There are few luxuries to be enjoyed while in opposition. If you believe the cynics, money is the major one. It seems somewhat tragic now that by 2010 most of the key figures in the last Labour government were reportedly worn out by being in power. How much energy would they devote to the task of winning it back now?
One small luxury of opposition is that you don’t have to be overly nuanced or detailed in your messaging. Because you have no actual power to decide, you don’t have to give concrete answers. Consequently, it would be perverse for Labour to adopt the rhetoric of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, who this morning said the government’s negotiating strategy was based on “constructive ambiguity.”
Yet if there’s one thing Labour can afford to do now it is to be bold about Brexit. Contrary to the wishes of many in the Labour Party, an imminent election is unlikely. The Tories genuinely fear they could be beaten. They have also decided to strap Theresa May to the Brexit bomb so that the damage to the rest of them is limited. An election before the Brexit negotiation is complete is therefore unlikely, so Labour does not have to worry overly about the fine detail what sort of deal it would demand.
Nevertheless, as has been argued on this website and in many other places besides, there is a high level of ambiguity about what Labour wants from Brexit. The Labour frontbench seems fairly in line with the country, but their position is at odds with party policy and the views of many Labour MPs, Labour voters and indeed the bulk of the Labour membership. The result is that Labour’s overall position is somewhat unclear.
Ultimately, this is about leadership. The Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit (consider today’s shambolic Custom’s Union paper) is continuing to create a vacuum for Labour to fill if it wants to. Brexit is a millstone around the Tories’ neck. David Davis’s own former adviser, James Chapman, thinks it could permanently tarnish the Tory brand. So, Labour can afford to spell out in simple terms precisely what it would want from Brexit.
Perhaps the party’s caution on this issue is due to a fear of alienating large numbers of voters in what is today a very divided country. Perhaps it is also a product of wanting to sit back and let the Tories take the heat for the mess they are creating. Both tactics represent political expediency, but they do not represent statesmanship.
What is the opposite of constructive ambiguity? Destructive clarity? Perhaps not. Let’s start with this – three clear Labour objectives from a Brexit negotiation, based around broad themes that unite the country. We needn’t even flog ourselves about the Customs Union or the Single Market. What we must do is provide leadership, honesty and vision.