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Ever since the 2016 referendum, the Labour leadership’s approach to Brexit has been a masterclass in constructive ambiguity, as Corbyn (a lifelong Brexiteer who claimed to have voted leave in 2016) tried to avoid being pushed into calling for a second referendum or revoking Article 50 to remain.
As a result, Labour’s position on Brexit has evolved a lot since 2016. We’ve had “all options” on the table, including a “public vote”. We’ve had Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell saying Labour would pursue a second referendum only in the absence of a general election. We’ve had Corbyn completely failing to mention this in a letter to Ms May seeking changes in her Brexit proposal. We’ve had the party then maybe-sort-of-who-even-knows-any-more back a second referendum just before they told all their MPs to abstain on an amendment calling for a second referendum. We’ve heard Corbyn say “a Brexit that protects jobs” a lot – but we’ve never heard what that would look like. There was also a brief phase of a future Customs Union being the buzzword of choice, but that seems to have vanished into the ether.
The ill-starred genius of the fluctuating stance is that the party can claim its position has always been consistent, and just hope everyone is too exhausted, confused, or fed up to even check. The ambiguity also allows some Labour MPs to argue to their leave constituencies that Labour is a party of Brexit, and Remain-leaning MPs to hone in on the chatter of second referendum and work from there. The downside of the stance is that it makes almost no sense and is non-committal. Eventually, voters were going to notice. And they did. Labour polled 18% with YouGov last week.
Sensing the need for clarity, and under pressure from Remainer MPs and activists, Labour’s leadership have released the latest iteration of their Brexit policy. It goes along the lines of this:
1) Labour supports a second referendum in all scenarios.
2) If Labour is the opposition party then they will campaign for Remain in this referendum – against “a Tory Brexit.”
3) If Labour is the party in government then they will renegotiate the deal and decide whether they will campaign for Leave or Remain after that.
Let’s unpack that. Labour’s policy is to oppose Brexit in entirety if they’re in opposition. Fine. Straightforward. Except as the opposition party they by default can’t enact policy. Next step – if the party is in government (where it can actually enact policy) their position is to still support a second referendum but remain undecided on whether they then become a party of Leave or Remain. So, for Remainers, the only way they can guarantee that the Labour party will pursue their interests is to keep them out of government. Read: Remainers, do not vote for us.
In the scenario where Labour is in government (the chances of which are dwindling by the second with this latest policy announcement), there are two scenarios: They campaign for Leave with their new deal, or they campaign for Remain, against… the deal they negotiated themselves? Nope, me neither.
Aside from the sheer electoral lunacy of the position, it’s also dishonest – if we believe the EU when they say the deal is categorically not up for renegotiation. No more dishonest than the Tories, but dishonest nonetheless.
By trying to be a party of Leave and Remain at the same time Labour is the party of neither. By trying to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers Corbyn has ensured that both will end up unhappy.