by Trevor Fisher
The vote on Article 50 underlined Labour’s existential problem. It is clear that a party which makes a case then abandons it is in trouble but this is not a Corbyn problem as it is the story of the party over the last 25 years, since the 1992 election and the abandoning of John Smith’s National Insurance increases. Having lost the “double whammy” election, this was rational, but Labour then adopted moving to the right as a policy – ‘triangulation’ – which left Labour without an identity. And as Atul Hatwal argued on 28th January, Labour’s internal politics from 2015 were dominated by a return to ideological purity when the parliamentary tactic of abstaining on the Benefits issue led to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. However Corbyn has taken the MPs into the lobbies in support of Theresa May. You could not make it up.
With Jezza turning into Tony Blair, it’s time to address the root issue. New Labour accepted the Thatcherite view that There Is No Alternative, so appeasement was the answer, and this worked in the 1997 and 2001 elections. But not thereafter. Now Labour faces challenges on all fronts. It has already lost Scotland, and in England and Wales Lib Dems can take the Remain voters and Tories and UKIP the Leave voters. A party can be wobbly on some issues some of the time, but not on the defining issue of an era.
However a week in politics is a long time, and as a by election strategy giving in to the Brexit lobby has some short term advantages. How it plays in Copeland I do not know, but in Stoke accepting Article 50 has made sense though UKIP is still playing the card that Labour will ignore the Referendum. Hardly! In the local paper the Stoke Sentinel, (17th February) Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s statement is “I accept without hesitation the Referendum result. I have said repeatedly that if I had a vote in parliament I would have voted for Britain to leave the EU. My focus now is on winning the best Brexit deal for Stoke on Trent”. This has allowed Snell to avoid the criticism levelled at Paul Farrelly, in neighbouring Newcastle Under Lyme, who was a rebel.
But as a strategy stealing UKIPs clothes will not work. There is some data that Labour cannot win back Leave voters by being Ukippers anyway. and of course Labour puts at risk the majority of their voters, who were Remain. In Scotland the polarisation of SNP For Remain and Tories for Leave gives Labour no space to occupy, and the polls reflect this.In the rest of the UK while the UKIP strategy is to pick up Labour’s Leave voters, the Lib Dem strategy is to pick up labour Remain voters – and it is clearly the case that in Richmond and the Sleaford by elections, Labour votes went to the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem party is now forgiven the coalition, but the strategy cannot give the Lib Dems many seats but can take seats away from Labour.
Labour cannot move into the space occupied by the Tories and UKIP long term without losing the majority of its supporters to the Lib Dems. However if it were to return to being a Remain party this would have positive effect. Two key points should be noted. Firstly, it would allow Labour to become the effective leaders of the anti-Tory/UKIP front north and south of the border. Labour members are overwhelmingly pro-Europe and this would unite the Party – and marginalise the Corbyn leadership and its Labour Representation Committee base.
Momentum is a potential ally, having surveyed its membership early on, when it had 11,000 members. 3093 returned the forms, (28% turnout) and 65.5% were Remain, 14.8% Leave and 19.6% neither. Curious the latter camp, but the overall thrust of a sample likely to be hard core Corbynistas to be 2/3 in favour of the EU makes life interesting. The move back to Remain holds out the prospect of a united party, taking the fight to the enemy not supporting it in parliament.
However the second and decisive argument for anti-Brexit is national. If the Brexit option is disastrous and the smart money is that this will be the case, Labour gets no credit unless it opposes Brexit.
The SNP and Lib Dems get the value of being opposed. This week I had a letter in the local paper pointing out lettuce prices are up because of snow in Spain. Food prices must rise with Brexit, as Britain would be out of both EU and EEA (May has no mandate to take us out of EEA) how many Leave voters will be happy with dearer food – and the rest?
But there has to be a strategy. This will involve a second referendum, in which the May deal will be put to the people. Only a referendum can override a referendum and the May take it or leave it parliamentary vote given as a sop to keep Tory rebels in line will be a farce and will be seen as a farce. But a second referendum would not. We have two years to organise and the outcome would not be guaranteed. But it can be won.
And the advantages are massive. I have a dream – of a united Labour party from Momentum to Labour First. The Labour Representation Committee (Mark II) routed. Destroying the faux radicalism of the Lib Dems and the SNP, Marching into battle and routing the hard right May- UKIP Brexiteers. And stopping Trump’s intention to destroy the EU and NATO. Its only a dream.
But you’ve gotta have a dream
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009