As the election campaign gathers pace, Labour’s main opponents are denouncing its record over Brexit. But the stories they tell about that record baldly contradict each other.
The Tories insist that Labour has thwarted Brexit at every turn, forcing Theresa May and Boris Johnson to miss two deadlines for Britain’s departure from the EU. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, accuse Labour of facilitating Brexit and propping up the Tories. Their claim to be the only true “Remain party” forms the centrepiece of their platform.
While both stories are deceptive and self-serving, it’s the Lib Dems who are really trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. In reality, it’s Labour’s strategy since the referendum of June 2016 that has prevented the Tories from pushing through their own, deeply reactionary version of Brexit. And that strategy now offers the best way to resolve Britain’s political crisis.
Those who accuse Labour of “enabling Brexit” often refer to the Westminster vote at the start of 2017 that triggered Article 50 — the first step towards Britain’s exit from the EU.
One of those who voted in favour of triggering Article 50 was Chuka Umunna, subsequently a leading spokesman for the anti-Brexit People’s Vote campaign, and now a Lib Dem candidate in the coming election. In an article co-authored with fellow Labour MP Wes Streeting, Umunna explained why he thought it was the right thing to do:
With a heavy heart, we both voted to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of leaving the EU. We both voted in favour of the rules under which the referendum was fought. Neither of us received any correspondence from constituents arguing that we should not. We believe as democrats that we must abide by the national result which is a clear choice to leave the EU.
In the immediate wake of the 2016 referendum, there was a broad consensus that the result would have to be respected. During the 2017 election campaign, one poll found that the majority of Remain voters agreed. If Labour had run that year on a platform of ignoring the referendum result, there would have been a Tory landslide, and Brexit would have already happened by now.
But that acceptance was never unconditional. Umunna and Streeting promised to “rigorously scrutinise the Government’s Brexit negotiations and hold the Tories to account . . . neither Leavers nor Remainers want Britain turned into a bolt hole for the super-rich, a tax haven for monopoly capitalism, a sweatshop for Europe.” Labour’s 2017 manifesto made the same point in greater detail:
A Conservative Brexit will weaken workers’ rights, deregulate the economy, slash corporate taxes, sideline Parliament and democratic accountability, and cut Britain off from our closest allies and most important trading partners . . . we all know that for many Brexiteers in the Tory Party, this was why they wanted to Leave — to tear up regulations and weaken hard-fought rights and protections. A Labour government will never consider these rights a burden or accept the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or environmental protections.
That nuanced position helped Labour strip Theresa May of her parliamentary majority in June 2017, even though she led the Conservatives to their highest vote share since the 1980s. The majority of Labour’s 2017 electorate had voted Remain the previous year, but they kept a crucial minority of Leave voters on board, which was enough to thwart May’s electoral ambitions.
That setback for the Tories was the most important development in British politics since the referendum. It led directly to the crisis of the last year, when May was unable to push her deal through parliament.
The record of the past twelve months makes a mockery of claims that Labour has “enabled Brexit”. The party leadership whipped its MPs to vote against Theresa May’s deal every time she brought it before parliament. They did the same when Boris Johnson returned from the negotiating table with an even worse deal last month.
That stance was fully consistent with their manifesto pledge in June 2017. People often say that election manifestos aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. In this case, Labour did exactly what it promised the voters it was going to do.
It was the small band of Labour “rebels” like Caroline Flint who went back on their pledge by supporting a Tory hard-Brexit deal that was sure to be followed by the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protections.
The Labour leadership strained every sinew to keep that rebellion among its MPs down to a minimum. The Lib Dems claimed that wasn’t enough: if Labour didn’t permanently expel the rebels — many of whom were stepping down at the next election anyway — that meant the party was “pro-Brexit”.
Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents had denounced every previous attempt to impose some collective discipline on Labour MPs as the worst kind of Stalinism, so the abrupt change of direction was enough to make your head spin. Barely a fortnight later, the Lib Dems recruited Tory defector Antoinette Sandbach who had also voted in favour of Johnson’s Brexit bill. So much for ideological purity.
The Best and the Good
Labour has pledged to hold a second referendum with Remain on the ballot paper, but that hasn’t stopped the Lib Dems and other “hard Remainers” from depicting the party as a “pro-Brexit” force. They attack Labour for putting forward its own blueprint for a Norway-style, soft-Brexit deal as the second option in a new referendum.
This attitude is grossly irresponsible. When anti-Brexit campaigners — including Chuka Umunna — called for a “People’s Vote”, what did they think the choice was going to be? Remain and Remain? If there’s going to be a second referendum, there has to be a Leave option. It’s much better to have one that won’t have a devastating impact on jobs and living standards, or result in the erosion of social rights.
The idea that all versions of Brexit are just as bad as each other is patently untrue. You’re entitled to believe that “Norway Plus” would be less desirable than the status quo of EU membership. But it would still be vastly superior to the deals brought back by May or Johnson.
Liberals often like to say that you shouldn’t make the best into the enemy of the good. In this case, there’s no such dilemma: Labour is offering Remainers a choice between what they consider the best scenario (staying in the EU) and a second option they could easily live with (soft Brexit).
A Labour victory in next month’s election will mean the best stays on the table alongside the good, while the bad (May’s deal) and the worse (Johnson’s deal, or whatever might satisfy Nigel Farage) are swept into the bin. The Lib Dems, in contrast, have nothing to offer but snake oil and cynicism. The wise choice should be obvious.