Labour Needs to Start Talking About Brexit Now

In 1983, Shadow Defence Secretary John Silkin asked the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, to stop bringing unilateral disarmament into his speeches. The Tories were heading for a landslide election and every time Foot mentioned his support for CND, Labour dipped in the polls.

After a general murmur of agreement, Foot’s reply was, “I will never again have the opportunity that I have to convince the British people of what I think is right.”

Foot would have rather been right than prime minister. Whether that is admirable or not, his party took fourteen years to recover enough to win an election.

It is possible to overplay comparisons between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot. Foot had been one of the finest journalists of his time. He gave up being a rebel and joined the Labour front bench when Harold Wilson lost power in 1970. By the time he stood for the Labour leadership in 1980, he was the compromise candidate.

Corbyn is not a platform orator like Foot but there is a similar sense that the campaign has released him from the drudgery of Westminster politics where he does not fare well. As he was energised by the 2016 leadership campaign, he seems happier on the street than at the dispatch box.

There is something forced about his language but when he talks about breaking up the cartel of Westminster politics it is - like Foot on disarmament - clearly what he believes.  

 By ignoring sidelining Brexit he is making a catastrophic defeat more likely

However, that does not matter. Jeremy Corbyn does not get to decide what this election is about. The voters do. A life-long eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn may not have come into politics to salvage the best of what remains of Britain’s EU membership but that is what the voters require of him.

As May scoops up UKIP voters, Labour loses them to the Lib Dems. By ignoring sidelining Brexit he is making a catastrophic defeat more likely.

Most elections are defined by the economy: the party that has the strongest economic message wins. 2017 is different and it is useless to pretend otherwise. For many Brexit is about identity, nationhood, controlling immigration, but Britain’s trading relationship with its nearest neighbours is primarily about economics. Put simply, get the wrong deal and there will be no money for the NHS, for schools, for tackling inequality.

David Cameron’s 2015 mantra was that a strong economy was the basis for a better NHS. A strong Labour leader would have made it clear that better schools and hospitals - a fairer society if you like - rests on a close relationship with Europe. Corbyn can rail against a bargain basement Brexit, but equally he must start to articulate what Labour’s position is.

That he hasn’t is the reason he has lagged in the polls. 70% of Labour seats may have voted Leave, but that does not mean their Labour voters are Brexiters. Cowed by the right-wing press or his own sceptical leanings, he allowed May to pass her Article 50 bill, only declaring that the real fight started when the battle was over and the bodies were being cleared.

Labour MPs need to ensure they have a clear mandate on Brexit 

It was inevitable that Corbyn would get no credit for waving through May’s Brexit. So he ended up with the worst of worlds. In her first six months the prime minister bought herself political capital with Brexiters. Corbyn should have been doing the equivalent with Remainers.

It is odd that it is the left of the party, which so often puts the symbolism of opposition first, that did not recognise the importance of the Article 50 vote to Remainers. After all, Harriet Harman’s decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Welfare Bill gave Corbyn his big divide with the other leadership candidates in 2015. His Shadow Chancellor promised then to wade through vomit to vote against it. Yet they made no promises to wade, walk or tip-toe through any bodily fluids to interrupt Theresa May’s Brexit timetable.

“Respecting Brexit but opposing Theresa May’s Brexit” might have been a slogan for an opposition party to rally its supporters.

Instead, without credibility, they let the Lib Dems court the Remain vote. There is a limit to how far that position can take a party but Jeremy Corbyn let these voters slip through his hands. He is still doing this.

The Labour leader needs to stop talking in nebulous anti-establishment terms and start outlining how he would negotiate with the 27 to get the best deal for Britain. Single market membership is a must and a minimum. Then and only then will issues that unite progressives become relevant.

By insisting on running a quixotic campaign, he is dooming his party to defeat. It is the politics of the diletante, and would perhaps be a fitting end to a leadership that has been about indulging members rather than listening to the country.

So Labour MPs need to ensure they have a clear mandate on Brexit because the terrible sadness of this election is this: the real fight might start the day after the voting.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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