Labour's Brexit policy isn't working. But now isn't the time to change it

Having already suffered in the local elections, Labour might as well wait until the Tory leadership race is over. 

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Labour’s Brexit position isn’t working. Or, at least, it didn’t this May: it did not work in the local elections at the beginning of the month, and it did not work in the European elections at the end.

As a result, there is a fierce row within the party about what direction they should take on Brexit. One reason why the row has become more heated is that the strong performance of the Liberal Democrats and Greens means that, hitherto, the row has been between, on the one hand, Labour MPs with an ideological objection to Brexit and, on the other, Labour MPs who fear the repercussions of a second referendum in their seats. (There is a much smaller group of principled Leavers and a still smaller caucus of Labour MPs in pro-Remain seats who think the referendum result must be upheld, but we need not worry about them for these purposes, as they aren’t large enough to influence the party’s internal debate.)

Now, there is a real prospect of a serious Liberal Democrat revival and/or a Green breakthrough, changing the argument to one in which both sides have reasonable fears about what will happen to them in their seats if Labour doesn’t find a way of winning back at least some of the voters it lost in the local and European elections. This makes the whole debate more emotionally charged.  

One problem is that the tactical debate is pretty arid: the difficult truth is that, just because Labour’s current position isn’t bearing electoral fruit, doesn’t mean that there is a more politically viable option available. People often talk of the Opposition’s problem as being a question of balancing Kensington and Ashfield, but the reality is that, in Remain-voting Kensington, the number of people who voted Leave in 2016 and Labour in 2017 is bigger than Emma Dent Coad’s majority; while in Leave-voting Ashfield, the number of people who voted Remain in 2016 and Labour in 2017 is bigger than Gloria De Piero’s majority. If Labour does clarify its position to win over Remainers or Leavers, it may simply end up with a different version of the same problem.

But the usual recourse – which is that, in the absence of a clear way forward, do the right thing – is not all that helpful either as, of course, if you ask the parliamentary Labour party, let alone the wider labour movement what the right thing to do is, you get five or six different answers.

From a tactical perspective, however, Labour may well be having its referendum argument at the wrong time. It’s too late to save the seats of however many councillors or the ten MEPs who were unseated this month. But it’s happening at a point where the party doesn’t know what the Conservative challenge will be at the next election.

If, as looks likely, the Tory party picks Boris Johnson, who is known and strongly disliked by most Remain voters, the Labour leadership may not need to change its Brexit position to win over Remainers: that, thanks to our iniquitous electoral system, it is the only way of ending a Johnson premiership may well be enough. It can then focus on reassuring Leave voters, with whom it already struggles. If the Conservative party surprises us and picks someone who doesn’t exacerbate its own Remainer problem, then Labour will have to revisit this debate. But, having paid the price in May, there seems little argument for moving before the Tory process has resolved itself in July.

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.

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