Why Labour must stop pretending it can achieve a softer Brexit — and back Remain

The electoral maths now clearly shows that opposing Brexit offers the party the best chance of winning the next election. 

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The European parliament election showed us the implications of a basic imbalance in politics today. Brexit is the dominant issue, yet both of the major parties support one side: the Brexit side. The Labour leadership tells itself that it is trying to bring the two sides together. It tells itself that by aiming for a softer Brexit than Theresa May wanted it is trying to compromise. But as someone once said, Brexit means Brexit, and those voting in the European elections agreed.

To see why Labour’s position will not bring people together, just look at what happened to the Conservative vote. May was trying to achieve a hard Brexit under which the UK would be neither a member of the single market, nor the customs union. She failed mainly because the Brexit extremists in her own party did not support her. European election voters punished the Conservatives and sided with the Tory extremists. They didn’t want compromise.

Suppose Labour, after winning a future general election, enacted their softer Brexit. Would voters come together recognising that Labour had attempted to unite both sides? Those voting for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party certainly would not. That slightly more 2017 Labour voters backed the explicit Remain parties than Labour in the European elections suggests no appetite for compromise on that side either. Labour would instead suffer the fate of May and be hated by Remainers and Brexiteers alike.

It is for that reason that this discussion is purely academic. Not because Labour would not win an election advocating a softer Brexit: there is a non-zero probability they would. Instead it is because Labour would end up like May in failing to achieve their desired Brexit. As I argue here, the Conservatives would say Labour’s Brexit was a betrayal. Labour would only stand a chance of getting a deal through parliament if they agreed to have a second referendum with Remain on the ballot, and they would lose that referendum badly because Remainers and Brexiteers would vote against them.

This dislike of compromise is not irrational. Brexiteers have ended up backing no-deal because anything else fails to ensure complete independence from the EU. They are quite right to say that a softer Brexit would be worse for sovereignty than remaining because it amounts to: pay, obey but no say. Equally, for most Remainers, a soft Brexit is qualitatively worse than staying in the EU. Look at the way the EU has supported Ireland in these negotiations, they would say. The moment you leave the club, you lose the backing of one of the most powerful political and economic organisations in the world. They are quite right to point to the many flaws in believing that the 2016 referendum is a mandate for any particular type of Brexit.

Why, then, are Labour antagonising their 2017 voters and their members by holding a Brexit position that will be very unpopular and impossible to achieve? The answer normally given is that this is the only way to win a general election. Anything else risks losing “heartland seats” because Labour voters will vote for a pro-Brexit party. While this idea might have had some validity in 2017, it has since become an article of faith rather than an evidence-based argument.

The basic problem with this argument is that there are many Remain voters in the constituencies that voted Leave in 2016. Polls throughout 2019 suggest a three to one ratio: by supporting Brexit, Labour are losing three times as many Remain voters as any Leave voters they would lose by supporting Remain. The European elections supported part of that finding up with actual votes, and also suggested Labour are already in danger of losing Leave voters with their current stance. If anything like that ratio persists, they will lose their traditional heartland seats because Remain voters will not vote Labour.

The table below is from Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll for the European election. It compares the share of voters who voted for Labour or explicit Remain parties, and also the Leave/Remain balance, by region. The most Leave-orientated regions are to the left. Overall this sample is almost certainly biased to Leave voters, because only a tiny number of young people (aged 18-24) voted, and polls regularly show a small lead for Remain over Leave. 

The first point to make is that the outliers here are London and Scotland. Elsewhere, the Remain vote varies from 59 per cent to 50 per cent, and the Remain vote from 38 per cent to 46 per cent. The idea that Leave voters are predominantly based in the “north”  is nonsense. (If anything, the English divide is east versus west outside London, but it is still a small tendency rather than a real divide.) A key consequence of this observation is that areas like the East Midlands and the North East still contain many Remain voters.

These voters made their choice on the basis of the current policy stance of their parties.

About a third of total Labour voters in the European election want some kind of Brexit (Ashcroft does not give a regional breakdown), and two-thirds want to Remain. The final column applies that percentage to the Labour vote in each region to obtain the percentage of Labour leavers. These are the maximum number of voters that Labour could lose if it became a Remain party. Compare that to the total number of Remain voters, nearly all of whom could vote Labour if it became a Remain party.

The article of faith that those who justify Labour’s current stance cling to is that Remain voters will return to Labour in any general election, while if Labour became a Remain party, any Leave voters would be lost. Examples in the past of protest votes that have all but disappeared are given to justify that faith. But it is never explained why Remain voters will come back to Labour even though it supports Brexit, but Leave voters will not come back in a general election if Labour supports Remain. In addition, Brexit is distinct to anything in the past. It has divided the country like no issue before it. As I showed above, you need almost all Labour Remainers to return to the fold to get a number smaller than the number of likely Leave losses.

The idea that Remain voters, and not the Leave vote, will return en masse to Labour in a general election relies in part on a universal use of tactical voting that is simply unrealistic. A good example will be this Thursday’s Peterborough by-election, which is a classic example of a Leave marginal that we are told Labour has to maintain its current Brexit policy to win. If the European elections are anything to go by, the Brexit Party will win. In 2017, when Labour won by a majority of just 607 votes, the Lib Dem and Green vote was small. Let’s see if Labour voters from 2017 will unite to keep the Brexit Party out.

Some say it worked at the 2017 general election, so why will it not work in the future? Many things have changed since 2017 (when Labour still lost). The stance of the EU is now clear, and therefore so is the range of deals the UK could possibly achieve. The Remain movement is much stronger. But the Labour Party has also changed. The 2017 election was the era of Keir Starmer’s “six tests”, which included the need to achieve the “exact same benefits” as EU membership. Today, those tests are gone, and instead we have had prolonged negotiations between the government and Labour over a possible Brexit deal. Too many Remainers who voted for Labour in 2017 feel they can no longer trust Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit.

The weakness of the argument to keep current policy and ignore the European elections and the polling evidence has lead some to resort to nostalgia. The argument goes that the working class support for Leave is above the national average, and Labour should be a party of the working class. Labour is becoming less and less a working class party. Supporting Remain would be to “abandon much of the working class — and with it any prospect of a Labour government”, according to Lisa Nandy.

There are three main holes in this argument. First, there are plenty of working class voters that support Remain. Adopting a Brexit policy, even if it is milder than May’s hard Brexit, risks alienating those voters. Second, Labour stopped being the party of the working class some time ago. Its heartlands today are in large cities and university towns, and supporting Brexit betrays these new strongholds. It betrays the young who overwhelmingly support Remain and overwhelmingly support Labour.

Third, the way you get the working class vote back is by promising or enacting economic measures that help the working class, not by offering a weaker form (in their view) of Brexit to socially conservative voters. If Brexit, then why not immigration? If you think about it, Labour have been trying to appease exactly the same group of voters who voted Brexit for at least a decade, and they have failed miserably for one simple reason. Anyone who wants Brexit enough not to vote Labour is not going to be convinced by a party that is Remain at heart and which is offering them a half-baked version of what they want. It was true for immigration under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband and it remains true for Brexit.

I said there was still a chance that Labour with its current Brexit policy could win the next general election. However, the probability that it could win an election with a new policy that fully supports Remain is much higher, and certainly over 50 per cent. The Leave vote could be divided, but the Remain vote — if Labour supports Remain — much less so. The key to any change in policy is to recognise that, thanks to the Brexiteers, a “middle way” (Labour’s current policy) is no longer possible. It will always be opposed by a blocking coalition of no-deal Brexiteers and Remainers. The choice is now no-deal, a hard Brexit under the Tories or Remain. Of those three, Labour have to support Remain.

What about a small shift in Labour policy, supporting an unconditional People’s Vote in which Remain is always a choice on the ballot? The trouble with that policy is it traps Labour with endless questions of under what circumstances the party would support Remain. Instead of the campaigning force Labour should be on Brexit, it becomes, in most voters’ eyes, the party of convoluted explanations. The next Brexit battle is to stop no-deal, and Labour can only do that effectively if it stops pretending it can achieve a softer Brexit.

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