Too Little, Too Late Labour Fails to Offer a Brexit Alternative

Let’s put it bluntly: if one turns off Twitter, Labour is having a disastrous election. Despite having been ready for battle since September, their campaign has got off to a terrible start. Jeremy Corbyn says one thing on Trident, his defence spokesperson says something else on - well, she states party policy.

Of course, Theresa May is playing it low key - if you’ll forgive the English understatement - if you don’t interupt your enemy when they are shooting themselves in the foot, why would you when they are doing it to both feet?

Then Keir Starmer stood up to give his Brexit speech. That it was Starmer not Corbyn is telling. Starmer is meant to be a rising talent, is quietly reassuring and a potential successor in the event of Corbyn resigning after defeat. He is the personification of the reasonable remainer.

There was a lot of good in the speech: he pledged to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in Britain, a goodwill gesture that will please the 27. It is not a game changer though. May’s stance is not as hardline as often made out. An early deal is likely.

In other areas he was strong: his idea of replacing the Great Repeal Bill with an EU rights and protection bill is soundly progressive and plays to some voters’ fears that the Conservatives will use Brexit as an screen to water down protection for workers and better environmental standards. All workers’, consumers’ and environmental rights will be protected under a Labour Brexit.

He was able to play at what should be May’s biggest weakness: her seeming willingness to walk away from a bad deal with no deal, allowing the country to fall back on WTO rules which as most economists have acknowledged would be crippling and unsustainable.

He could have gone further though - beyond the idea of a meaningful vote - and said that Labour would stay in the EU until it got a good deal. This might have allowed Labour to portray itself as pragmatic and the Tories as extreme: May merely a creature of the right.

There was also a difference of tone. Starmer does not have to try hard to sound warmer to the EU. But to assume this means a fundamental alternative is to confuse tactics with strategy.

May has ruled out a lot and seeks to build a new relationship with Brexit as Year Zero, Starmer accepts Britain’s current positions until they are ruled out. And here’s the rub: they may well end up at the same position.

Labour's White Paper may talk about benefits of the single market and the customs union, but for both parties ending free movement of people is central.

Faced with making an economically disastrous choice or telling the British people the truth, Labour has chosen the former

Labour wants to negotiate membership of the single market but equally it wants to end free movement of people. Time and again European leaders have ruled out a change of one of the basic freedoms. Theresa May acknowledge this in her Article 50 letter: this was why she was not seeking membership. Labour have had the same time as the Tories to work out a position, yet are still behind the curve.

What Starmer is proposing is only marginally less dishonest than the Brexiters. Immigration control is a “red line”. Faced with making an economically disastrous choice or telling the British people the truth, Labour has chosen the former.

That the referendum was, in part, a vote on immigration is undeniable. But this is a general election. Labour is going into it fighting the wrong battle. It would be perfectly possible for the party to seek single market membership but make it clear to voters that they would seek to reduce the demand for immigration by reforming the UK’s internal market. Immigration is not such a strong issue for May as it was for Vote Leave: the Prime Minister knows she will be accountable for her promises.

With the Lib Dems playing the Brexit issue hard it was also a politically naive move. Labour will win few votes from Theresa May by being - if I may borrow a phrase - Tory Lite. He may not have the luxury of proposing a second referendum like the Lib Dems but it was possible for Labour to begin to tell the British people the truth about immigration.

It is going to have to happen one day. It would be seem democratic to do it before people voted.

Labour palpably does not want this election to be about Brexit. They want to speak about the NHS, education, inequality. The trouble is everything flows from Brexit.

The most dispiriting thing about Starmer’s speech is that Labour should have laid out its position months ago. Instead they allowed Theresa May to cast the narrative of what Brexit meant. Her need to do so conicided with her need to strengthen her position with the right of her party. Labour allowed her to get away with the fact that Brexit meant leaving the single market, despite many Labour Leavers saying the opposite.

This is what they have been left with: “A Brexit That Brings the Country Together” is just a slogan - and not a very good one at that.

Too little, too late - and after months of incompetent muddle - Labour is now unable to offer a substantial alternative. All it can do is finnesse.

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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