The press this Bank Holiday weekend has been full of the news of Labour’s apparent shift on Brexit. The right-wing Daily Express calls Labour’s new position on the Single Market “a dramatic u-turn” and “a slap in the face for Leave voters.” Meanwhile The New Statesman says “Labour’s new Brexit stance could change everything.” Margaret Thatcher’s former aide Matthew Parris even says the announcement might cause him to vote Labour.
Commentators across the newspaper industry and social media seem united in the belief that Labour has broken decisively from the Tories’ “Brexit at any cost” narrative. But is this true? And if it is, what does it mean both for Labour and the eventual terms of Brexit? Could Labour’s “new” position even be the death knell for the UK’s exit from the European Union?
An early-stage Labour Vision poll currently running on Twitter (admittedly this is not scientific) does not suggest those without the chance to write hyperbolic newspaper columns share the sense that Labour has entered significant new ground. So, what is the actual substance of Labour’s new / newish position?
Ultimately Labour remains committed to delivering Brexit. However, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer now demands “a time-limited transitional period” after Brexit has been enacted, during which the UK will remain inside the Single Market and the Customs Union. This marks clear red water between Labour and even “moderate” Tories like Chancellor Philip Hammond, who recently said a transitional arrangement was not on the table.
For the Tories, Brexit really does mean Brexit, then. But other than a stay of execution, surely Labour’s position is still fundamentally the same as the Tories’? So, why are political commentators reacting with such frenzy to what is arguably a technocratic – rather than an ideological – shift from the Labour Party?
Labour Vision suggests there are three reasons for the media reaction. The first is that we’re not yet out of the August “silly season”, where fairly mundane political events are exaggerated in their importance by journalists starved of substantial news. The second is that anything other than Labour aping entirely the Tories’ Brexit position triggers the right-wing press to cry “betrayal!”.
But the third and most significant reason is that this news offers encouragement to Remainers who believe either that at worst this announcement puts pressure on the government to deliver a Brexit based on avoiding the UK’s economic suicide, and at best that this departure might be the first of several by Labour, which lead to the ultimate overturning of Brexit itself.
It is possible, therefore, that ardent Remainers are projecting their hopes onto what is a fairly modest Labour announcement. The Labour leadership has gone to great lengths to avoid sacrificing the party’s broad and fragile voting coalition on the altar of sabotaging Brexit. This task has been left to the Lib Dems, whose irony filter is permanently broken if one of the recent tweets from their press office is anything to go by.
It seems unlikely that Labour would suddenly throw away its delicately assembled electoral coalition for the sake of a few positive headlines in the late August liberal press. What is more compelling is the way in which outright opponents of Brexit are spinning this news, and choosing to interpret it as something “dramatic” when it is in fact piecemeal.
Perhaps this is the beginning of a more coordinated effort by groups on the left to significantly water down the terms of Brexit, or even to stop it happening altogether. On the same day Sir Keir gently reframed Labour’s Brexit stance, the Labour Campaign for the Single Market was launched with the aim of keeping the UK in the Single Market indefinitely.
Were the Labour Party to adopt this aim explicitly, this would be dramatic. Perhaps it still will, but the truth is that this still seems more like a faint hope than a reasonable expectation. Still, only a fool makes political predictions these days…