This should be a moment of opportunity for Labour. The Conservative Party, having been captured by hard-line Brexiteers, is morphing from a broad church into a narrow sect. Far from settling the European question, as David Cameron naively hoped, the 2016 referendum precipitated the Tories’ biggest split since the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws.
Yet although through cross-party collaboration Labour successfully thwarted Boris Johnson’s attempt to secure a no-deal Brexit, the party shows little sign of advancing in the country. It has trailed the Conservatives in all recent opinion polls, sometimes by as much as 14 points, while Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings continue to plumb subterranean depths. Having tried to please all sides on Brexit, Labour has succeeded in pleasing none.
During the 2017 general election Labour’s strategy of “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit appeared fruitful. To Leavers, it promised to respect the 2016 referendum result. To Remainers, it held out the possibility of a second public vote and vowed to thwart a “Tory Brexit”. But as the electorate has polarised, constructive ambiguity has become destructive. The Brexit Party and the Conservatives have attracted Labour Leavers, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have wooed Labour Remainers.
Labour, meanwhile, remains an unhappy family. In recent weeks, three former Labour MPs have joined the once-reviled Liberal Democrats (who now support the revocation of Article 50). The deputy leader, Tom Watson, has contradicted Mr Corbyn by demanding a second referendum before an early general election. And a group of backbenchers, led by Stephen Kinnock, has urged parliament to support a version of Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Labour has officially pledged to hold a referendum on any withdrawal agreement passed by MPs. But Mr Corbyn, who once promised “straight-talking, honest politics”, has yet to say which side he would support: he is an instinctive Brexiteer, or Lexiteer. A majority of Labour MPs and an overwhelming majority of party members favour Remain, yet Mr Corbyn agitates for an alternative Brexit deal. In common with many of his closest allies, he has long derided the EU as little more than a capitalist club.
Labour undoubtedly faces a strategic dilemma. It simultaneously represents some of the most pro-Remain seats and some of the most pro-Leave ones, both Hampstead and Hull. All European social democratic parties face a version of this conundrum. In Germany, France and Sweden, the traditional centre left has lost working-class voters to the nationalist right and middle-class voters to the cosmopolitan left.
However, there are exceptions to the trend of social democratic malaise. In Denmark, the Social Democrats have returned to office by promoting a politics of the common good; what Professor Paul Collier, author of an excellent recent book on the crisis of capitalism, described in the New Statesman as a culture of “shared identity, common purpose and mutual obligations”. In Portugal, ahead of this October’s general election, the centre-left Socialist Party is polling at nearly 40 per cent, having led a successful anti-austerity coalition government supported by the Left Bloc, the Portugese Communist Party and the Greens.
Labour, however, has shown no such guile or pragmatism. It has not remade itself as a genuinely national party capable of achieving a parliamentary majority during these polarised times; support for it has collapsed in Scotland.
But nor has Labour embraced pluralist politics and sought to forge new alliances: in a multi-party era, Britain’s first-past-the-post system has never appeared more antiquated. And Labour does not aspire to unite the nations of the Union or create a politics of the common good: instead it uses the left populist language of the “many against the few”.
For Labour, Brexit has proved a defining choice. The party successfully combined forces with others to resist Mr Johnson’s executive overreach. This, however, is no longer sufficient. The opposition can reasonably protest that Brexit is a political crisis created by the Conservatives, but it is now a national one as well.
For too long, as in its former Scottish fiefdoms, the Labour Party has complacently assumed ownership of voter blocs. Yet, as the European Parliament elections demonstrated, that era has long since passed.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control