Can Labour keep up its Brexit balancing act?

The party’s ambiguity faces one big hurdle. 


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Labour are a party of Remainers outside of Westminster led by Brexiteers inside it. The reasons for that are complex: among the Labour leadership there are those who distrust the European Court of Justice and want to escape its regulatory orbit, as well as longstanding Eurosceptics. On the backbenches there are leavers from the Labour left, MPs who feel that the referendum mandate can only be met by ending the free movement of people, and MPs who fear losing the third of Labour voters who backed an Out vote in 2016. All of those beliefs pull the party towards a fairly drastic exit from the European Union.

But the majority of people who voted Labour in 2017 backed Remain in 2016 and for a significant chunk of them, they did so believing the party broadly shared their view.

That’s one of the few sources of Conservative optimism: sooner or later, or so the thesis runs, there will have to be reckoning between Labour’s position and that of its voters.

I am dubious about this for a variety of reasons, not least first-past-the-post, which makes it hard for Remainers to punish Labour without rewarding the Conservatives.

But this was a week in which we began to see how that thesis might come true: firstly after Jeremy Corbyn told this week’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that single market membership was incompatible with Brexit, and secondly after a Brighton Labour councillor caused a small storm on Twitter when he branded whining Remainers “neoliberal snowflakes”.

Corbyn’s remarks were overshadowed first by Theresa May’s bad reshuffle and then by Tim Farron’s latest thoughts on gay sex, and no-one really cares what happens on Twitter at the best of times. Day-to-day, Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit is sustained by clever tactical work on the Labour side and May’s unwillingness to work with other parties. (It’s striking that the best thing for the country and the Conservative Party would have been a big, generous offer to work on Brexit with the other parties – that would force Labour to commit to a position, quite probably one not a million miles away from the Conservative one. Fortunately for Labour, she’s not that kind of politician.)

That means that the only big bear trap for Labour is the vote on the deal itself, when Labour will have to commit to one or the other. But I don’t think they will get caught on that one, as the easy way out is just to vote it down because it does not secure “the best possible access” to the single market, a form of words around which all of Labour can unite even as they disagree on the meaning.  

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.