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Labour: Trying not to talk about Brexit

Tom Hamilton

As many businesses begin to consider the real prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour Government, former Labour adviser Tom Hamilton sets out what the Party’s position on Brexit means and how it got there.

The thing about strategic ambiguity is that it is ambiguous. Labour’s ambiguous position on Brexit has been the cause of some confusion – to Labour voters, members and even MPs, to the media, and to businesses trying to work out what a future Labour Government might do. Would it stop Brexit, go ahead with a different model of Brexit or hold a referendum to let the voters make the decision instead?

To be fair, Labour is not the only major party that lacks a clear explanation of its Brexit policy. But yesterday’s debate at its National Executive Committee (NEC), which ended with a restatement of the policy decided at last year’s Conference, was just the latest manifestation of an ongoing disagreement over how central questions about Europe should be to the Labour Party’s overall positioning, let alone what Labour’s position on Europe should be.

Before the 2015 election, many senior figures in the Labour Party argued that Labour should join the Conservatives in promising a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. In the end, Ed Miliband decided not to, for three reasons: first, he really didn’t support one; second, opposing the uncertainty and risk that would come with a referendum gave Labour an electoral argument that would appeal to business, who were sceptical of Labour for other reasons; and third, he had no interest, if he won the election, in spending his premiership arguing over Europe and fighting a referendum he might lose, instead of getting on with delivering the policies he actually cared about.

A fat lot of good all that did him. And there is little consolation in losing and then being proved right. There are now quite a few businesses, and voters, who would take the 2015 Labour manifesto over the last three years of Brexit stasis and the serious prospect of a different Labour government with an agenda they find even less congenial. But Ed Miliband was neither the first nor the last Labour leader to find Europe getting in the way of the things he wanted to talk about.

if Brexit doesn’t happen before the next election, and Labour wins, dealing with Brexit will be Jeremy Corbyn’s job

Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, and this week’s heated debate about the Labour Party’s European Parliament election manifesto – a document that had never before caused heat, or even the slightest interest from anyone, in any previous European election.

Jeremy Corbyn’s problem is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and that this means that he has some responsibility for either delivering it or preventing it. Whichever he does, some parts of the Labour electoral coalition will be cross, and some may even vote elsewhere.

Brexit has destabilised everything, and it is perfectly possible that it has already destabilised the Conservatives enough to lose them the next election – and that this could come sooner rather than later. Winning the next election, or at least doing well enough to form the next government, is Jeremy Corbyn’s main priority. It looks as if there is no parliamentary majority for any Brexit deal this side of an election. But if Brexit doesn’t happen before the next election, and Labour wins, dealing with Brexit will be Jeremy Corbyn’s job.

The claim that Corbyn wants to leave the EU is overstated: he is a long-standing Eurosceptic, but this has never been at the heart of his political identity, and he is genuinely committed to stopping a no-deal Brexit, which he believes would be disastrous, hence the current indefinite delay to the process. But nor is stopping Brexit the priority for him that it is for some other Labour politicians and members. A Corbyn-led pre-Brexit Labour Government would seek to negotiate a Brexit deal on different terms from those agreed by Theresa May, pass it through Parliament, and move on to his domestic agenda. This is easier said than done, of course, but that’s the idea.

Making the deal subject to a referendum would get in the way of moving on – and who knows who would win it, how it would destabilise a Labour Government, or even which side of the argument the Labour Party would be on?

Hence Labour’s position: for a general election, for a better Brexit deal, but only keeping the option of a referendum on the table for any deal Labour cannot back – such as Theresa May’s current deal, for example. In practice, this makes a second referendum almost impossible: Labour will only back a confirmatory referendum as a condition for supporting a deal that cannot get through Parliament anyway, and that certainly cannot get through Parliament if linked to a referendum that Tory MPs oppose.

Labour’s manifesto, which keeps the option of a referendum theoretically on the table, but practically off it, has something for everyone and keeps the show on the road, for now. If Labour can keep this up, its path to victory at the next election looks more realistic than that of the Tories, who have to navigate their way through a leadership election with few good options, and the fragmentation of their electoral coalition at the hands of a resurgent Nigel Farage, between now and then.

But a Corbyn-led Labour government that inherited Brexit as unfinished business, and finished it, might well find it even harder to please all of its supporters than it already is. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want to spend the run-up to an election talking about the EU, but he doesn’t want to spend his time as Prime Minister talking about it either. Labour’s Brexit policy may turn out to be perfectly calculated to win it an election, but less well designed for government

Tom Hamilton is an Associate Director in the Public Affairs team and was formerly a senior advisor to Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson.