It’s good to see the Tories tearing themselves apart, again, on Brexit, amid recriminations of secret meetings and broken promises but Labour cannot sit back, watch the fun and count the next election as already half won.
Labour has to protect working class communities from the likely effects of a hard-Brexit and it has to unite its pro-Leave and pro-Remain voters. It is well known that Labour has a ‘Stoke’ problem, reconciling the interests, aspirations and, most importantly, referendum voting behavior of Labour voters in the likes of strongly pro-Leave Stoke-on-Trent and strongly pro-Remain Stoke Newington.
The Corbyn leadership has to try to keep the Parliamentary Labour Party united. It was Corbyn’s supposedly poor performance in the 2016 referendum was the tissue paper-thin pretext for the long-planned but ineptly executed chicken coup.
Finally, Labour has to avoid being blamed by the voters, and posterity, for a ‘bad Brexit’ the consequences of which will be with us for decades.
This was the premise for Corbyn imposing a three line whip in the vote on Article 50. However, the size of the recent rebellion in the vote on the EEA, the ‘Norway option’, suggests Corbyn has a recurring problem with pro-Remainers in the Parliamentary Labour Party for whom the lines between a genuine disagreement and actively working against the leadership are blurred. Looking at the record of many of the arch-Remainers in the PLP it doesn’t need a Eurosceptic to suspect that they are more interested in attacking the leadership, or talking to friendly journalists about a new breakaway party than protecting their constituents from the ravages of Brexit.
But is the terrain changing? There’s an assumption, borne out by the loss in the 2017 general election of Mansfield and reduced votes in some other strongly pro-Leave constituencies that shilly-shallying on Brexit is electorally bad news for Labour, but this was in the overall context of the otherwise strong election result. The suggestion therefore is that Labour is protecting the Leave flank of its vote reasonably well. But what of the Remain wing? Last year’s wins in Canterbury and Battersea, for example, suggest that Corbyn’s tightrope walk on Article 50 and the Brexit negotiations has not harmed Labour votes in Remain areas as much as the likes of Chuka Umunna, who delight on seizing on every scrap of ‘evidence’ for this, such as the recent Lewisham East by-election result, like to suggest.
Pro-Remain Labour supporters are gaining in confidence that they can put their case without damaging Labour’s overall electoral strategy and without appearing to be using the issue as a pretext to attack the leadership.
The Left Against Brexit tour this summer will be putting the case for a ‘pro-EU’ position for Labour, not demanding a rerun of the Referendum but arguing that a vote for Labour should be a vote for Remain. It argues that the new economic settlement promised by a Corbyn government would be threatened by the loss of investment and jobs resulting from Brexit, a view at odds with the traditional ‘Lexit’ position that such a programme would be made easier by freedom from EU competition directives. It is hard to call TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes, who is prominent in the campaign, and who calls Brexit a ‘Tory act of war against our class’, a disgruntled and disloyal Blairite.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), Corbyn-supporting, though not formally linked to Labour, has declared itself in favour of remaining in the EU and for the free movement of workers. Thus one of the forces that propelled Corbyn to his position as Labour leader and mobilized young voters in the general election, and which could repeat and improve on the achievement next time is setting its face against the stance of the Labour leadership but in a way which would help to change the electoral assumptions Labour has about the impact of Brexit.