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Labour's latest policy
12 Jul, 2019

Still pro-Brexit – even when it says “Remain”

London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg looks at Labour’s latest policy statements. Labour is still hedging its commitment to a referendum. Jeremy Corbyn’s conditional commitment to campaign for “Remain” would be immensely damaging to our cause because he would campaign on the basis that Brexit is the right answer, just not the Conservatives’ Brexit. 

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Party Members

Following the Labour Shadow Cabinet meeting on 9 July, Jeremy Corbyn issued a letter to party members backed up by a Q&A briefing for MPs. The letter sets out the party’s position. It’s not really that different from what it had been: 

  • “Whoever becomes the new Prime Minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote.” In the context of the letter that refers to the two Conservative party leadership contenders. It is not clear that it also would bind Jeremy Corbyn if he became Prime Minister. It also does not say that Labour would seek to obtain such a public vote. Nor does it say that the public vote would be a referendum rather than a general election – which the letter does say that Labour wants.
  • “Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs.” That does not rule out Labour supporting a Tory deal that does protect the economy and jobs (remember that Corbyn calls his own Brexit a jobs-first Brexit). It also says nothing about a Labour deal.

 

The trades unions’ proposals

The Labour policy announcement followed on the 8 July proposal from a group of Labour-affiliated trades unions including Unite, led by the pro-Brexit Len McCluskey.

The unions’ proposal was subtly different from where Jeremy Corbyn ended up. It called for a “public confirmatory vote” on “whatever deal is negotiated by the new Tory Prime Minister or an exit based on no deal” and for Labour to back Remain in that referendum. So the unions’ text would not leave the party the opportunity to agree certain forms of Conservative Brexit. Also, it is clear from context that they are talking about a referendum

 

In a general election Labour would presumably campaign for Brexit

Labour has made no commitment to its general election stance. That would be decided at the time.

The unions’ proposals are that Labour should campaign on a commitment to negotiate a Brexit deal based on Labour’s negotiating priorities. That deal should then be put to the people in a referendum. Labour’s referendum campaign position would be determined by the results of the negotiation.

Corbyn’s letter to members makes clear that he still supports Brexit: “Labour set out a compromise plan to try to bring the country together based around a customs union, a strong single market relationship and protection of environmental regulations and rights at work. We continue to believe this is a sensible alternative that could bring the country together.”

He makes no commitment to a referendum on a deal negotiated by Labour.

 

Analysis

First, Labour is still not committed to seeking a referendum on any Conservative Brexit plan. Moreover, Jeremy Corbyn has a history of subsequently adding obfuscation and evasion to policy statements. So we should be wary of reading too much into the latest statement.

Second, depending on the deal the Conservatives were putting forward, Labour would probably back Remain. But the basis of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign would not be that Remain is the best outcome.

Rather, it would be that Brexit is the right answer, but the Brexit that the Conservatives had negotiated was not good enough; he would have done better.

Rafael Behr noted in the Guardian as long ago as 26 February 2018:  Corbyn’s view is that … Brexit is a sensible, indeed desirable goal, just as long as it is handled by a party of the left.”

Just think what that would mean for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning in the referendum campaign. For sure, a whole-hearted attack on the Conservatives and to some extent on their Brexit plan. But his answer to the question “what should we do instead?” would be “Brexit under Labour’s plan”. That is hardly a statement of support for the EU. It would be worse than his campaign in 2016.

Surely, many voters inclined towards Leave, or devoted followers of Jeremy Corbyn, would think “Yes, but all those problems with the Conservatives’ plan can be solved after Brexit”.

They would of course be right.

 

Corbyn’s and May’s Brexits are pretty well the same

The Withdrawal Agreement is not up for negotiation – unless you believe that the EU has been bluffing or that their insistence that it will not be re-opened only applies to Conservative Prime Ministers. So the present Withdrawal Agreement is what Jeremy Corbyn would bring back from Brussels.

The debate is entirely about the political declaration. That is non-binding. The actual relationship is to be negotiated after Brexit. So the row is shadow boxing: an artificial confection of party politics, not about substance.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit and Theresa May’s Brexit are virtually identical in any event – something we have known since their speeches in the Spring 2018 at the latest.

Let’s look at the biggest “difference”.

Jeremy Corbyn wants a permanent UK/EU customs union.

Theresa May has negotiated a temporary UK/EU customs union in the Irish backstop which will last until it is replaced by permanent arrangements. There are only three possibilities:

  • a customs border in the Irish Sea – unacceptable to any UK government;
  • non-existent technological solutions that could anyway not resolve the essentially psychological aspects of a hard border; or, wait for it:
  • a permanent UK/EU customs union.

Spot the difference?

 

A referendum after Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit negotiation

If Labour won a pre-Brexit election and negotiated Brexit, on what basis would it campaign for Remain?

They would have to say the deal was no good.

What reason would they give? “Our negotiating aims were always unrealistic, we have been misleading you since 2016” or “we are lousy negotiators” or “the EU are such scoundrels they refuse to give us a good deal/ Remainers have sabotaged our Brexit”?

There is no basis on which Labour could campaign for Remain in a referendum on a deal it had negotiated.

 

Conclusion

Labour is quite likely to seek a referendum on most likely forms of Conservative Brexit, though we do not know how hard they will try for it. That is welcome. But it is not a material change of stance.

Jeremy Corbyn – and the official Labour Party position, remember what the 2017 manifesto actually says – are still pro-Brexit. The “Remain” campaign he would fight in such a referendum would be likely to do more harm than good to our cause because he would argue for Brexit, just not the particular Brexit plan on the table.

 

 

 

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