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9 September 2019

This incoherent TUC statement shows the risk that Labour is taking by delaying an election

The labour movement can agree on what it doesn't want out of Brexit. The problem is what comes next.

By Stephen Bush

The Trades Union Congress has released a statement on Brexit and what should happen next.

What does it say? Well, you have a read and see if you can figure it out. It starts out well enough, with a perfectly coherent statement about the TUC’s opposition to a no-deal Brexit. But it quickly collapses into a mishmash of incoherent paragraphs, in which a cogent and clear position becomes increasingly hard to make out. It reads as if every trades union involved has agreed to compromise by each writing a different clause of each sentence – and the result is a statement that leaves the reader none the wiser as to what the TUC wants to happen instead of no-deal Brexit.

The reason for that is simple enough: Britain’s trades unions are incredibly divided over what should happen next with Brexit. For reasons of their own internal politics, the sectors they represent, and their wildly differing institutional relationships with the Labour Party, the labour movement is, like the country, split on what it wants out of Brexit.

They can agree that a no-deal Brexit is bad – but once the conversation moves onto what next, that unity dissipates, and quickly. While the TUC represents a much bigger section of the trade union movement than the Labour Party, its incoherent statement is a micro-example of the risk that Labour is taking by opting to “go long” and wait until after an extension has been secured to have an election.

One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn had one of his best weeks since the 2017 election last week is that by suspending parliament, Boris Johnson moved the political debate away from “How do you want Brexit to be resolved?” – a question which divides Labour – to “do you think the executive should follow the law?” This is a question that unites Labour, and an issue on which they become indistinguishable from the smaller pro-Remain parties without having to make further concessions to their Remain flank.

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Once an extension is secured, the political question shifts away from the question of parliament’s rights and freedoms and towards Brexit again, a subject on which it is difficult for Labour to hold a unified position for very long. Coupled with that, the long run-up to a late November election means a long period in which we essentially have an election campaign governed by pre-election rules, on everything from spending to broadcasting to the use of the government’s own advertising budget.

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Labour’s analysis – and indeed that of the other opposition parties – is that the Conservative position gets worse if the election takes place after 31 October. But that gamble is not certain to play out well for them.