At a Fabians panel event I spoke at last week, a young man in the audience asked if I thought Labour should join a national government to confront Brexit. While such a scenario is incredibly unlikely, particularly now we have moved away from the flux of the post-election frenzy, the implications of this hypothetical should not be lightly dismissed.
Brexit is being framed by Leavers in the Government and a number of newspapers as akin to a declaration of war on our European neighbours. By contrast, many Remainers cast the negotiations as a tame surrender in the face of globalisation. Whether you are a proud Brexiteer or a worried Remoaner, Brexit marks a moment of national emergency and it requires a Labour Party dedicated to national service.
Labour performed a remarkable balancing act during the General Election, holding together its coalition of Leavers and Remainers in most places, and strengthening it in others. This was achieved partly due to a level of constructive ambiguity about Labour’s position on Brexit, and the Liberal attempt to become the party of Remain was ultimately ignored.
Yet this balancing act cannot be maintained in perpetuity. Labour is now the favourite to form the next government. While most voters thought Labour had no chance of winning the last election, the next election will engender a far more thorough examination of Labour’s fitness to govern.
Moreover, the next election will be fought either close to Brexit or in its aftermath. Labour will therefore have to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ if it is to be taken seriously as a government-in-waiting. The Tories may well make a mess of Brexit, but this would be no guarantee of an ensuing Labour victory. They made a mess of the economic recovery between 2010 and 2015, but they were still regarded as the party of sound money when they went back to the country for a majority.
The hypothetical about a so-called ‘national government’ matters because of the implicit question contained within it. Is Labour ready to serve Britain in the wake of Brexit? Would its reason for not joining a hypothetical government be tactical or due to a lack of clarity about how to handle the emergency?
Neither reason would be consistent with a Labour Party claiming to be for the many, not the few. When Clement Attlee and his colleagues in Parliament were asked by Winston Churchill to join a national government in 1940, they did so willingly. They did so out of a sense of national duty and because they were, for the most party, imbued with the kind of “social patriotism” which Attlee championed.
One of my fellow panellists at the aforementioned event replied to the question by saying that joining a national government would not be electorally expedient. The fact that a Labour landslide followed Labour’s period in national government between 1940 and 1945 was apparently lost on my co-commentator. If you want to be elected, show first that you are willing to serve.
There will be no national government. That ship has long since sailed, and it is convenient for Labour, if not the country, that the millstone of Brexit is hanging around Tory necks. Yet the idea that vagueness around Labour’s position on Brexit is a viable long-term strategy needs to be debunked swiftly. We cannot fight the next election on terms set by the last.
The next general election may be upon us sooner than we think. While the Labour Party continues to bask in the dimming afterglow of a better-than-expected general election performance, the Tories are plotting to ensure they are never again so badly prepared to face the country. We must now ask ourselves in all sincerity whether Labour is ready to serve.