Labour Party

Is the Brexit squeeze worth the juice for Labour?

Nick Davies.

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.

The difficulty, however is that  with the present electoral system the result could be a piling up of Labour votes in metropolitan or student areas and a collapse in the post-industrial Leave voting areas, the result being the lack of a parliamentary majority.  The difficulty with Left Against Brexit  is that unless it changes the way it fights its cause and involves its base, trade union members, it  could be a repeat of the 2016 referendum in which major trade unions all supported Remain, but many of their members voted Leave.