It’s not true to say that Labour's Brexit position is ambiguous

Just because some Labour MPs are crossing their hands behind their backs, it doesn't change what is written in black and white. 

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Jeremy Corbyn has kicked off Labour’s European elections campaign with an attempt to focus voters’ minds on the condition of the public realm and his anti-austerity message.

As has become typical, there has been a great deal of commentary to the effect that Labour’s Brexit policy is “ambiguous”. I am increasingly unsure why this is, as Labour’s Brexit policy is written in black and white, and the leader’s office’s decisions and priorities are at this point well known.

Labour’s position is to secure a general election and a softer Brexit deal than the Conservatives with this parliament – or, in the event that it cannot get either of those, to support a public vote to resolve the deadlock. It is, by any definition, a pro-Brexit policy because its first preference is for Brexit to happen.

To the extent that it is ambiguous, it is ambiguous because we know that, within every faction, group and level of the labour movement, people are crossing their fingers behind their backs about one part of the policy or another. For those who want Brexit to happen, whether for reasons of ideology or electoral expediency, they are crossing their fingers about that public vote. For those who want to stop Brexit, they are crossing their fingers about that search for a softer Brexit or a general election.

But that some of the people pledging to do something are crossing their fingers doesn’t make a policy “ambiguous”. Nick Clegg wasn’t convinced by his tuition fees policy but it didn’t mean his pledge to abolish them was “ambiguous”. George Osborne’s fiscal targets were designed to be negotiated upwards in coalition talks, but that did not make them “ambiguous”. They were, like Labour’s Brexit policy, pledges written in black and white.

What is true to say is that we don’t know what Labour’s Brexit policy means in practice because there are too many moving parts. We know what it means if Labour wins a large parliamentary majority at the next election – it means that Brexit will happen. But we don’t know what it means both in this parliament, and in almost any other electoral event, because so much else is unknown.

Does it mean that talks between the government and opposition will eventually yield an accord that can secure a majority in this parliament? Hard to say. As I explain in my column this week, one reason why anti-Brexit Labour MPs are so relaxed about the cross-party talks is they think that they are unlikely to bear fruit, and if it does they can always kill it on the floor of the house. Labour’s pro-Brexit MPs are similarly sunny about it because they think that, when push comes to shove, a Labour whip for a Brexit deal will see Brexit through.

What about in the event of another hung parliament, whether it is one that results in a Conservative minority government or a Labour one? In the event of another Conservative minority, so much is uncertain – who will lead the Labour Party, what the consensus within Labour about why the party lost will be – and its current policy will in any case be a dead letter. In the event of a Labour minority government, I think Simon Wren-Lewis’ analysis as to why Brexit will not happen under a Labour minority is essentially unimpeachable: a large minority of Labour MPs will not vote for any Brexit, and the Conservative Party is not going to vote to facilitate a Labour Brexit having failed to deliver one itself, not least because the Labour Brexit will be softer than its own.

So, yes, the repercussions of Labour’s Brexit policy are unclear – or ambiguous, to use the word of the day. But in real terms, it is ambiguous only in that some Remain voters who want to vote for Labour for other reasons tell themselves it is the case; and some pro-European Labour MPs whose first preference is to stay in the Labour Party want compelling reasons to do so.

And it is not accurate or fair to describe Labour’s Brexit position as ambiguous or anything like it.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.