Labour leaders have repeatedly ruled not only rejoining the European Union (EU), but also the Customs Union and Single Market. Hard Brexit, whether Conservative or Labour, doesn’t work. We haven’t campaigned to end Tory Brexit, only for it to be replaced by a Labour Brexit. Brexit is Brexit, argues Nick Hopkinson.
On the basis of current opinion polls, Labour will form the next government. Polls of course change but many pundits believe the Conservatives cannot recover from its current low ratings. So we shall at last be rid of Brexit! Well not really …
Earlier this month public support for Brexit reached an all time low. As the cost of living crisis deepened and the pandemic seemingly receding, underlying public anger about the adverse impact of Brexit has recently grown louder. If politicians think Brexit is done, they should listen inter alia to LBC Radio (in particular James O’Brien), BBC 1 Question Time and Radio 4’s Any Questions.
Labour and Liberal Democrats leadership teams are lagging behind public opinion. Both appear determined to avoid being drawn into the culture war surrounding the polarised Brexit debate. They may have been right to focus on the pandemic and the tragic implications of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine. However, downplaying or staying silent about the damage of Brexit is unacceptable. To advocate closer EU relations is not refighting old battles, but addressing the ever present need to promote our security and prosperity, and manage our most important relationship with our European neighbours. With the tide seemingly turning, parties are missing a political opportunity if they do not reflect the growing breadth and depth of public anger.
Politicians can of course argue Brexit/the EU is no longer foremost amongst voters’ concerns. Leaving the EU has indeed declined from being the major concern in September 2019 (with 73%) to the fifth (with 17%) in November 2022. Although the economy and health have shot up the agenda, there is clear evidence that leaving the EU/Brexit have adversely impacted both.
Although a nationwide cross-party campaign to rejoin the EU may be years away, that should not prevent opposition parties from advocating closer relations with the EU as a partial solution, or at least making linkages between leading voter concerns and Brexit. Interim steps can inter alia help strengthen supply chains, increase exports, foreign investment and growth, and make it easier to attract more EU health care professionals.
If voters can draw a link between the cost of living crisis and Brexit, it isn’t beyond the wit of opposition politicians to draw similar linkages. We should not forget that in the 2015-16 period, Nigel Farage successfully raised the profile of the perceived lower priority issue of leaving the EU by linking it to the top priority immigration issue.
Labour’s five point plan to make Brexit work including proposals for a veterinary agreement for agri-products, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, visas for musicians, and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, is welcome.
However, it is piecemeal. Furthermore, repeatedly ruling out rejoining the Single Market, Customs Union and the EU is both unnecessary and an own goal. Never say never in politics. Circumstances change. When politicians do catch up, they can look untrustworthy and their credibility is damaged.
Labour’s flawed thinking is in part attributable to misunderstanding why it did poorly in the 2019 General Election. It lost traditional voters less because it didn’t back Brexit, and more because of Corbyn’s leadership. Labour’s EU ambivalence caused it to lose support to the more pro-European Lib Dems and Greens. These findings are echoed by former Labour Europe Minister, Baroness Joyce Quin.
The pro-European Lib Dems are doing little better. Although the first nationwide party to advocate a longer term goal of rejoining the EU at its Autumn 2020 conference - and in spite of a detailed 2022 policy paper outlining steps towards closer relations with the EU - Lib Dem leaders appear to shy away from advocating this as party policy.
Although the Lib Dems, as a smaller parliamentary party, naturally have difficulty attracting media attention, many activists believe its leaders could be far more forthright and call for closer relations with the EU. Lib Dems might attract more media coverage and support if it did so. Conservative Hard Brexit and Labour’s Better Brexit provide a good opportunity. Voters in target ‘Blue Wall’ seats will reward, not punish, them for being more vocal. As with Labour, not doing so risks switching off some activists and members.
Whilst Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders downplay closer relations with the EU, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has reportedly floated a possible Swiss-style agreement with the EU. Tobias Ellwood, MP, a former Defence Minister, has even gone so far as to suggest the UK rejoin the Single Market.
Whilst a broad resurgence of Conservative pro-Europeanism is implausible, let’s imagine what a Labour victory in 2024 (or earlier) might look like. Instead of ensuring the Tory party own Brexit and its damage, Labour would adopt and continue it. A likely Labour Better Brexit manifesto pledge would preclude it from progressing the one key policy (joining the Single Market and Customs Union) which can materially improve the economy, relations with our neighbours and help keep the United Kingdom together. When it comes time for a second General Election later this decade, Labour, like the Tories, could very well pay a heavy price for its bad Brexit.
We know Brexit is not the source of all our national problems. But we do expect opposition frontbench politicians to demonstrate timely leadership, and start advocating forcefully policies which address our concerns, and which can alleviate the damage. Voters will simply not support parties which do not listen to and stand up for what we need.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.