Labour’s refusal to oppose Brexit is becoming a historic error

There is no principled or electoral case for the party to back Leave - Jeremy Corbyn should support a second referendum. 

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There are some in the FBPE (Follow Back, Pro-EU) community who claim that Brexit could have been stopped if the Labour leadership had abandoned Brexit. This is either arguable if applied to 2016 or just simply wrong since 2016. But in the turmoil that is likely to follow the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in January, the Labour leadership will play a crucial role. This post is about what happens if Labour enable Brexit in any way. I am not suggesting they will (and hope they do not), but right now this is a significant enough possibility to be worth writing about.

The attitude of Corbyn loyalists is that Remainers have nowhere else to go besides Labour. If Labour enable Brexit, this will have no noticeable impact on how Remainers vote in any general election. They dismiss a poll that suggests Labour could lose a large number of votes by attacking the poll: it was funded by the People’s Vote campaign, and “who believes polls?” A more thoughtful criticism is that you are bound to get a large number in any question who highlight Brexit, but general elections will be fought over many issues. In short, Remainers on the left will always vote Labour.

I would agree that one poll tells you little about any future general election, but what it does reveal is the intensity of feeling over the Brexit issue. I think many among the Labour leadership and Corbyn loyalists fail to understand this. They prefer instead to misplace Remainers as the centrist enemy, and see attacks on Corbyn over Brexit as just one more means by which the centre and right of Labour attack Labour. This is a serious mistake.

That Brexit is more than just another issue or a passing fad seems clear. After the 2016 vote, around half the Remain vote was prepared to accept the result, but the other half was not. Through two years when the two major parties and the BBC regarded the decision as made and irreversible, Remainers built various organisations with the aim of reversing the vote. They held protest marches around the UK that gradually grew in size, culminating in the biggest march in London since the Iraq war protest. Polls now suggest the Remain vote is more committed than the Leave vote, with a majority over either May’s deal or no-deal bigger than Leave’s margin in 2016.

Where does this passion and energy come from? It is obviously a big issue, but would the kind of Brexit favoured by Corbyn and some Labour and Tory MPs (close to Brexit In Name Only - BINO) really be such a big deal compared to staying in the EU? On an emotional level I think there are three reasons why it would be. First and foremost is the question of identity. Many people in the UK regard themselves as also European, and any form of Brexit is clearly a way of cutting the UK off from the rest of Europe. Second, I think there is a strong feeling that leaving the EU represents the triumph of ideological over rational argument. Once you let a campaign of the right won by illegal means triumph, you open the doors to more of the same. A third factor is empathy for the position of European migrants in the UK, who are often friends, neighbours or colleagues.

If a sceptical Labour leadership want to know what would happen if they enabled Brexit, the best comparison I can suggest is how they felt after parliament voted to put UK troops alongside US troops in the Iraq invasion. The objection that there is no comparison because thousands of people died because of Iraq is beside the point. I’m not saying they are events of comparable importance, and they are completely different in nature. These things do not work on a kind of utilitarian rational level, but a more emotional sense of betrayal. In the case of Brexit a betrayal of identity, of evidence-based policy making, and the wellbeing of our friends, neighbours or colleagues.

If you put these points to Corbyn loyalists you get a variety of responses that go from the misguided to downright depressing. The best, but misguided, is that a compromise is required to “heal the nation”. It is misguided for reasons I set out at length here. Anything close to BINO does not “take back control”, it does not give more resources to the NHS, and it will not end freedom of movement. In short, a soft Brexit fails to give Brexit voters what they voted for, and that will be quickly pointed out to them if they do not realise it themselves.

Another response is that Labour cannot afford to lose the votes of Labour Leavers in critical seats. Quite why Labour are more likely to lose Leave voters in these seats than Remain voters is never specified. The worst argument I have heard is that Corbyn is just following Labour policy agreed at conference: if you cannot see why that is the worst argument you are probably a Corbyn loyalist. [1] Actually, that is not quite true, because the worst arguments are Lexit arguments, but I and many others have addressed them elsewhere. [2]

I have to be doubly careful in posts like these because I am what one Corbyn loyalist described as an “arch-Remainer”. The emotions I ascribe to many of those who campaign for Remain are also my own. Like many of the other economists who made up Labour’s Economic Advisory Council I resigned because I saw the current leadership as too content with the referendum result. As a result I am not an impartial observer, so I need to be especially careful that what I write about Remainers as a whole is factually based. No doubt what I say in this post will be dismissed for exactly that reason [3]. But what cannot be dismissed is that there have been two major grassroots movements in the last 20 years in the UK that managed to put more than half a million people on the streets of London, and there is a distinct danger that Labour will be on the wrong side of both of them.

What the precise consequences of Labour enabling Brexit would be are impossible to say. Less enthusiasm and fewer votes, for sure, but who knows whether they would be critical when it came to the establishment of a new party or a general election. The more relevant question is why take this significant risk. I have to return to my comparison with austerity. Pre-Corbyn Labour collapsed in part because they toyed with accepting full-on austerity at just the point that austerity was becoming unpopular. Right now, Corbyn Labour are toying with enabling Brexit because they worry about Leave votes that are now moving to Remain. When Brexit will not free the UK from state aid rules, will not heal the nation, and will only lose you votes, it is time for the Labour leadership to put ideology aside and help take the issue back to the people.  

[1] The overwhelming majority of Labour members are Remainers and want a People’s Vote. What is agreed at conference is heavily influenced by the leadership.

[2] What I would add is that Lexit contains a similar contradiction to Brexit. Just as Brexiteers cannot get a trade agreement with the EU without accepting the backstop, so any trade deal with the EU (including being part of a customs union) will require following EU rules on state aid. So the only form of Lexit possible is no-deal, which is a hell of a price to pay to avoid state aid rules.

[3] As someone put it to me in a tweet, this is exactly what someone who supported Owen Smith would say. Which is something of a tautology as the only significant policy difference between Smith and Corbyn was Brexit.

This piece originally appeared on Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog Mainly Macro.

 Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He blogs at mainlymacro.