BREXIT UPDATE 56: Labour's Brexit Tragedy: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

December 19, 2019

In Uncategorized


Looking back on the Brexit Updates that I have been posting since January, I can see many warning signs that foreshadowed the disastrous outcome of the 2019 General Election.  In terms of Brexit, the two main reasons for the defeat were: 1) the timing of the election; and 2) Labour’s incoherent Brexit policy.

First, the timing.  Despite all Labour’s efforts – which did make some progress – to turn the debate away from Brexit and towards the non-Brexit issues facing the country, this was inevitably the Brexit Election.  In Brexit Update 49, posted on October 25, I cited a Skwawkbox blog post of October 22 (Skwawkbox has been my guide through the many circles of the Dantean Hell of Brexit):

“Skwawkbox  argued…..that, ‘counter-intuitive’ though it might seem, the best outcome at present for Labour would be to allow the Bill [ie Johnson’s deal, which had become the EU Withdrawal Bill] to pass through all its stages….This would probably mean an election in February 2020.  If Brexit has already been ‘done’ at the time of the election, this would rob Cummings’s magical slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ of its potency; and Labour could then concentrate on the real issues: poverty, the National Health Service, the environment.  Labour has little chance of winning an immediate December election, in which Brexit would be the only issue; but has a good chance of winning a February election, when the reality of the situation has begun to sink into people’s consciousness.”

In its October 22 post, Skwawkbox argued that, if Labour were to win a February election, it could adapt Johnson’s deal (which is itself an adaptation of the Maybot’s deal) to include a customs union and close alignment with the Single Market –  changes that would be welcomed by the EU.

At that time, it still looked as though Johnson was unlikely to get his December election.  But, as I wrote in Brexit Update  51, the Liberal Democrats and SNP hatched a plan of their own for a December election, even though for various complicated reasons they wanted to change the date to December 9.  They prepared to put forward a General Election Bill; which led Johnson to put forward a Bill of his own for a December 12 election.  With the Lib Dems and SNP on board to vote for the Bill, Labour decided it could not be the only party refusing to vote for it; so the Bill passed overwhelmingly.

But, even if Labour had held firm and not voted for the Bill, it would probably still have passed, as (unlike Johnson’s previous motions under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which required a two-thirds majority), the Bill only needed a simple majority of one.  With the votes of  the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, the SNP, probably the smaller parties and some Labour rebels, Johnson would probably have got the General Election bill through.  So a December General Election was probably inevitable, once the Lib Dems and SNP decided to support it.

Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, saw an early election, before Johnson’s deal was passed, as her last chance to stop Brexit.  She also had grandiose fantasies of the Liberal Democrats actually winning a majority by harnessing the Remain Vote against the Conservatives’ Leave votes, in effect turning the General Election into a second referendum.  This was the rationale behind the Lib  Dem pledge that, if they won the election – ie achieved a Lib Dem majority government – they would immediately revoke Article 50 (ie cancel Brexit altogether) without calling a second referendum.  Their argument was that, if they were to win the General Election, it would have been effectively a second referendum, giving them the mandate to revoke Brexit.  In the event, Jo Swinson was punished for her tragic hubris by seeing her party perform disappointingly and lose one seat: her own in Scotland, which she lost to the SNP (which meant she had to resign as Lib Dem leader).

The SNP also saw an early election as a last chance to stop Brexit and was eager to capitalise as soon as possible on Scotland’s hatred of Boris Johnson’s government in order to increase its seat share; and the SNP indeed swept the board in Scotland, with 48 seats (up from 35 in 2017);  but Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and  First Minister of Scotland, also seems wrongly to have believed that the result would be a hung parliament, so that she would be in the position of supporting a Labour minority government in exchange for a second referendum on independence for Scotland.

Labour’s Brexit Policy

Yet, even though the Brexit Election seems to have been inevitable, Labour would have had a good chance of succeeding if it had had a coherent and convincing Brexit policy.  In its 2017 General Election Manifesto, Labour stated clearly that it accepted the result of the 2016 referendum:

“Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first. We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations. We will end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit, and seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain.”[1]

After the election, however, tensions between Remainers and Leavers developed in the Labour Party that came to a head in the September 2018 Labour Party Conference.  As a result of a push by some Shadow Cabinet ministers, including Keir Starmer and Tom Watson, to change the party’s Brexit policy in favour of a second referendum — a push backed by many Labour Remainer members – the Conference unanimously approved a resolution that included the words:

“Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government.  In those circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power. If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.” [2]

This resolution was viewed as a compromise between Labour Leavers and Remainers.  But the only real, principled compromise between Leave and Remain was Corbyn’s Brexit plan itself, which meant economic but not political union with the EU, with a customs union and close alignment with the Single Market and  EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment.  Though the resolution made it clear that a second referendum would only be a last resort, the resolution nonetheless marked the beginning of a gradual process by which Corbyn gave ground to and appeased the Remainer Labour right-wing in relation to Labour’s Brexit policy.  Step by step, in the past year, Labour has shifted towards Remain and a second referendum – while, at the same time, Corbyn has struggled to resist “going full Remain”; the result being an utterly confused and confusing stance on Brexit.

After 11 Labour MPs dramatically left Labour to form The Independent Group (TIG), in February 2019, Labour’s policy again shifted towards Remain and a second referendum, in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent more Remainer  MP defections.  Labour adopted a new Brexit policy, the gist of which was that, if Theresa May’s deal were to pass, it should be put to a public vote in which the other option would be to Remain; and in such a referendum, Labour would campaign for  Remain, since Labour believed it would be better to stay in the EU than to accept a “hard Tory Brexit”. (See Brexit Updates 8 and 9).  Since it seemed very unlikely either than May’s deal would ever pass or that Parliament would ever approve a second referendum, this new position was very hypothetical and did not mean that Labour was not committed first and foremost to securing a general election, winning it and negotiating its own Brexit deal.  Nonetheless, this new policy did represent another victory for Labour Remainers; a further movement in the direction of Remain and a second referendum.

After the local elections in May 2019, Labour received a stark and prophetic warning, which it did not heed.  I wrote then, in Brexit Update 28:

“In the North and Midlands of England, a message was sent to the Labour leadership that many working-class Labour voters in Leave areas want Labour to take a clear stand against any form of second referendum. The overwhelming majority of Labour’s losses were in these areas.   The warning came loud and clear on the BBC last night from Graeme Miller, the leader of the council in the northern city of Sunderland, where Labour remained in control of the council but had just lost ten councillors:

‘We lost ten seats – and my view on it is very, very simple.  Sunderland voted as a city to leave in June 2016 – and, having had a Labour message across the city from Members of Parliament saying we have to have a People’s Vote on a second referendum, Labour people in Sunderland have said: ‘we’re just not accepting that from the Labour Party’.’”

Yet, after a poor result for Labour, at the end of May 2019, in the  European elections, which were won by the Brexit Party at one extreme and the Lib Dems at the other, Corbyn went even further in the direction of Remain.  As I wrote in Brexit Update 32, on the European elections, Tom Watson

“renewed his call for Labour unequivocally to back a second referendum, as the only way to beat the Brexit Party in a General Election.  Interviewed on Saturday night on the BBC, the Shadow Foreign  Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said:

‘We were not clear on the one single thing that people wanted to hear….we should have said quite simply that any deal that comes out of this government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that Remain should be on the ballot paper and that Labour would campaign to Remain.’”

And Corbyn responded to this new clamour from Labour Remainers by further shifting his Brexit position towards a second referendum.  As I wrote also in Brexit Update 32:

“In response to new clamours, in the wake of the European elections, for Labour to come out iin support for a second referendum, Corbyn has continued to put a general election first.  He seems now to have shifted his position only in so far as he is saying that any deal, including a Labour deal, will be put to a confirmatory public vote – though he does not say what else would be on the ballot. In an interview on Monday, he said the issue would be debated at the 2019 Labour Conference in  September, but that his first priority is a General Election. He added that any deal – clearly including a Labour deal – must be put to a public vote.”

In July 2019, Corbyn agreed with the unions a highly complicated and confusing stance on Brexit.  The statement resulting from the discussions ran as follows:

“Scenario 1: The Labour Party should confirm that whatever deal is negotiated by the new Tory Prime Minister or an exit based on no deal should be put to the people in a public confirmatory vote.  The options must be:

  1. Accepting the deal or a Tory no deal in the knowledge of its terms.
  2. Remaining in the European Union.

In this event, the Labour Party should campaign to remain in the European Union.

Scenario 2:  In the event that a general election is called, Labour’s manifesto position should be:

Negotiating with the European Union to respect the Brexit vote from 2016, reflecting the negotiating priorities that Labour has outlined.

Any final Labour deal should be put back to the people.  The options on the ballot paper should be:

  1. Accepting the Labour negotiated deal.
  2. Remaining in the European Union.

The Labour Party’s campaign position on such a ballot should depend on the deal negotiated.”

Reporting this statement in Brexit Update 37, I commented:

“It was generally understood from Corbyn’s recent statements in interviews that, in the event of a Labour deal, Labour would campaign for its own deal rather than to remain in the EU.  After all, what would be the point of Labour going to all the trouble to negotiate a deal if it then decides not to campaign in its favour?  So this last bit comes over as a confusing fudge.”

Then came the Labour Party Conference in September 2019.  As I described in Brexit Update 45, Remain-supporting activists were pushing for a Labour policy of full Remain; Corbyn was regarded as having won a victory—and avoided a threatened coup — in that the motions that were passed reflected the policy he had agreed with the unions; yet it was a highly confusing, compromised policy that veered in the direction of Remain, involving a second referendum even on a Labour deal. On the vexed question of whether Labour should in such a referendum campaign for its own deal or for Remain, the National Executive Committee (NEC) motion that passed ended:

“The NEC believes it is right that the party shall only decide how to campaign [in a referendum on Brexit] through a one-day special conference following the election of a Labour government.”

In Brexit Update 45, I commented:

“Corbyn has managed to avoid a position of full Remain and to survive another attempted coup; but Labour’s support for a second referendum could cost them votes in their Leave-supporting working-class heartlands – the seats that will be targeted by the Conservatives in the coming election.  Yet it is hard to see how Corbyn could have avoided making the concession of a second referendum to the overwhelmingly Remain-supporting Labour party membership.  He has probably secured the best compromise that can be achieved under the circumstances.”

Here I expressed my concern and foreboding about Labour’s second referendum policy, but I now think I was mistaken in writing that “it is hard to see how Corbyn could have avoided making the concession of a second referendum to the overwhelmingly Remain-supporting Labour party membership.”  As Edmund Griffiths has written in an illuminating article:

“Corbyn’s authority within the party after the 2017 general election was exceptionally high, and if he had argued forthrightly that switching from ‘soft Brexit’ to  ‘second referendum’ would be disastrous I am sure he could have got his way”.

Instead he gave ground by a gradual, insidious process that I have tried to trace:  always trying to resist the inexorable drive towards Remain and a second referendum, yet unable to stop it – in fact constantly strengthening the position of Remain in his party and in the country as a whole – an effect that, as Griffiths points out, also hardened the position of Leave, leading to the polarisation in the UK between extreme Leave and extreme Remain, so that Labour’s principled compromise “soft” Brexit plan became marginalised.[3]  Corbyn entered the Brexit Election fatally weakened by Labour’s Brexit policy, which played straight into the master-strategy of Dominic Cummings.  Everyone in the Labour Party bears responsibility for this fifth act of the Labour Brexit tragedy; the membership, the unions, the largely Remain-supporting Labour right-wing MPs, the Remainers in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, including his closest associates, such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.   But Corbyn could have prevented the disaster if it had not been for the fatal flaw in his character that led him, slowly but inexorably, to give ground and appease on Labour’s Brexit policy – just as he gave ground and appeased on the issue of antisemitism.