No matter how hard Labour tries to pretend otherwise, the forthcoming general election is a Brexit election. It is defined by Brexit in the same way as the 2017 general election was. At that time, Labour was able to get a hearing on its domestic policies because, at the very last minute, a sentence that promised to respect the result of the referendum was inserted in its manifesto. The Tories and Labour were thus on an even keel as far as Brexit was concerned, and that’s how Labour made its unexpected gains.
It will be harder to pull off the same trick again. Unlike Theresa May, who called a general election before securing a deal with the EU, Boris Johnson has a deal ready to be put into effect immediately after the election that will take the UK out of the EU. Admittedly, negotiations will have to continue to settle our long-term relationship with the EU, but we will be negotiating from a position of strength, having left the EU and regained sovereignty.
All Labour can offer is a re-run of the Brexit negotiations that have numbed the nation and sapped its energy. A Corbyn Labour government would thus put its domestic agenda on hold to spend precious months in negotiation with the EU to get a ‘better’ withdrawal agreement. Having done so, the public would not be asked to say yay or nay to the deal in a straightforward ballot; instead, they would be asked to choose between the deal and reversing the result of the 2016 EU referendum – what Labour calls putting ‘the final decision in the hands of the people’. But the people have already made the decision to leave the EU and that was ‘the final decision’, the once-in-a-generation decision. Labour’s ‘public vote on the deal’ is nothing more than a second referendum.
With leading members of the shadow cabinet vowing to campaign against Labour’s own deal – including shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, the very man who would be in charge of negotiations – what trust can the public have in Labour negotiating in good faith? It’s like a builder who advises a home-owner to knock down the extension he is due to build immediately after it has been built. This is Alice in Wonderland territory.
Corbyn may be ‘rejuvenated’ and ‘re-energised’ by the prospects of a general election and he will campaign well. But winning and campaigning are two different things. Unless Labour’s message resonates with the electorate, campaigning will do little in terms of votes, no matter how clever social media whizzkids are or how eager are members of Momentum to knock on doors.
The election manifesto on which Labour will fight the general election is yet to be written. Last time round, in 2017, under the heading ‘Negotiating Brexit’, Labour stated that the party ‘accepts the referendum result’. The voting public will watch to see if this remains Labour’s policy. If it doesn’t, Labour will have turned its back on the biggest democratic vote in British history. If it is retained, it will contradict the policy of a second EU referendum. A second referendum is inconsistent with accepting the result of the first – and it won’t escape the voting public that there is no guarantee that those who refuse to accept the result of one referendum would accept the result of a second.
It is ironic that the first act of a would-be Corbyn government committed to fight the establishment would be to do the bidding of that very establishment and undermine the result of the EU referendum.
Labour is right to emphasise the common interests that binds workers, regardless of whether they voted Leave or Remain; they face the same problems and they need the very same social and economic regeneration. The task of bringing them together is fundamental, but that can only become a reality once the thing that divided them in the first place is sorted out. For a party that wishes to heal the Brexit divide, calling another referendum to go through the whole thing again is reckless to say the least.
The bulk of the Brexit-supporting Left did little to help get Brexit over the line. Its pathological aversion to any association with the Tories regardless of the issue – an infantile approach to politics, reflecting a chronic lack of self-confidence – has contributed to the Brexit drift that characterised the last couple of years of the now dissolved Parliament.
Some attempt to play down the importance of Brexit. It’s argued that Brexit is one issue among many. But Brexit is a defining issue, it will define the future direction of the country. Most of Labour’s economic and industrial programme will clash with the EU’s rules and regulations including public control of nationalised industries, procurement policy and state aid as well as VAT.
As for the threat to the NHS, the EU poses a greater threat to the NHS than any British government. We have control over the latter; we have none over the former. And the EU has form: it was the EU that negotiated the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States when Barack Obama was President, which would have given US corporations easy access to elements of the NHS. A vigorous campaign to stop TTIP was launched by the trade unions and supported by all opposition parties, but it made little impact on an EU determined to have the treaty ratified. It was abandoned only when the incoming US President, Donald Trump, pulled the plug.
For those who want the government to get on with it – and that is a majority of people – Labour’s current policy on Brexit holds little appeal. The Labour leadership must be aware that Labour’s contradictory policies are untenable and unsustainable. The electorate will see through them. They need more than fine tuning; they need change. All eyes will be on Labour’s election manifesto.
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