Article Published April 13th, 2021
The UK faces various serious difficulties at present that share a common cause. Brexit does not explain each of them in its entirety. But it is fundamental to an understanding of them all. There is already clear evidence of departure from the EU’s inflicting substantial economic damage on the UK. The recent downturn in trade in goods in both directions, but particularly exports, is difficult to dismiss solely as caused by the pandemic or as being only of a short-term nature. Similarly, services – and in particular the financial sector – have also suffered in ways that are even more directly and wholly connected to Brexit. The decision to leave the EU has contributed to a worrying destabilisation of the Northern Ireland peace process. Northern Ireland aside, a further problem – from the point of view of those who support the whole of Great Britain remaining part of the Union – has manifested itself. Not only in Scotland, but also to a significant though lesser extent in Wales, independence movements have gained in momentum during the nearly half-decade of turbulence that has followed the referendum of 2016.
It is understandable that the Conservative leadership would want to avoid critical scrutiny of these tendencies and its role in them. Especially uncomfortable would be the promotion of accounts that presented Brexit as a theme common to them all. Not only have these problems occurred while the Conservatives have been in office. The Party has been in power, in coalition or on its own, since 2010. During this time its most significant activity has been to preside over the whole of the Brexit enterprise to date. The opportunity certainly exists for Labour firmly to promote a narrative of multiple failures arising from a defining Conservative folly. Such a rhetorical exercise surely has attractions for the official Opposition. Labour is no longer deriving the political benefits from the pandemic response issue that it did in 2020. The theme of Brexit and its consequences could be a new basis for targeting the government.
That the Labour leadership is not fully exploiting this opportunity is understandable. The party faces considerable challenges, some of which are discussed below. Nonetheless this reluctance is seemingly disadvantageous even from a partisan perspective. Furthermore, it means that the government is not being challenged in the way it might otherwise be, a shortcoming from a democratic and constitutional standpoint. An important political space is left vacant. Consequently it is easier for the government to pursue a repertoire of devices intended to deny the existence of any downsides, or else avoid blame for them. They include creating distractions, and minimising difficulties or claiming that they are not connected to Brexit. At times the outright denial of reality has been judged necessary. It has sometimes become too hard to assert that particular challenges – such as those connected to the Northern Ireland Protocol – do not exist, or that they have no association with Brexit. In these instances, leading Conservatives are careful to avoid conceding that such issues are intrinsic to Brexit or the variant of it the government has pursued. They do so through means such as asserting that the EU is acting in bad faith; blaming the businesses suffering from the new friction; or finding fault with the specific mechanisms developed to facilitate Brexit (apparently untroubled by appearing to distance themselves from agreements which they themselves reached and extolled in the recent past).
No doubt, even were Labour assertively and overtly drawing attention to the multifarious negative consequences of Brexit, the government would be utilising these various presentational and rhetorical tactics. Sections of the media would continue, as now, to amplify and elaborate upon such messages. Members of the public wishing to confirm their pre-existing dispositions on this subject would happily consume them. But there would at least be a firm counterview on offer from one of the two main political parties. That Labour is not offering it requires explanation.
A significant motive for current Labour reticence on Brexit involves a pervasive if vague perception of the nature of referendums. A view accepted among many (but not all) politicians and commentators is that an exercise in direct democracy, even if lacking legal force, can settle an issue for a prolonged period of time. If Labour were to call for the UK to re-join the EU, it fears being accused of acting unconstitutionally (including by some within the party itself) and disrespecting the will of the people as supposedly expressed on 23 June 2016. Even to question the particular way in which Brexit has been implemented would lead to similar charges. Such calculations influenced the decision by Keir Starmer to support the Trade and Cooperation and Agreement in December. Labour, at least at present, is set on being seen to accept the referendum result of 2016 (and what is held to be its reconfirmation at the General Election of 2019), and move on to making the best of the new status quo. In this respect the referendum has turned into a trap, which admittedly many parliamentary opponents of leaving the EU willingly helped set for themselves when supporting the passing of the European Union (Referendum) Act 2015. Rather than being an instrument of democracy, a popular vote is being used to supress debate of what is clearly a subject of the utmost importance. To accept some kind of embargo on criticism of Brexit is sometimes presented as part of a healing and reconciliation exercise. It might just as well be seen as capitulation to one side: that of the Brexit supporters. Meanwhile, those who advocated departure continue to campaign for their cause. Indeed, as the predicted problems have become reality, they seem (understandably) to be doing so even more intensely. Continuing to discuss Brexit, and even to complain about the way it has been realised and its consequences, is, for supporters of Brexit, entirely in order. It seems that the need to accept the result and move on applies only to the losers in the referendum.
In allowing itself to be muted by the referendum mandate principle, Labour is failing to represent the majority of its members and supporters, along with a substantial proportion of the wider public, who opposed Brexit and continue to regard it as having been a mistake. The members of the group sharing this outlook might not at this point coalesce around a precise course of action (such as seeking immediately to re-join, or to align more closely to the EU). But one of the tasks of political leadership, which Labour is currently failing to provide over this issue, is to present a policy which can bring together those of common underlying disposition. Furthermore, whatever Labour does or refrains from doing in relation to the EU, at the next General Election, the Conservatives and others surely have the intention of depicting Labour as unsound on the subject, and intending in some way to undo Brexit. Faced with this scenario, rather than accept the premise as defined by Brexit advocates, Labour might be better advised to attempt to reshape the terms of debate, emphasising the project as failing to deliver what was promised, and as being a source of new problems.
A discussion of electoral politics takes us to a further constitutional aspect of the dilemma faced by Labour. The so-called ‘First-Past-the-Post’, single member plurality system used for returning members of the House of Commons is known for magnifying the perceived importance of target voters in marginal constituencies. For Labour, a particular focus is on seats in England in which it previously possessed comfortable majorities, but which skewed heavily towards ‘leave’ in 2016, and that were won by the Conservatives in 2019. One school of thought is that, if the party appears still to be ‘remain’ inclined, then it will not be able to regain these seats, which are supposedly essential to its hopes of securing office. Some also hold that to be critical of Brexit is somehow to disrespect these ‘leave’ voters, questioning their judgement, and suggesting they were duped.
To deal with this final point first, at the next General Election, Labour will – as at any such contest – seek to persuade as many people as possible to vote for it. It will take a particular interest in encouraging those who did not cast their vote for Labour in 2019 to do so next time. The implication of such a campaign is that, in not voting Labour, they made a mistake, and were possibly misled by one of the other parties. It is not clear why this – perfectly standard – approach is acceptable, but openly disagreeing with the decision some people made in a referendum is somehow demeaning to the voters. More insulting to the intelligence of such voters would be to expect them to be convinced that Labour had undergone a genuine conversion and now recognised merit in Brexit.
Any attempt to mollify ‘leave’ voters in this way of necessity means to reject the concerns of ‘remain’ supporters. The latter are far more numerous among actual and potential Labour voters. Yet they have the misfortune of not being sufficiently concentrated in marginal constituencies. Which returns us to the electoral system and its impact. Labour has at times flirted with the possibility of supporting (or at least holding a referendum on) a shift to some form of proportional representation for UK parliamentary elections. But it has not yet fully committed to it (although in 1997 it made – but did not honour – a pledge to hold a referendum on the subject). That the existing system might deliver absolute Commons majorities for Labour is clearly a motivation for the Party to wish to maintain it. But Labour might do well to consider how much it benefits in the long run from single member plurality. In more than a hundred-and-twenty years of existence, it has won comfortable majorities in Parliament on just five occasions; and only twice when not led by Tony Blair. Another way of viewing the electoral system is that it is a means by which the Conservatives remain in power for the majority of the time, without needing even to come close to securing 50 per cent of votes cast. Under some form of proportional representation, Labour would have to cooperate with other parties to be able to form governments; and the party system itself might reconfigure and become more diverse. But Labour might find that it held office more often – and that the Conservatives did less so.
Yet those who wish to change the electoral system must first secure office through it. Whatever tactics it adopts, Labour faces a considerable challenge at the next poll. Avoiding serious and critical engagement with the issue of Brexit, if the party leadership is truly contemplating such an approach, would seem to be unsustainable between now and an election likely to take place in 2023 or 2024. Rather than being a route to success, Labour silence on electoral reform would represent rejection of a potentially effective political strategy. Commitment to electoral reform could itself facilitate collaboration with other similarly-inclined parties. While this idea has been discussed before but never pursued, some kind of electoral pact could maximise the effectiveness of the votes of their combined supporters. Labour might also do well to avoid an unhealthy fixation on regaining ‘leave’ voting seats lost in 2019. While they should not be written off, a more positive approach to the task should be found than avoiding criticism for being hostile towards Brexit.
In relatively recent times, Scotland was an important source of Labour’s strength in the House of Commons. Labour might explore the potential of presenting itself as the only party that wants to secure for Scotland the benefits of two Unions – through continued membership of the UK, and closer alignment with (and perhaps renewed membership of) the EU. There might be political capital in presenting both the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party as purveying variants on the same dishonest premise: that it is possible to retain the desirable aspects of being part of a larger unit, while formally leaving it, and becoming free of any associated unwanted responsibilities. Labour could offer reinforced protections for the autonomy of Scotland within the Union through the development of an entrenched federal system. Such a system would provide protection against encroachments of the type to which the Conservative Party presently seems attracted. It would also mean creating consistent devolved tiers of governance across the entire country, to ensure that the same degree of autonomy is available to all. Gaining ground in Scotland would do little or nothing to reduce the size of Conservative representation at Westminster. But it would enhance the prospects and credibility of Labour as a party that could won day secure a return to power.
The restraint currently exercised by Labour and Starmer on the subject of Brexit is sometimes presented as part of a wider pro-EU strategy. The intention may be to let events change the political balance, and to adjust accordingly. Waiting for economic damage to become as severe as possible, or for further undermining of the Northern Ireland peace process, might however be seen as irresponsible. It might also be that the time will never seem right to introduce a shift of position. We do not know either how bad Brexit-related problems will become, or what impact they will have on political discourse at UK level. It could also be that Starmer is serious about moving on and ‘making Brexit work.’ But if so, events might nonetheless force him and Labour to revisit this position. It seems highly unlikely that Labour will immediately adopt a policy of re-joining the EU. More plausible is that, as a first stage, it could come to advocate closer alignment with the EU. It might present this approach to the EU as a means of assisting the economy, improving circumstances in Northern Ireland, and recognising the position of those – in Scotland and elsewhere – who opposed and continue to dislike Brexit. Labour might be surprised by the popularity of such a programme, including among voters who are not traditionally inclined towards it. To many, the prospect of a path towards re-entry to the EU might seem a promise rather than a threat.
Labour could present this approach as part of a wider programme of constitutional reconstruction, including within it electoral reform and the establishment of a federal system. Changes of this type, if implemented, could be beneficial in themselves. They could also contribute to a change in the political culture of the UK, lessening the predominance of zero-sum outlooks, and emphasising the importance of negotiation and the sharing of power. This transition could make it possible for the UK to be a more constructive member of the EU, should it re-join at some point in the future. The Labour programme I have sketched in the most general terms here requires much more detailed treatment. But it should be clear that it would be bold. Caution has its place in politics. But it is more appropriate for those who have much to lose and little to gain. At present, the opposite is the case for Labour, and perhaps for the UK also.
Brexit demonstrators near the Labour Party conference 2019, by ChiralJon on Flickr, licensed under creative commons licence CC BY 2.0