In many ways, the EU Referendum result presented Britain’s politicians with an insoluble problem. This was the inevitable outcome of a mass democratic exercise which asked the people to answer an incredibly complex question with a simple, ‘Yes / No’ answer. This is not to patronise people. The EU is fiendishly complicated, as any European mandarin would tell you. Leaving the EU is more complicated by a factor of ten.
Much righteous anger has been directed towards the Labour frontbench in the last few days, as a series of apparently confused and confusing messages have emerged relating to what Labour’s stance on Brexit actually is. On last Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, Jeremy Corbyn said that leaving the EU would inevitably mean leaving the Single Market. He said the two things were “inextricably linked.” Meanwhile, Labour MPs Chuka Ummuna and Wes Streeting both tweeted to say that Corbyn was wrong, and the UK could in fact remain a member of the Single Market following Brexit.
Meanwhile, Labour is officially shifting its position on the Single Market.
Confused? I don’t blame you. I certainly am. Annoyed? Yeah, that too. Are you a young person who voted for Labour at the last election because you thought we would block Brexit? I’m sorry. The Tories are tearing themselves apart over this issue. They have a slender majority. The gates to a Labour return to government and all the wonderful things that would do for our country are wide open. So why are we failing to get our message across clearly?
In fairness, the idea that many people voted Labour at the election to stop Brexit has been fairly debunked by the below YouGov survey:
In reality, Labour’s ultimate position on Brexit makes the best of a far-from-perfect situation. We can’t stop Brexit happening – at least, we can’t unless public opinion shifts decisively against it. The ‘Stop Brexit’ campaign is being led principally by centrists who are understandably obsessed with winning power in order to change things. But at the last election, Labour deliberately trod a very fine line on Brexit in order to keep its fragile electoral coalition intact and, indeed, to grow it. We saw what happened to the Lib Dems when they offered simply to block Brexit. They got stuck in the mud. Which does beg the question – why are certain centrists so far from the centre-ground?
One of the many downsides of a ‘Yes / No’ referendum on a question like EU membership is that, because a majority voted to leave, the UK’s law-makers and negotiators have to prioritise the UK’s eventual deal on the basis of the main reasons why the people voted for Brexit. In spite of all the assertion swilling around about why the people chose as they did, the polling shows that the main reason was sovereignty, the second main reason was immigration and the third main reason was the prospect of an expanded European Union. On this basis, you can see why Single Market membership – an economic consideration – is not what is guiding the Labour frontbench.
Today, it is difficult to accuse Corbyn and the Labour frontbench of ignoring the importance of electoral expediency on this issue. They are doing what the late Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s focus group guru, would have wanted by “going to where the voters are.” How this evolves over time is less certain, as it is entirely possible that, at the end of the Brexit process, the British people decide that they don’t like the deal that’s on offer and change their minds.
But the British people will not feel encouraged to change their minds if they are being patronised or harangued either by the Labour Party or the wider political establishment. And that is where the issue of style, and not substance, comes in. Labour is following the debate and following public opinion on Brexit. For now, that’s helped the party hold things together – but it won’t do in the long-term, particularly when the reality of what Brexit means for the UK hits home. The difference between being a popular opposition and being trusted to govern is showing that you have a clear, logical plan to take the country in a better direction than the other lot.
A close friend remarked to me yesterday that every time Benedict Cumberbatch or Sir Patrick Stewart jump up and tell their friends in the media that they hate the UK and want to leave it over Brexit, they merely reinforce the voters’ instinct that they were right to reject the kleptocratic EU. In Blair’s frequent interventions on this issue, we unsurprisingly see more of his later self than the earlier version. “It’s the right thing to do”, became his frequent refrain as his popularity waned. The argument became circular.
I too hope that Brexit will never happen, but it’s probably an unrealistic aspiration. But those who, like me are on the centre-left and share this aspiration, need a reality check. We are in danger of sounding like those whom we once derided. Those who in the 1980s demanded “no compromise with the electorate.” The substance of Brexit is one thing. The style needed to avoid it is quite another.