as good a way of achieving this as any. For one thing, the Conservatives might tear themselves apart in the process.
For another, most economists agree that such a hard Brexit would cause significant economic damage — equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP according to some estimates. Not only this, but some studies suggest that the pain would be most intense in those areas that voted Leave, unleashing a wave of anti-government feeling in those parts.
For those uneasy with this approach, power at all costs simply does not make sense. After all, standing up “for the many”, ending austerity and ushering in a period of social justice all require cash. The scale of the economic disruption unleashed by a hard Brexit would make the austerity we have seen to date pale by comparison. According to this logic, waiting for hard Brexit, if the economists are to be believed, means ensuring the failure of Labour in power.
Clearly, MPs uncomfortable with the party line face a number of problems. First, the party leadership. Jeremy Corbyn never seems too keen to discuss Brexit. And when he does, he never appears too comfortable. His much-repeated notion of “tariff-free access to the single market”, moreover, strongly implies he does not really know what it is or what it does.
Second, there is no systematic evidence of public opinion on Brexit shifting. Certainly Labour made inroads among Remain voters in the last election. But it is far from clear it can keep their votes and those of its traditional working-class heartlands. Coming out in favour of single market membership might well alienate Leave voters. Hence they are mostly keeping their heads below the parapet. Muttering among themselves rather than speaking out.
Consequently a vicious circle arises. Public opinion remains static for want of clear leadership. And potential leaders are wary of speaking out and pre-empting public opinion. And meanwhile hard Brexit comes ever closer, officially supported by both Labour and Tory front benches.
Do Labour MPs who reckon a hard Brexit would have calamitous economic consequences really want to wait until the damage is done? Do they really think ‘we told you so’ will provide a credible post-Brexit rallying cry? If they truly believe Brexit will be as bad as they claim, shouldn’t they come out and argue their case?