by Professor Richard G. Whitman

Richard G. Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at University of Kent; and Associate Fellow of Chatham House


The Parliamentary Labour Party is currently agonising on whether it will vote in support of the future relationship agreement that the UK Government is negotiating with the EU. Although the Conservative-led Government has not yet reached agreement with the EU, Labour is being forced to confront Brexit issues which it has sought to dodge under the leadership of Keir Starmer.

The current debate within the Parliamentary Labour Party is whether to support, vote against or abstain in any Westminster Parliament vote on the EU-UK Agreement. Labour’s dilemma is whether to support an Agreement which will have significant adverse consequences for the UK economy or by voting against an agreement, provide Prime Minister Johnson further ammunition for his line that Labour is controlled by “Islington Remainers” opposed to his triumphant Brexit denoument. As the Conservatives have a large majority in Parliament, Labour’s debate on the vote is a proxy for Labour’s unsettled policy on Europe. But it is also possible that Labour’s decision on how to vote could take on great significance for the Government if the terms of the agreement with the EU triggers a significant back bench rebellion. Labour’s divisions are cross-cutting: divided between MPs who are not reconciled to Brexit and those who have accepted it as a political fact; those who do not want to be seen to support the ‘hard Brexit’ negotiated by the Johnson-led Government and those that see supporting the agreement as demonstrating to voters that Labour wants the Brexit process concluded; and overlain by tactical considerations as to voting which way costs Labour the least difficulty with the electorate.

But it is often forgotten that whichever way Labour MPs vote, that of itself will not settle Labour’s hard choices on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. If an Agreement is reached between the EU and the UK before the end of the transition period it will just be a staging post in the UK’s future relationship with Europe and the EU. The Labour Party will still need to settle on its own policy for the UK’s future relationship with the EU and with Europe.

The Labour Party has shared with their Conservative counterparts their own history of division on Europe. This was a divide that was coterminous with the left-right divide in the party: UK Euroscepticism flourished on the left in the Labour Party of the 1970s and early 1980s and elements of the far left of the Party remained unreconciled to UK EU membership. The Brexit process has upended this alignment with Labour’s divide being on how to interpret and respond to the June 2016 referendum result. And this division has now merged with debate about how to regain the working class Brexit-voting electorate lost to Labour in the December 2019 General Election.

Whatever agreement the Government reaches with the EU it will provide for the barest-of- bones future relationship with its predominant focus on the EU-UK terms of trade. For Labour, and for future British Governments, the inadequacy of the Agreement to govern the complexity of the existing interrelationship between the UK and EU’s economies, societies and their shared security needs will soon be evident. For the rest of this Parliament Labour will be seeking to resolve the underlying tension within its ranks between those wishing to emphasize that the costs of non-membership of the EU are considerable and unavoidable; and those who reject any electoral platform that could be seen as seeking re-admission to the EU. As 2024 comes closer and looms larger in the Party’s policy deliberations this dilemma will become more acute.

However, even in advance of the General Election Labour will face greater EU-related discomfort. Three areas illustrate its problems:

First, the end of the transition period (either through Deal or Non-Deal) will see the impacts of Brexit much more visible than previously and likely much more visible to the electorate. Labour will need to offer its own critique as to the failings of the future EU-UK relationship agreement and how these can and should be mitigated. There will be some urgency to define this message as Labour confronts an electoral test of its position on Europe in the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021. The SNP will campaign on a platform of independence as a route to re-join the EU. What will be Labour’s offer to the Scottish electorate?

Second, incoming President Biden provides Labour with the welcome return of the Presidency to its U.S. political party soul-mate. But this is an Administration that already looks to be more willing to intervene on the negative consequences of Brexit than its predecessor and with especial concern for the effects on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Not being in office will mean that Labour does not suffer the effects of ‘special relationship anxiety’ that grips UK Governments with each new U.S. administration. Johnson will feel this acutely. Labour, however, may need to carefully navigate U.S. Presidential interventions in UK politics. Any satisfaction that derives from the Johnson Government’s discomfort with the Biden Administration may be tempered by questions as to how Labour would address U.S. concerns.

Third, what will be the Labour position on aspects of the EU-UK relationship that have not been covered in the Agreement currently being negotiated? The Johnson-led Government has approached these issues by not discussing them with the EU. Labour has not been required to articulate its alternative to the Government’s negotiating objectives. With an Agreement in place will Labour be content to see this as adequate for future EU-UK relations? Will Labour be willing to articulate a clear ‘upgrade’ to the relationship such as an EEA-type deal for the UK with the EU? Or will it pursue a ‘muddling through’ approach of reflexively arguing for ‘more EU’ against a Conservative Government which sees no reason for further agreements with the EU?

Labour has enjoyed a hiatus in debating its future policy on Europe as it has awaited the outcome of the Government’s negotiations on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Divisions that are apparent within the Labour Party on how to vote in Parliament on the Government’s EU-UK agreement lay bare differences that a future policy on Europe will need to reconcile. The Conservative Party has handled its difficulties on Brexit by changing leader, tacking towards an even harder Brexit policy and expelling dissenting ‘remain’ voices from the Parliamentary party. Labour has changed its leadership, lost a significant share of its core working class vote in a ‘Get Brexit Done’ General Election, but retained a largely ‘Remain-leaning’ body of Parliamentarians. Labour has not felt the urgency to articulate a future policy on Europe but this is looking increasingly unsustainable.