Is the Labour Party Finally Ready to Fight Brexit?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I wanted to write, and had written, the post you are about to read. Then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that a People’s Vote on Brexit needn’t and shouldn’t include an option to remain, undermining Labour’s stance and throwing the party firmly back into chaos. Nevertheless, for a brief moment, it almost looked like Labour was figuring out how to take strategic advantage of Theresa May’s Salzburg debacle. If it had, here’s what we would have been able to say:

The Labour Party, which has long expressed a soft Brexit position, now appears ready to stealthily embrace a second referendum. Leader Jeremy Corbyn now says that Labour will take whichever position on a “People’s Vote” its members prefer. Labour Party members poll heavily in favour of People’s Vote–the latest YouGov poll has 86% in favour and 8% opposed–so it is strongly likely that this decision means Labour will back People’s Vote. At the same time, by hiding behind the members, Corbyn can avoid giving the appearance of having personally U-turned. Today I want to talk about this apparent change in Labour’s strategy and what it would mean for the Brexit endgame.

The Labour Strategy

Image result for richard leonard jeremy corbyn

This isn’t the only foreign policy area where Labour appears to be shifting ground. Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has just ruled out Labour support for another Scottish independence referendum:

I don’t think there is any support for a second independence referendum, which is why we are going to categorically – in our manifesto in the lead up to the general election which may come as soon as later this year – state our opposition to the holding of a second independence referendum.

Labour’s ambiguity on Scotland has cost it many votes over the years. In Scotland, unionists have been unwilling to trust Labour, pushing them into the hands of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party. In England, voters have feared that Labour would give Scotland away in a coalition deal with the SNP.

In taking these positions on Brexit and on Scotland, Labour would align itself with the dominant positions held by Labour members, strengthening party unity.

At the same time, Labour is strengthening its ability to deselect the MPs who oppose Jeremy Corbyn to prevent these MPs from undermining the leader by triggering further leadership contests. Many of those likely to be subject to deselection are those who were pushed Corbyn on Brexit and Scotland. So Corbyn appears to be strengthening party unity from two directions at once–he is triangulating with his opponents on foreign policy as he destroys their capacity to destabilise the party.

There is an institutional logic to this. For the Labour Party to function, the leader and the parliamentary party need to be united. When MPs selected the leader, this was a given. But once the party members took a dominant role in selecting the leader, the possibility that the leader and the MPs could be out of alignment arose. Corbyn’s victory in 2015 actualised it. The parliamentary party attempted to solve this problem by challenging Corbyn’s leadership in 2016, but they were unsuccessful. If the party leader cannot be removed, and the parliamentary party cannot work with the party leader, then the parliamentary party must itself be removed or chastened. Deselection is the obvious mechanic available for that purpose. At the same time, a purge of the parliamentary party is most likely to go through without incident if Labour members strongly support Corbyn, and the way to secure that support is to adopt the most popular positions of those who are being threatened with deselection. As an added bonus, these positions are also potential vote-winners in a future general election. Voters in the Patrick Stewart position–unsure if they could support Labour because of its stance on Brexit and/or Scotland–can now return to the party with confidence.

I myself was considering expressing support for a Lib-Lab coalition in the next election in the hope that the Liberals could push Corbyn to accept a second referendum. I was also considering supporting an SNP-Lab coalition for similar reasons, but I was fearful that coalition could lead to a second Scottish independence referendum. I am now much less concerned about an SNP-Lab coalition, and perfectly willing to support a majority Labour government without the Liberals if such a thing arises. I was wavering in my support for Labour because I don’t believe it’s possible for the UK to succeed with socialism in one country (which is what I take left exit or “lexit” to be). But for the moment, my support for Labour has been shored up. There are a non-trivial number of British people who will feel similarly, if the party follows through.

In 2017, it made political sense for Corbyn to play it both ways on Brexit in a bid to pick up the fragmenting UKIP vote. But if there’s an election in 2019, it will be clear that the Conservative Brexit plan is deeply flawed, and forthright opposition to it is the way to go. This is an important strategic correction for Labour which would massively improve its position heading into the next year.

The Brexit Endgame

I have long argued that there was little chance that Theresa May–or anyone else–could deliver a Brexit deal which satisfies the Leave faction of the Conservative Party, the EU, and the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland). The Irish question is a poison pill. Whether May offers a bad deal or no deal, I think it is quite likely that her deal will be rejected by parliament, and the chance of this has increased with her failure at Salzburg.

Labour has a strong interest in opposing May’s Brexit deal in a bid to force an early election and has stated its willingness to vote down a deal:

Without Labour’s votes, and without the votes of most of the regional parties, May needs all the Conservatives votes and the DUP votes to pass a Brexit deal. She probably won’t get them.

Previously we might have thought that May’s failure could put Corbyn in office attempting to secure a better deal. But Corbyn would likely be in the same situation–there probably is no deal that satisfies Lexiteers, SNP/Lib-Dem coalition partners, and the EU. Now an early election would likely mean a Labour government which, with or without the SNP and Lib-Dems, is prepared to offer Britain a way out of Brexit. So if May’s deal is defeated and an early election is called, the stakes of that election could be clear.

There is however a way out for the Conservatives–if May’s Brexit deal is rejected, May could resign and the Conservatives could stage a leadership contest. Such a contest would likely pit a Leave Tory who supports no-deal Brexit against a Remainer Tory who supports a second referendum. If the Remainer Tory managed to win, the Conservatives could stage a second referendum instead of an early election and keep Britain in the EU without ceding government to Labour. Even if the Leave Tory won, the Remainer Tories could put country before party and join with the rest of parliament to force an early election.

This means there are now many, many paths to a second referendum, and therefore to remain, if the British political class is sufficiently committed to opposing no-deal Brexit and if the Labour Party does indeed follow through with its pledge to honour its members’ views:

Of course, when I wrote all of this, it was before John McDonnell reminded us that the Labour leadership, while left wing, is full of delusional Lexiteers who believe that it’s possible for Labour to successfully negotiate a superior Brexit deal. These people, for all their words about doing the will of the party membership, may be determined to take Britain out in the hope of making sweeping left wing reforms to the country once it’s no longer subject to EU rules. This would fail–without cooperation on tax rates and regulations from other European states, Britain would suffer rampant capital flight, and if Britain closed the borders to stop that capital flight it would become isolated, both economically and politically. A sharp move left is a move Europe has to make together–individual European states cannot go it alone. Until the Labour leadership accepts this, it will be difficult to trust them to form a majority government. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists must be ready to form a coalition government with Labour to force them to hold a real People’s Vote with remain on the ballot.

I wanted to write this nice piece about how Labour had finally figured it out–but they’re not ready yet. We have to wait.