The promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was to make Labour a party of principle once more. After the tortured triangulation of the Ed Miliband era, Mr Corbyn offered “straight talking, honest politics”. No longer would the party’s policies be determined by focus groups and tactical calculations. On the defining issue of Brexit, however, the Labour leader has indulged in the opportunism and game-playing that he once denounced. Faced with a divided electorate, Mr Corbyn’s party has sought to please both sides at once. To Leavers, it has repeatedly promised to respect the 2016 EU referendum result. To Remainers, it has held out the possibility of a second public vote and vowed to thwart a “Tory Brexit”.
At the European elections, Labour was predictably and deservedly punished for such chicanery. Far from being constructive, the party’s ambiguity proved destructive. Labour was pushed into third place, behind the newly formed Brexit Party and the once-reviled Liberal Democrats. It won a mere 14.1 per cent of the vote, its lowest share in a nationwide contest since the December 1910 general election. In London, the citadel of Corbynism, Labour finished second, behind the Lib Dems. In Scotland, where it was once hegemonic, Labour finished fifth. Across the UK, it shed votes to the resurgent Greens and, in Wales, to Plaid Cymru. Ever since the 2017 general election, Labour had complacently assumed that Remainers had “nowhere else to go”. It transpired that they did.
Such humiliation was not inevitable. After Theresa May repeatedly failed to pass a Brexit deal, Labour was warned by its MPs and members that the party needed to take a decisive stand. Having tried and failed to trigger a general election, Labour could have embraced the cause of a second referendum and made a principled case for Remain. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that this stance is favoured by an overwhelming majority of Labour members – whose wishes Mr Corbyn vowed to respect – as well as a majority of Labour voters.
Had Labour made itself more strongly a party of Remain it could have competed with the Brexit Party for first place. A ComRes survey published on 21 May found that support for Labour would have risen to 38 per cent (eight points ahead of the Brexit Party) had it unambiguously backed a second referendum. But in seeking to win over Remainers and Leavers, Labour merely succeeded in alienating both.
Mr Corbyn’s party undoubtedly faces a strategic dilemma. It simultaneously represents some of the most pro-Leave seats and some of the most pro-Remain ones. But Labour’s hesitancy is born not only of electoral concerns. It also reflects Mr Corbyn’s personal antipathy to the European Union, an institution he has long regarded as little more than a capitalist club. Though he campaigned for Remain in 2016, he gave every impression of being intensely relaxed about a Leave vote.
There is much to dislike about the EU. It has been too opaque in its decision-making, too wasteful in its spending and too remote from its citizens. It imposed punitive austerity on Greece and other southern European countries, needlessly suppressing growth and employment. But Brexit, as has become clear, has never been deliverable in the terms that were promised. Nor is there any potential deal superior to the UK’s current membership. Labour should no longer hesitate to declare these truths.
The opposition can reasonably protest that Brexit is a political crisis created by the Conservatives, but it is now a national one too. The UK faces the threat not just of leaving the EU but – under a new Tory prime minister – of doing so without a deal. As Helen Lewis writes on page 20, perhaps Mrs May’s most poisonous legacy is her vacuous slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. A no-deal Brexit would be an economic disaster. No policy could be more harmful to the interests of the people Labour was founded to represent.
Across Europe, old certainties and traditional loyalties are crumbling as voters embrace insurgent liberal and authoritarian parties. Past electoral titans, such as France’s Socialist Party and Germany’s Social Democratic Party, are now threatened with political extinction. Unless Labour is capable of transforming itself for a new era it risks contracting the same disease.
This article appears in the 29 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy