Do we think that Labour could do a U-turn on Brexit after winning a General Election fought on its current policy platform? In my view, it would be reassuring to know the answer could be yes, but it is not at all sure that we do know this.
Motivated by fear, not conviction
Labour must win the coming General Election, but even if they are able to do so on their current platform, their current policy commitment to Brexit severely compromises their subsequent chance of governing successfully. Commitment to a permanent Brexit deprives Labour of its single most effective instrument to repair a broken economy. At the moment, Labour expends a heavy considerable opportunity cost in denying what they know to be the real national interest, a denial which everyone must know to be motivated by fear, not conviction.
Of course, Labour can agree some elements of a ‘new deal with EU’ while respecting the terms of its current negative commitments, but these are not enough, and neither is the proposed national political economy of green Keynesianism – excellent in itself, but not enough. We need to be in the single market, stupid. When you take a stance that doesn’t add up, however obstinately and bone-headedly, the hostile MSM will sniff out any hidden ‘remoanerism’, they will savage you for it as before, as in 2019 indeed, and you will waste your precious pre-election window for public attention and positive agency on endless defensive protestations which will never be fully convincing because they will never be rationally justifiable or sincere.
Stella Creasey MP has been right to say publicly to Starmer that Labour’s current unadulterated and brainless Brexitry won’t do, but this itself is little more than deceptive tokenism and trickery if one pretends that a few local palliative steps (which Labour may be, and should already to be at least exploring behind the scenes with EU interlocutors) will ‘make Brexit work’, if by that we mean recover the 4% of our GDP which has so far been lost to us by Brexit.
Concede and move on?
Labour has been down this path before, in the 2010-15 parliament, when Ed Miliband was persuaded by clever Blairite advisors – or by a political academic [Tim Bale] invoking a new Labour guru [Philip Gould], that its smartest option was to tacitly shoulder the blame for the 2008 financial crash, refuse to fight accusations that it had ‘maxed out the national credit card’, and practise a supposed winning Blairite maxim: “if you have lost the argument, then, almost irrespective of who was right and who was wrong, you should ‘concede and move on’.”. This did not work out well. As Steve Richards pointed out at the time, “‘Sorry we screwed up the economy – Vote Labour’ is hardly a winning slogan”. Neither, you might say, is “Sorry we suggested Brexit would hurt our economy – vote for Labour and Brexit”.
Starmer’s strategy lead, the pollster and New Labour veteran Deborah Mattinson, thinks he should concede Brexit and move on, because all-important Red Wall working class swing voters will never be persuaded to revisit the case for Brexit. Maybe this advice is long overdue for testing against recent evidence, and exposure to more careful scrutiny.
A requirement for Labour to think differently
It’s an ill wind. The current Brexiter economic catastrophe both requires Labour to think differently and gives it permission to do so. Until now or very recently, public opinion has been cushioned by media censorship and gaslighting to think that the material consequences of Brexit are immaterial or inconsequential. Now the public is being exposed to an ever more glaring absence of benefit from Brexit, along with spreading awareness of crimes, violations and assaults on the public good which, if not caused by Brexit, as its unplanned consequences, alias ‘externalities’, are enabled by Brexit as planned and intentional exploitations of opportunities and impunities previously hindered by legal and conventional restraints and norms.
The public is now able to see Brexit as it is, that is to say as something done not for it, but against it, not as the insurgency of a silent majority against its exploiters and oppressors, but as an organised assault by oligarchic interests on the common good. The key change which has taken place is that the revolutionary populist political logic of the referendum and the people’s will has been trumped by the logic of collective material survival. Labour’s number one problem now is not to demonstrate its obedient submission to the people’s will (timestamped 2016), but to acquire and exercise the mandate to govern in the national interest, and to fulfil that mandate.
Our impending national bankruptcy trumps the cult of Brexit.
In the light of this, a sensible Labour stance at a General Election in current circumstances might be:
“We will do whatever it takes to rescue our economy, including our trading relationship with our biggest partner, the EU. This is an emergency. Nothing is off the table.”
What does making Brexit work mean?
In his conference speech on Tuesday, Sir Keir Starmer mentions Brexit a few times, none of which (designedly) features in headline media reports. This low profile was certainly intended. The comments are designed to communicate minimal meaning, to provoke minimal pushback, and to engage minimal commitment. Recent public statements by Starmer and his colleagues about Brexit have been near-Orwellian and near-abjectly devoid of intelligent and meaningful content. In this speech, Starmer makes a significant but cleverly camouflaged adjustment. The adjustment is that the “Brexit” which purportedly has to be “made work” is now understood to connote a range of voter wishes which neatly coincide with Labour’s policy offers. “Making Brexit work” turns out to mean reducing regional inequality, supporting the disadvantaged and the left behind, repairing the cruelties of austerity and malign neglect, and governing in the interest of the 99% rather than the 1% (or fewer).
Fine. On this logic, “making Brexit work” can, though this is not openly stated, perfectly well mean rejoining the EU, or certainly the single market. Let us not despair, at least not on this account. Six years ago, we were told by an incoming Prime Minister (who had voted Remain) that “Brexit means Brexit”. Now we are told, if not in so many words, by our prospective next Prime Minister, that ‘making Brexit work’, as newly understood, can perfectly well mean undoing Brexit, wholly, incrementally or in part. We can drink a glass of beer to that.