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30 August 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 6:39am

Why Labour’s Brexit stance still offers the best hope of resolving the crisis

By keeping open the options of remaining in the EU and leaving with a progressive deal, the party can unite voters around the principle of democracy. 

By Steve Howell

When you want something too intensely, it’s often less likely to happen. In personal relationships intensity can drive people away. In politics, zealots alienate the very people whose support they need. This is important now because, in the face of Boris Johnson’s anti-democratic tactics, we need a democratic alliance that encompasses everyone who doesn’t want Brexit to lead to a no-deal Trumpian nightmare.

Remainers and those who want to leave with a deal (let’s call them New Dealers) have been at loggerheads for three years, but time has run out and the likelihood is that there will be a general election, either as a result of a vote of no confidence or by Johnson calling one to thwart a legislative move against no deal.

According to recent polls, Remainers and New Dealers have between them nearly four times as much public support as the No Dealers. But can that be translated into defeating the Tories and their possible Brexit Party allies in a general election? And what is the path that would keep the aims of both Remainers and New Dealers alive?

For Remainers who see Jeremy Corbyn as the enemy, the paradox is that his position is now their best hope — but only if he doesn’t do what they say he should. Remainers are pressing Labour to drop its acceptance of the 2016 referendum result and campaign to reverse Brexit. “pick a side, get off the fence,” they say. But if the party does this, it is likely to produce the opposite of what they want.

Remainers cannot feasibly reverse Brexit without another referendum. But the Tories aren’t going to hold one. And the Liberal Democrats can’t win enough seats to form a government. Only by Labour winning an election can the door be kept open to a second vote.

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In his speech in Corby two weeks ago, Corbyn said: “If there is a general election this autumn, Labour will commit to holding a public vote, to give voters the final say with credible options for both sides including the option to remain.” He argued that “three years of Tory failure on Brexit have caused opinions to harden to such a degree that no outcome will now have legitimacy without the people’s endorsement”.

Compared to Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, this is a major shift in policy. But, for some, it’s more triangulation and not the “clarity” that an unequivocal Remain stance provides. Since the EU elections, Labour Remainers have pointed to Labour’s loss of support to the Lib Dems and the Greens as evidence that the party’s attempt to unite voters across the Brexit divide has run out of road.

But has it? Johnson’s flagrant abuse of executive power has changed the dynamic. The issue is now one of democracy. And we won’t defeat Johnson’s plotting if we don’t respect democracy ourselves.

In most people’s eyes, the 2016 vote was valid. To stay on the democratic high ground, the anti-no deal alliance has to make an attempt — in good faith — to get a deal with Brussels that could, as Corbyn says, be “credibly” put to a vote. And the only way to do that is through a Labour government.

In 2017, Labour won its best vote for 20 years and its biggest vote share for 16 years, but — as Corbyn’s critics are always quick to point out — it didn’t lead to enough seat gains to make us the largest party, never mind outright winners.

In the coming election, Labour has to retain all the seats it won in 2017 and add another 64 to govern alone — or at least enough of them to form a viable government. The arithmetic is clear: in England and Wales, 35 of the 45 most winnable Tory-held seats and 16 of the 20 seats Labour won most narrowly in 2017 voted Leave in 2016.

In 2017, Labour won the support of some 3.5 million Leave voters. But will they stay loyal? In the local elections in May, the 22 districts where Labour lost five seats or more were all in Leave-voting areas. The EU elections three weeks later saw the Brexit Party and Ukip win, between them, more than 50 per cent of the vote in the former coalfields of Yorkshire, the Midlands and North East. Unless Labour has a position that can win over disgruntled working class Leave voters, it risks a wipeout in these areas of the kind it suffered in Scotland in 2015. 

Some say that they don’t want the support of anyone who would vote for a party led by Nigel Farage, but that plays right into his hands and completely misunderstands the diverse and sometimes contradictory factors at play in the Brexit issue.

Corbyn’s position avoids gifting the No Dealers the argument that they are the only ones respecting the 2016 referendum. At the same time, it gives Remainers the promise of a chance to win a second vote.

But what does a credible deal look like and would it be offered? For Labour, the essence of it was in the 2017 manifesto: a new close relationship with the EU that protects workers’ rights and environmental standards and provides certainty to European nationals living in the UK.

EU leaders have, on several occasions, indicated that such a deal is of interest, and it’s obvious why: not only is it in their interests to retain access to the UK market, it also eliminates the competitive threat of having a low-wage, low-standards economy on their doorstep, in turn making the backstop redundant.

Of course, there might be zealots in Brussels who want to gamble on offering a bad deal to make the Remain option look markedly more attractive, but wiser voices will see that it’s better to have a vote between an option they want and one they can live with.

So which option would Labour support once this “credible” deal has been negotiated? There is no need to decide that now. People can argue with all the intensity they like once we have defeated the Tories. The immediate priority is to offer people a way through this crisis that respects democracy and keeps both the New Deal and Remain options in play.

Steve Howell is the former deputy director of strategic and communications for Jeremy Corbyn and the author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks that Transformed British Politics

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