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Corbyn hasn’t changed Labour’s Brexit policy, just where the emphasis lies

09 Feb 2019 6 minute read
Picture: Chatham House (CC BY 2.0)

Daran Hill, Managing Director at Positif public affairs consultancy

I rarely write about Brexit. It mainly bores me, or frightens me, or eludes me.

The few musings I have offered on the subject in recent years have tended to be about the absolute shower who ran the Remain campaign so pitifully badly, and quite why the Welsh electorate voted Leave.

Others more clued up than me have waxed lyrical at every twist and turn in the Brexit saga and been paid for doing so, even where they have got it painfully wrong or been churning out copy as a way to spread the propaganda of their own beliefs.

(By which I mean everyone from Boris downward, or upward, depending on your way of looking at things.)

So first a few cards on the table. The extremism of the Brexit debate has pushed me toward the middle. I voted Remain a bit like Jeremy Corbyn, believing it was about 70% the right thing to do. This put me in the minority in both Wales and the UK, and I have always respected that.

There are some things on the Brexit spectrum that prompt extreme reactions from me, though. I think it was ridiculous of Jeremy Corbyn to call for an immediate Brexit back in June 2016. I think the Prime Minister has wasted too much time where she was not actually negotiating with anyone, and the crushing defeat of her proposals at the start of January could and should have been avoided.

I think it was tactically inept of Corbyn not to go to Downing Street for talks earlier than now.

I think any Brexit which imperils the peace in Northern Ireland is too high a price.

I think the rhetoric from Donald Tusk is as bad as anything I have heard from Jacob Rees-Mogg, and I usually try and tune out both of them.

I also think the politics of the last few years related to Brexit has been shouty, intolerant and often obnoxious (My friends might suggest I am well equipped to identify these characteristics following years of self-reflection).

The politics has also lacked respect for different opinions, and respect for the decision which both the UK and Wales made – to leave the European Union.

That is a fundamental point for me. While being open-minded on whether the final deal should be put back to a public vote, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of a People’s Vote on the same proposition as 2016 because it has been vocally sold as a way of reversing that referendum.

But I have yet to hear anyone explain to me how such a vote will heal a divided country. And by country I mean either Wales or the UK, and I don’t intend to get hung up on the terminology. Is an inconvenient truth to so many that Wales voted Brexit.

I don’t doubt people are sincerely of the belief that Brexit should be avoided at all costs and by whatever means.

The Liberal Democrats were always in that space, and Plaid Cymru took a bit longer to get there than I had anticipated. A handful of Conservatives and a decent slice of Labour are in that space too.

I use the description “decent slice” of Labour deliberately. It is not a play on the decency of those individuals, but rather a reflection that it is not the majority but neither is it the small minority of referendum reopeners that can be found in the Conservative Party.

It is a decent enough of a slice to have to be accommodated, without letting them set the total policy.

Rumblings within Labour, both the Welsh brand and the bigger one, seem decidedly darker as the week draws to a close. The problem for the party has been right there since the moment the UK – and Wales – voted for Brexit.

Policy fudge

Indeed, you could argue that the problem was there during the Brexit referendum too, where much of the Labour movement was lukewarm in campaigning for the Remain option, which was, of course, the official party policy.

Reconciling the result of the referendum with a unifying strategy for Labour has been its biggest challenge ever since. They succeeded in doing so during the 2017 General Election only by adopting a party policy that committed to Brexit, while at the same time challenging some of the terms.

On Brexit, the manifestos of Labour and Conservatives weren’t that far apart and allowed the election result to be interpreted as over 80% of the UK electorate endorsing a commitment to Brexit.

You could vote Labour in 2017 comfortably if you wanted to Brexit, or if you wanted to not Brexit in the way the Conservatives wanted to Brexit, or if you wanted a further chance to vote on it some way off in the future. That was the beauty of the catch-all, everything to every voter, policy fudge that Labour offered the electorate in that election.

They have been delicately tiptoeing around the issues ever since, knowing that on this issue there is as much of a fundamental schism within the party as there is in the electorate.

Yet at the same time, a sizeable minority of Labour’s AMs and MPs have been committed to going back to the electorate and re-running the 2016 referendum. They have had to be appeased alongside the desire to negotiate a managed Brexit around six tests that hardly anyone can remember and that the “decent slice” of Labour never talks about because they don’t want to discuss that part of the policy platform.

Both the Second Vote and the managed Brexit argument were encased in a party policy endorsed by the last UK Labour conference, and replicated in other resolutions such as the motion passed by Welsh Labour in the Assembly last week.

It included a commitment to look to prepare for a new referendum. It also included other things, but for the supporters of a People’s Vote, it was only that element which mattered, so that’s all they talked about.

Which again speaks to the heart of the problem for Labour: its supporters and representatives only supporting and vocalising the bits of its nuanced policy on Brexit that they agree with.

The word “nuanced” is meant both kindly and diplomatically…

This is the context in which Jeremy Corbyn has now written to the Prime Minister to offer a constructive dialogue on the way forward. Labour didn’t change its policy on Brexit this week, it just changed the emphasis.

Plenty of Labour politicians have been de-emphasising every aspect of the policy except the potential for a second referendum for months. This week, Corbyn put the emphasis back on seeking compromise and negotiation.

The ”decent slice” haven’t been sliced out, but they are no longer in the vocal ascendant that they have been in Labour.

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