Soft Brexit is an illusion. Either Labour opposes or backs a hard Tory Brexit by default

by Trevor Fisher

The weekly dance at Westminster of the Parliamentary Labour Party over Brexit reached a new stage in the final week of March with Keir Starmer’s 6 tests of what Labour would accept to back Brexit.  It is not worth discussing them. They will be voted down and unless the Tories can be induced to split, then Labour faces a bleak future where it continually fails to set the agenda while the SNP (north of the border) and the Lib Dems (South of the border) collect the Remain votes.

While Ed Miliband’s speech at Open Labour was sad, possibly even sadder was Tom Watson’s weekly bulletin (1st April but not alas an April Fool’s joke)  in which he claimed “Labour won’t support a final deal which does not pass all these tests”, referring to Keir Starmer’s 6 tests earlier in the week. The PLP has lost every vote where it has voted against the Tory Brexit plans, and this will continue. Theresa May’s game plan is a hard Brexit to win the UKIP voter and destroy Labour in its northern seats, and it is formidable. However the belief that there is a soft Brexit – and not a clear choice to oppose Brexit, without playing a game that would split the party and the Northern MPs who are terrified for their seats – is no response for Labour.

Watson’s blog calls on May to honour her “strong commitments”  – she is doing so: she promised to deliver a an uncompromising Brexit –  and the relevant section ends “She needs to stand up to those in her party whose vision of Britain’s future is very different from that of most of the people who voted to leave the EU. And she needs to deliver a deal which meets her commitments. Labour’s tests and the aspirations of all British people, whether they voted Leave or Remain”. This is ungrammatical, fantasy politics.  There is no evidence Hard Brexit is not what Leavers voted for, though this can change, but arguing that the Leave and Remain voters have the same aspirations is to reinvent reality.

It is worth re-stating that Labour party policy is to require a general election or second referendum to get the support of the people for any deal – or reject the Brexit project. But this has been ignored by the parliamentary leadership though if the current position is maintained, the SNP win the Remain vote in Scotland, and Lib Dems damage Labour’s vote south of the border. As there is no electoral gain in pretending there is a soft Brexit, there have to be other reasons for Labour’s position, which stands to become increasingly irrelevant as SNP and Lib Dems define their positions.

Politics is currently dominated by Brexit, with a four way split – Tories and UKIP for Brexit, SNP and Lib Dems against. The Greens I would suggest are not merely irrelevant, but part of the problem as their presence – as a separate party, the Scots party, not a UK Party – at the Another Europe is Possible conference on April 1st indicated. Labour is not yet irrelevant, but is not firmly grounded in a principled position. And at the heart of the issues facing it, dramatised by the SNP move for a second referendum, is the fact that accepting the June 2016 referendum as final is folly. Since there is a persistent claim by Brexiteers that refusing to lie down and endorse the referendum as the end of the matter are ‘undemocratic’, it is worth underlining that the SNP finally destroyed the myth that either the Scots or the EU referendum were “once in a generation” choices. Cynical though the SNP are in exploiting Brexit, they are right that no referendum is ever final. May accepts that the SNP can call for a vote, only the timing is at issue, and the argument that the independence referendum result was not the final decision is correct politically, legally and constitutionally.

This is clear whatever Brexiteers say. Referendums are, as with laws in any parliament, operative only till challenged or defunct. No parliament can ever bind a later parliament, and only reality is final. The e-petition on a second EU referendum was put down by a Ukipper before the result was known (though not official UKIP policy I understand) because they thought they would need a second referendum. It is only since Brexit won that they claim this was a final decision, and Corbyn’s personal commitment to regard the outcome as binding has never been Labour party policy. While Labour could not vote against Article 50, the referendum did give a mandate to trigger the clause, but not an automatic acceptance of the deal, which is what the Tories are demanding.

Thus the battle for future referendums is on, both north and south of the border, and the Lib Dems will be moving a Westminster vote for a second EU referendum in May. It will lose of course – the Tories have a veto with a parliamentary majority – but what the Tories cannot argue constitutionally is that the motion is invalid. Farron has every right to move it, and how Labour will vote on Second Reading will be crucial. If Corbyn again marches into the lobbies with the Tories, its another nail in his political coffin.

There are still illusions about a soft Brexit, with some on the left apparently prepared to accept Brexit in return for access to the single market. The battle over the Great Reform Bill will sharpen minds particularly in the trade union movement. But as I am writing, it is worth underlining the distance Remainers have to go to clarifying the issues. The front page of the Observer carried the banner “The hard Brexiteers don’t have Europe to kick around anymore. And so, last week, they set their sights on domestic targets and labelled them ‘the enemy within’. The hate previously directed at Europe is now aimed at domestic opponents…” It is of course true that the EU campaign was only part of a viciously reactionary agenda, and the Trump phenomenon has clarified what that is.

However the Observer is wrong to believe that the Eurosceptics as they were once known are divided into hard and soft elements, or that they have won on Europe. There is no hard Brexit, only Brexit. The suicide note that May is currently trying to negotiate still leads to national suicide, though there are different forms of suicide and what she offers will be particularly painful. A sustained campaign against it is already up and running. And as it becomes clear that the path ahead is downhill, the poison will be directed at the enemy within, whose democratic right to oppose it is clear. But not yet accepted by the Labour party leadership. The leadership and the Labour party will have a very grim future until they do.

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

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2 Responses to “Soft Brexit is an illusion. Either Labour opposes or backs a hard Tory Brexit by default”

  1. John p Reid says:

    2 years from now people won’t be voting in whether someone was remain or leave, in fact many leave voters,in Stoke, be they ex labour or had voted Ukip in 2015′ backed a Tory who almost came third who voted remain

    The next election many seat where the Tories lost to labour by 5000 votes will be the ones, that the Tories can put up, candidates who backed remain, Estelle Mcvey. Or the Andrew hunter ,Shaun Bailey Cameron Remain spads and even though Ukip or ex labour Brexit voters know that those Tories backed remain, they’ll sooner vote Tory,as the Tories will have got Brexit through the commons,and labour could lose up to 70 seats

    The only lucky ones like Neil coyle taking his seat off Libdem simon Hughes won’t see their seat go Tory,so could keep it, unless Hughes ,never the biggest EU fan gets tactical Tory votes,

  2. Andy Howell says:

    The only ways of dealing with this is by using a very clear position that promotes the importance of the EU. Labour has real problems, not least that over the last few EU elections we haven’t wanted to actually mention Europe in the leaflets.

    I fear two lingering problems.

    Firstly, I suspect the tories will compromise sufficiently to have some trade deal which will be the single market in any other name. May’s traditional arrangements may become permanent. Why she will be able to do is decisively deal with benefit tourists — and that may be enough for many voters.

    The point is that the end result my still be blurred. Labour’s timidity in dealing with the issue won’t simply end there, they will triangulate everything with a panic fear of what voters might do to them.

    Lots of issues are being confused. The public don’t trust labour with Brexit — probably means that the public just don’t trust Labour under Corbyn with anything!

    The second problem is the impact on the economy.

    May’s transitional phases are designed to keep the big employers and industry happy — at least in the short term. She, May succeed in this, at least at the point where the deal is first sketched out. AN announcement that Toyota, Nissan and international banks are pulling out of the UK would be a disaster. But I doubt it will happen that quickly or clearly.

    Brexit may well be a slow burn disaster rather than a sudden collapse.

    In this scenario Labour are screwed again by its timidity.

    We have to have a very clear message early and and then sell it over the long term!


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