Sooner than we think?
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg suggests that we might have a general election before Labour has considered its Brexit policy at the September Conference. So the moves to change policy should be speeded up and focussed. A parallel article looks at whether the possible reluctance of the EU to allow an extension provides another reason for accelerating the policy change process.
The main reason for Conservative Party members voting for Boris Johnson to become party leader is that people think he will win the next general election by seeing off Farage.
The charisma only works if the election is soon
Post-Brexit, why would Farage stand for election? Surely, he would stand on the sidelines, take the credit for the “achievement” and explain how it would have been better if he had been in charge.
Nor would Boris Johnson’s appeal work if the election takes place after 31 October. Farage would then say “Not even Boris can be trusted not to seek an extension”.
Three possibilities for an election soon
So one possibility is that Boris Johnson seeks an election just before the 31 October Article 50 deadline. It would need to be called in early September. He would have to present a definite plan for Brexit and his pitch would be that he needed the electorate to validate it and force it through Parliament.
Or Jeremy Corbyn might greet Boris Johnson with a no-confidence motion on his election in July. It is unlikely that Boris Johnson would by then be so definitely for a No-Deal Brexit that Conservative MPs would be willing to bring down their government in favour of their enemy - and Brexiter - Corbyn. It is also hard to believe that on present plans Jeremy Corbyn would by then have changed his and Labour’s Brexit policy so as to be sure of the support of the Liberal Democrats and other Remain parties.
Perhaps Boris Johnson might in July engineer an election to be held in September. He could capitalise on a honeymoon. He would not have to be precise about his Brexit plans.
The Liberal Democrats and Greens might win it
They could build on their successes in the local government and general election elections. Half of the voters who switched to them said they would stay with their new party. Even now, they are polling well.
- First Past the Post (FPTP) makes that harder: voters have to believe that other voters will also back what have been minor parties.
- Electoral pacts are problematic.
- Even now a quarter of Remainers have not forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into the Coalition.
Labour’s current approach to an early election is risky
In 2017 the party benefited enormously from Labour voters’ failure to understand – or perhaps to internalise – that Labour’s official position was pro-Brexit.
In December 2017, over half of Labour-voting students thought that both Jeremy Corbyn and Labour stood for Remain. A separate poll at the same time found that 40% of Labour voters in general thought that Labour stood for Remain.
So one strategy would be for Labour to continue to rely on a mix of the advantages of FPTP, tribal loyalty and ambiguity – deception – to keep both Remainers and Leavers onside. Or it could pitch itself as the “responsible” pro-Deal party if Boris Johnson campaigns explicitly for No-Deal.
That risks however losing voters to the pro-Remain and single-mindedly pro-Brexit parties. Euro-elections have in the past been a poor guide to general elections. But surely GE2019 really would be a Brexit election in the way that GE2017 was not. So it would be a high-risk strategy for Labour to assume Remainers will vote for it no matter how pro-Brexit or ambiguous its stance.
Is Labour’s policy changing?
The formal position after the 2018 Party Conference resolution is to oppose a Conservative Brexit that fails Labour’s six tests and No-Deal; to seek a general election; and if that is not available then “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
The most recent developments include Jeremy Corbyn’s e-mail to MPs at the end of May 2019 where he said: “In Parliament our responsibility is to ensure that a Tory civil war does not push us into a No Deal Brexit. But it is also clear that the deadlock in Parliament can now only be broken by the issue going back to the people through a general election or a public vote. We are ready to support a public vote on any deal.”. That still leaves unclear whether the “public vote on any deal” is a general election or a referendum. It is not clear whether a referendum would include Remain as an option. And there is no clue as to the choreography of a Labour government, its Brexit negotiation and any referendum. If Labour won a general election on a pro-Brexit manifesto would Jeremy Corbyn hold that the resultant deal had been endorsed by a public vote?
At the 18 June 2019 shadow cabinet meeting Corbyn restated this commitment to a public vote on any deal. It is still not clear whether that is a referendum, or how it would relate to a Labour Government’s approach to Brexit.
What should Labour party members do
All the current effort is going into motions for the 21-25 September party conference. That will be too late for any of these elections and for a No-Confidence motion in late July. Instead the party needs to be persuaded to have an online ballot of its members now.
The focus of the ballot should be an unequivocal call for a referendum before any Brexit deal or no-deal; and that Remain should be an option.
Current motions call on the party to commit itself to supporting Remain. I suggest that would be a mistake. It makes it harder to pass the motion against the wishes of Labour Leavers. We should not actually wish Jeremy Corbyn to repeat his lacklustre Remain campaign - his mealy-mouthed argument that the EU is a necessary evil cost more votes than it won. True, when he puts his heart into it he is a good campaigner so the Leave side would have an effective advocate. But we would be able to insist he explain why he wishes to leave – a question he has so far ducked. So I would suggest that the motions should call on the party machine to be neutral and allow individuals (including the Leader as an individual MP) to campaign for whichever side they choose – as in 1975.
Individual members need to ask themselves for which party they would vote if Labour remained ambiguous or pro-Brexit. For some it will take some internal wrangling to work that through. They had better begin now.
Finally, some voters need to ask themselves: if Labour is pro-Brexit then what about those Labour MPs who are impeccably pro-EU and pro-PV? I suggest that people need to consider whether these MPs would be willing to rebel against a Labour government. That is harder to do than to rebel against a Labour whip while in opposition. So voters might like to ask such MPs to commit themselves now and in public that they would vote for a referendum even if that meant rebelling against a Labour government; and that they would repudiate a pro-Brexit/ anti-PV manifesto and stand on a personal manifesto that selected the bits of the Party manifesto they supported.
Current plans by Labour party activists to change Labour’s policy may be too slow and too contentious to be useful. They should be speeded up and simplified. There are organisations you can join that aim to change party policy.
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.