Labour’s Brexit Tightrope

Labour’s success at the General Election may risk being undone if they fail to reveal a clear vision for Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn has baffled the media from the start. A politician who makes his own jam and surprises with a guest appearance at Glastonbury is a curiosity. Our politics is normally steeped in pomp, ceremony and pretence. Yet, the wave of support for Corbyn shown at the polls has forced the mainstream media to pay attention, and not just throw barbs. The increased scrutiny hasn’t delivered any more insight on one key position, however – just what does Corbyn think about Brexit? What about after the transition? What next?

Paul Goldsmith, a Politics and Economics teacher at Latymer Upper School, has followed the Brexit journey – and Labour’s struggles with it – from the start. He literally wrote the book on Brexit (with Sky News senior political correspondent Jason Farrell). How to Lose a Referendum: The Definitive Story of why the UK voted for Brexit charts how we ended up voting Leave. While Labour is riding high on the success of the election partially due to the young voter turnout, Goldsmith believes this high may not last forever because of the questions over Labour’s position on Brexit.

“It’s true that Labour might find its popularity amongst the youth damaged if its leader continues to whip his MPs to support the government’s line on Brexit,” Goldsmith says.

“The question is, where will Labour divide from the Conservatives? By putting in various amendments to bills that then either get voted down or supported by the House, Corbyn may be able to appear opposed to the Conservatives approach, while still ultimately backing the government’s agenda.”

“Corbyn may be able to appear opposed to the Conservatives approach, while still ultimately backing the government’s agenda”

Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, told the Commons in July that if the Conservatives “didn’t have the strength” to see through Brexit, then they had to step aside. However, Labour have not yet offered a long term alternative vision to the Conservatives.

“Corbyn sacked three MPs for not following his line to oppose continued membership of the Single Market in a vote in the Commons, but a week later, after a meeting in Brussels he refused to say whether he was in favour of staying in it or not,” Goldsmith continues.

“One wonders how long he can maintain this vague approach when we get into the negotiations proper?”

Corbyn has since stated that it’s impossible to remain in the Single Market while not being a member of the EU, ignoring Switzerland and Norway who are outside of the EU and yet still have access. Corbyn has failed to offer any difference in policy to the Conservatives and yet is criticising their performance.

Goldsmith believes though that being the opposition party during Brexit does provide Labour with some cover, and cites the debates four decades ago about whether Britain should join the European Community and Labour’s staunch position of being against accepting anything on the Conservative’s terms.

“In some ways Labour is well positioned with Brexit because they don’t have to do the actual negotiations and forever more will be able to argue that if they’d been at the table they would have done things differently,” Goldsmith says.   

While the Liberal Democrats made their election campaign about Brexit, Labour focused on austerity. It worked. The vote was about trying to get the Tories out.

“Labour neutralised Brexit during the election by not taking a proper stance – effectively offering ‘the benefits of the single market’ while also ‘ending free movement of people’. This was both vague and unachievable, but they got away with it using a catch phrase calling for a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. This was ironic because during the referendum Corbyn failed to focus on jobs at all and instead pursued a confusing line about ‘Remain and reform’. During the snap election Corbyn majored on his anti-austerity promises that were so eye-catching it changed the focus and what was being debated in the election – and exposed Theresa May’s weakness – that she had nothing positive to say about anything.

“The result doesn’t necessarily tell us that young people have stopped caring about Brexit – but more that they had other priorities on which they wanted to vote – and didn’t necessarily distrust Labour any more than the Conservatives on Brexit.”

“Corbyn majored on his anti-austerity promises that were so eye-catching it changed the focus and what was being debated in the election”

Trust is a key question. Goldsmith points to Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour Shadow Business Secretary, who claimed negotiates about remaining in the Single Market could happen whilst discussing the end to free movement. Yet EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, have repeatedly ruled this out.

When Labour seem at odds with themselves over an issue as fundamental as access to the Single Market while offering nothing substantial to challenge the Conservatives, then the groundswell of support may soon drain. If Labour are to succeed, they must be able to face the tough questions that are sure to come over the UK’s future during the course of the Brexit negotiations.

“Young people have the chance to change the relationship between politicians and them. They can do that by questioning promises they are made more and not always demanding to hear just what they want to hear, and voting only for those people who tell them those things straight,” Goldsmith insists.

If young voters demand answers from Labour, then support for Jeremy Corbyn may not be as solidified as the opposition party assumes.


This article featured in issue 2 of Stand Up magazine, which can be downloaded here.

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