Why Labour can't get its act together on Brexit

Political distractions and policy incoherence have left the party marginalised during the seminal event of post-war politics. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Labour leaves the the world waiting an hour before responding to the announcement that government cannot trigger Article 50 without recourse to parliament. “Jeremey Corbyn”, it mistypes, “says there must be transparency and accountability to parliament on the terms of Brexit”.

This email cock up isn’t Clinton-esque in scale, but it too reveals a catastrophic lack of foresight. We have known about the High Court’s scheduled announcement for weeks. The press secretary’s finger should have been hovering over the send button with pre-prepared statements for either outcome. Yet Labour did not offer anything until it was practically old news.

Today a second Tory MP - Stephen Phillips - resigns in as many weeks. Labour takes as many hours to respond. Not the party leader or John McDonnell, but Jon Trickett, shadow Lord President of the Council, eventually steps forward and says the resignation represents a “leadership crisis”. Presented with an open goal, Jeremy Corbyn ambles to the pavilion, changes out of his crumpled cream suit and into his kit, and strolls back out to the pitch before realising the game is over and no one’s there.

Part of the reason Labour is invisible right now is that the hard-left has been at war this week: not with government but with itself. Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group in the Labour party, is beset by a major dispute over internal democracy and decision making, with claims John Lansman, its founder, holds too much power, as well as a conflict over the long-term purpose of the group.

As Stephen Bush reported yesterday, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell spent the early parts of this week meeting with senior Monumentum and trade union union officials in an attempt to broker a ceasefire. “The civil war almost got bloody,” a senior Momentum figure tells me, “but for the time being we have a resolution.” In other words, the Labour leadership has busied itself this week with the infighting and debating the direction of a grassroots radical left group. The Conservatives, the High Court, the media and the general public have got on with the business of debating the direction of the country.

The underlying reason Labour has been mute, though, is that it doesn’t have much to say, and that which is said is riddled by contradictions. On the one hand, Corbyn claims to have accepted the will of the people, but on the other says he won’t be forced into “cynical” measures on reducing migration and wants so-called maximum access to the single market: an affront to the provincial working class vote whose vote brought about the result.

Corbyn recently put together a shadow Brexit team to develop greater clarity and hold the government to account. But he has reportedly not met with them once: a brave decision when he accused the Conservatives of not having a plan. He may rue this week’s announcement when Brexit is actually debated.

David Bloom, the chief FX strategist of HSBC, has so far encapsulated Britain’s entire political situation with more incision than anyone else. “The pound,” he recently commented, “has become the de facto official opposition to the government’s policies.” I’ll bet a lot more that Labour won’t be usurping its place any time soon.  

Gabriel Pogrund is a Sunday Times journalist. 

Free trial CSS