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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:23pm

Labour’s Brexit policy is long past its sell-by date

By Simon Wren-Lewis

Most people think about Brexit as a binary divide. While true in terms of Remaining or Leaving, this framework is misleading when thinking about any Brexit deal.

A better model is to think about three different groups. The first comprises Remainers who see no value in compromising over Brexit. The second is made up of people who will be satisfied with nothing less than a complete break, ie no deal. Finally you have a group that includes some Remainers who would be prepared to accept some kind of Brexit deal that falls short of no deal: the compromisers.

The size of the compromiser group may vary depend on how hard the deal we are considering is. As the deal becomes softer, it loses some Leavers to no deal and gains some Remainers. But in no case does this group of compromisers come close to being a majority of the population.

Exactly the same divisions apply to MPs in parliament, although the exact proportions may be different. This is why it is so hard, and perhaps impossible, to get a majority in parliament for any type of agreement. It is why any type of agreement is likely to fail: it will be blocked by some combination of uncompromising Remainers and no-deal Leavers, who together will form a majority. This also applies to no deal, which will be blocked by the other two groups. The only option that has any chance of getting a majority in a referendum is Remain, because both uncompromising and compromising Remainers will vote for it.

The reason we have these three minority groups when it comes to any deal is two-fold. First, the 2016 referendum did not specify the type of deal that people were voting for, and indeed the Leave side suggested a variety of deals. This is why compromising Remainers are wrong to think they ought to compromise: 2016 did not provide a mandate for any particular form of Brexit and could never amount to a blank cheque for any kind of Brexit. Leavers voted for one of the variety of deals suggested at the time, which all involved more money for the NHS and the EU giving us the benefits of membership without the obligations. They most certainly were not voting for no deal at all.

Second, the Brexiters have realised, along with many Leave voters, that the only way the UK as a whole can avoid being bound by EU decisions is to leave with no deal at all. Unsurprisingly, the EU will not allow the UK to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market when the UK can also decide its own tariffs and regulations. Brexiter ideas of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU has been spoilt in their minds by the EU’s insistence – alongside anyone who cares about peace in Ireland – on a backstop. In time I suspect they will embrace a limited Northern Ireland backstop, but for a variety of reasons they are not there yet.

It is the reality of these three minority groups that Labour’s current Brexit stance fails to recognise. The party cannot bring the country together with any kind of deal, because a large majority will always hate the deal it has done. This is the basis for my argument that Labour could never get agreement for any kind of Brexit if it were the government. It would be opposed by both the Conservatives and many of its own MPs in parliament, and in any referendum (which parliament would force if Labour didn’t choose to have one ) it would lose badly. The only possible (but unlikely) exception to this rule is a deal between Labour and the government without a public vote attached, which might just scrape through parliament. Even in this case the deal would be hated by most people in the country, and both parties would be punished for it. 

The upshot of all this is that no party, including Labour, can enact Brexit. Its current policy is simply a non-starter for very good reasons. In 2017, when it was not clear that the Brexiters themselves would scupper any kind of deal, its policy made much more sense. But during 2018, when that became clear, Labour should have acknowledged reality and changed its policy to embrace not just a People’s Vote but also the Remain cause.

The main excuse for Labour supporting something that cannot happen is to keep the votes of Leavers. The argument goes that, if the party supported Remain, it would lose seats in the old Labour heartlands. Embracing Remain might win it a few votes, but in seats where it already has comfortable majorities. At the end of the day, most Remainers will vote Labour whatever its Brexit policy because they want the other things a Labour government would bring.

That argument had some force in 2016 and 2017, but it is no longer valid. Let’s take the Remain side first. There is Change UK, which explicitly aimed to capture disaffected Labour voters on the Remain side. The fact that CHUK also contains former Conservative MPs will limit their appeal to Labour voters, although it does pose a threat to the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems are as a result likely to stress their more radical side, which makes them more appealing to Labour voters. The days when their history as part of the Coalition government was a millstone around their neck are dying, as recent polls show. Finally, you have the Greens, who are likely to look increasingly attractive as the perceived threat of climate change grows.

In it certainly true that, if Labour embraced Remain, they would lose some voters who support Leave. But comparisons with voting patterns in 2016 are now out of date, because more Leave voters have changed their minds than Remain voters. Crucially, minds have changed predominantly among Leave voters who find their financial situation difficult, who are also likely to be Labour voters. This was confirmed by a recent UCL study. To quote:

“Of Labour voters who chose Leave in 2016, fully 18 per cent have changed their minds and say they now prefer Remain as their top outcome. In contrast only 4 per cent Conservative Leave voters have changed their mind. One reason might be differences in economic circumstances between Leave voters in the parties.”

Journalist and former YouGov president Peter Kellner now estimates that, in Leave areas, Remain supporters now outnumber Leave supporters among Labour voters three to one. That is a huge margin. It means that seats that voted Leave in 2016 are more vulnerable to being lost because of switching Remain supporters than if Labour loses Leave supporters. 

None of this would matter of it was only Leave supporters who were likely to forsake Labour, with Remain voters staying loyal. But poll after poll has shown the opposite is true. To quote from the UCL study again:

“For Labour, at least a fifth of their voters in every region say they are going to vote for a different party – and in every region defecting voters are overwhelming plumping for parties holding a definite Remain position (assuming the bulk of the “Other” vote is likely to be Green, particularly in London and Scotland). Only in Wales is Labour losing significant voter share to UKIP and the Conservatives, and even that is outnumbered by those switching to Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and Others. The picture is particularly stark in Scotland where almost half of Labour voters are intending to vote for a different party, mostly the SNP. In London too, the Labour vote could be hit hard by a shift to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.”

This is confirmed by polling analysis after the council elections.

Does the rise of the Brexit Party change any of this? In fact, it reinforces it. It splits the Leave vote, which reduces the impact any switching from Labour by Leave supporters as a result of adopting a Remain position would have. 

Would Labour lose too much face if it moved to support Remain? I don’t think so. The story it should tell is that the 2016 referendum has been respected because all the government’s resources, and Labour’s energy, have been devoted to trying to find a form of Brexit that a majority could accept – but it has become clear that a feasible deal does not exist. In particular, there is no possible way of getting parliament or the country to support the kind of Brexit Labour prefers. As a result, Labour will now unconditionally support the Remain side.

The logic of the argument I have put forward would also be as, if not more, consistent with revoking Article 50. That would avoid the anger at not including no deal in any referendum question. No deal cannot be an option: to make it so learns nothing from the 2016 referendum. One of its lessons is, don’t put to the people options that MPs know would be a disaster for the country, and with a rabid Brexit press and broadcasters that balance facts with lies, we cannot trust the people not to vote for this disaster. The argument for revoking is that the country has already wasted too much time because Leavers cannot decide on the Brexit option they want, and we need to move on.

As the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Tom Kibasi, argues in the Guardian, a campaign based on making Brexit about priorities rather than about staying in or leaving the EU is likely to be a winning strategy. People are fed up with Brexit, and they do not want it to dominate politics for years ahead. If Remain-supporting Labour could convince voters that Brexit will be never ending and that we need to move on, they can win the debate.

Will Labour move towards a position where it supports Remain of its own accord? The logic I set out has been clear for some time, yet it looks unmoved by it. That is why many Remain supporting Labour voters will continue to vote for Remain supporting parties into the indefinite future. The hope is that Labour, if it will not move through analysis of the true situation, will do so because of the fear of losing Remain supporting votes.  

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