Will the decision to back a soft Brexit hurt Labour’s prospects in the upcoming election further, or would it help? And what would it do to Labour’s prospects in the long run? Ben Margulies looks at the evidence and explains how Labour can avoid becoming irrelevant and how it can recover its position as the leading party of the left.
After an extended period of division and confusion, it seems Labour may finally have picked a stance on Brexit. On April 25, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, announced that Labour would prioritise maintaining the … benefits of the single market and customs union,” and would unilaterally guaranteed currently settled EU citizens in the UK the right to remain. In effect, Labour has opted for “soft Brexit,” which would keep most of the trade and regulatory architecture of the Union intact. The price for that – as the Conservatives will quickly point out – will be abandoning Theresa May’s main Brexit goals, among them no more EU courts and no more free movement of people.
Why did Labour choose a soft Brexit? Simply put, because most Labour voters did – between 63 and 71 per cent, actually. Although Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands and North of England voted to Leave, according to the British Elections Study Panel, nearly 70 per cent of Labour voters outside Greater London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU. Even in the North, the total was 57 per cent. YouGov’s exit poll found Labour voters only slightly less committed to Remain than the Liberal Democrats’ (65 per cent to 68 per cent). And the party membership wants to attract Remain voters, not Leavers – a poll published in the Telegraph found that the nearly 80 per cent of members who backed Corbyn in 2016, and about half of those who backed challenger Owen Smith, wanted to appeal to other parties’ voters rather than Tory/UKIP ones.
Regarding negotiation strategies, a YouGov poll from September found that 47 per cent of Labour voters wanted Labour to “accept Brexit but seek to maintain a close relationship with the EU after we leave.” Ipsos MORI discovered in October 2016 “that no fewer than 61 per cent of 2015 election Labour voters believe that Britain should prioritise ‘access to the single market’ and only 28 per cent ‘having control over immigration’”. Another YouGov poll, from early 2017, found that:
- only 18 per cent of 2015 Labour voters favoured the free-trade-only deal Theresa May seems to be advocating;
- 25 per cent want something like what Starmer is now offering;
- 18 per cent want a second referendum;
- 15 per cent want to reverse Brexit.
Thus, the soft or no Brexit options win the support of 58 per cent of Labour voters.
Will choosing a side in the Brexit stakes help or hurt Labour? In the terms of this election campaign, the answer depends on how willing voters are to give Labour a hearing. With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, they seem singularly unwilling. If Labour is able to get a coherent “soft Brexit” message out, however, it might stem some losses to the Liberal Democrats, who are trying hard to position themselves as the party of Remain. But it will do little to defend Labour from tactical-voting initiatives designed to target pro-Brexit Labour MPs, or MPs who oppose a vote on the Brexit deal.
In the longer term, that positioning could be very important. Brexit is fast becoming its own cleavage in British society – a permanent social divide that structures identity, organisation and political choice. These cleavages determine the shape and purpose of political parties, which advance the interests of one part of society or the other. There are almost always multiple cleavages, and indeed there are in Britain – there is still a socioeconomic left and right, and there are divisions over other social issues like law and order or the environment. In Scotland, the major division is between nationalist and those who want to preserve the Union.
In a recent paper, Hooghe and Marks argue that a cleavage is developing between those who believe in and benefit from “European integration, immigration, and universalist-particularistic values” and those who favour “protection of national (and western) values, defense of national sovereignty, opposition to immigration, and trade scepticism.” The Economist made the same case in an issue last year. This is sometimes rendered as a battle between globalisation or cosmopolitanism on one side, and nationalism or protectionism on the other
This cleavage encompasses a wide variety of issues. It is a contest over values – between individualism and collectivism, nationalism and internationalism, universal rights versus national rights. It is a battle between contrasting identities, much like the centre-periphery cleavage in Scotland. And it partly enfolds the traditional class cleavage, as it is the working and lower-middle classes which lose the most from globalisation. The Brexit cleavage is thus inescapable for any party wishing to remain relevant to contemporary politics.
Labour would probably prefer not to take a side in this battle. Its electoral coalition is starkly divided over the issues. Jeremy Corbyn has tried to promote a more traditional stance as a left-wing party favouring redistribution and public services. But the truth is, if it takes no position on this cleavage, Labour will cease to be relevant and could die. Social-democratic parties are already in trouble because, within the neoliberal consensus, they can do so little for lower-income voters. If they fail to take a stance on the most important bundle of issues in contemporary Europe, they risk becoming still more irrelevant, losing voters to protectionists on the one hand and the pro-globalisation liberal camp on the other, which is precisely what happened to the Socialist Party in France.
Labour already faces a similar problem in Scotland. There, the left-right divide has been occluded not by Brexit, by a classic centre-periphery divide, one between nationalist (who portray themselves as both pro-Europe and social democratic) and pro-Union parties. Labour has struggled to position itself on this cleavage; it is Unionist, but has no appealing policy to offer on that subject that would distinguish itself from the Scottish Conservatives. They have proposed federalism, but vaguely and grudgingly, and federalism has long been a Liberal Democrat policy anyway. As a result, Scottish Labour has become mostly irrelevant. In the meantime, the Conservatives, with a more definite position on the centre-periphery cleavage and more popular leadership, are surging in Scotland.
So Labour has to pick a side. And the best shot it has for the future is to pick the side of liberalism, because that’s where the party’s voters are. Hooghe and Marks point out, parties are stubborn creatures, with historic identities and commitments; they do not like abandoning these identities and positions, which is why new parties tend to arise when new cleavages do. Labour does not want to admit to itself that it is, for the most part, a middle-class progressive party, and that it has little future as a party of a declining white fraction of the working classes.
If Labour does not embrace a position on the globalization-communitarian divide, it risks becoming irrelevant, as another “progressive” party will do it for them. But Labour is already far larger than the Lib Dems or the Greens – its main rivals for the anti-Brexit vote; if it takes a firm stance, it can recover its position as the leading party of the left and perhaps secure its future. This may be the only way Labour can survive the Brexit years intact. Perhaps more importantly, a strong cosmopolitan Labour Party can help keep liberalism itself strong and healthy. The alternatives are not pretty.
Ben Margulies is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick.
Brexit is safe with Labour. Corbyn will lead the country out of the single market. He is much more Eurosceptic than May.
I struggle to see in Keir Starmer’s speech the sort of soft Brexit that was in favour soon after the referendum result.
Then soft Brexit was more or less EEA membership: single market, freedom of movement, but no political commitment to the EU.
What Keir Starmer is promising is first a reformed single market without freedom of movement. We can assume that the EU will not change its position so that won’t happen. Then he is promising the best trade deal that gives the benefits of single market and customs union consistent with control of immigration. That is the same promise that Theresa May is making. We can assume that Labour would prioritise trade while May would prioritise immigration. (Though it is not clear that the EU see the trade-off between those two policies.) But both are offering variants of hard Brexit. The difference between them is real for sure but hardly worth bothering about if you consider the difference Remain/ Brexit.
Labour got themselves into this mess partly because of the long-standing doubts of Jeremy Corbyn and the left about EU membership (did he vote Leave?). But also because of a misreading of the electoral politics. True, most Labour MPs represent Leave constituencies. But Professor Curtice’s work showed hat even in those constituencies Labour voters voted Remain. So in blocking off the the almost non-existent threat from UKIP, Labour has lost its Remain voters.
And what is clear is that Labour voters want a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain (or a Parliamentary vote with the option to Remain). Labour’s current insistence that in a vote on the terms the only option would be to go back and negotiate some more is not what its voters want.
Support for a referendum on the terms amongst Labour voters is: 56% (Survation/ Sunday Post 23 April 2017), 55% (YouGov/ Sunday Times 23 April 2017), 40% (YouGov 17 March 2017 with a further 18% wanting a Parliamentary vote, so 58% for a real vote with the option to Remain) 41% (ICM/ Guardian 24 January 2017 with a further 19% wanting a Parliamentary vote, so 60% for a vote to Remain).
The essential point is that what most Labour voters want is to Remain in the EU. What both Theresa May and Keir Starmer are promising is that voters can have their single market cake and eat their immigration control. When the terms are finally settled we will find out just what the cost of immigration control is. Then we should have the referendum on the terms – that is what Labour voters want – and what Labour will not give them.
Labour can rely on immense reservoirs of tribal loyalty. But a Labour Remainer could vote for one of the 19 Labour MPs who voted for the referendum on the terms or one of the 47 Labour MPs who opposed Article 50, if they are going to be similarly rebellious in the the new Parliament. But otherwise a Labour voter who prioritised Brexit should vote Liberal Democrat.
The so called soft brexit, or remaining in the eu in all but name, option is not what we voted for, although it has become the wet dream of the remainers, we voted for what has been dubbed hard brexit, or as we know it leaving the eu. The labour prospective candidates need to ignore the mass medias inaccurate claims that only hard line right wing tories voted out, because there was actually a large proportion of Labour voters who voted leave. There is also a large amount of people who still believe in democracy, rather than the eu’s version of it where you only count if you agree with with the unelected commission, so to alienate the electorate by saying you want to be democratically elected to undemocratically try to ignore a democratic decision would be a strange stance to adopt.
Labour already is irrelevant. The leader is a long-time Brexiteer long before the term was coined. He has not changed. In fact, he is totally absent. His allotment requires attention as does his jam-production duties. A good man with no statesmanship or leadership abilities. Sadly, power and strength matters. Intelligence, common sense and vision do not matter, facts to the contrary notwithstanding.
Some of us will never vote Tory. Some of us will always vote Labour. Mavis is right to call and make this election all about Brexit. This is right because Brexit will successfully destroy the nation. Suicide is very popular in Britain, legal or not. The 48% should vote against the Tories because they know that Brexit means the end of everything they hold dear. Labour has not grasped the nettle or mettle. The Lib Dems have grasped it. Remoaners should all vote for the Lib Dems as Brexit is the most important issue since Bonaparte and Hitler threatened the world.
Perhaps Brexit is merely the last dying gasp of the British Empire, the last nail in the coffin of a tiny island in a globalized world of the present and future for-evermore. There is no going back in spite of Trump &co. The problems lie with capitalism and the improper human nature characteristic of greed, selfishness and the love of killing. Tyranny and authoritarianism rules, ok. Liberté Egalité Fraternité is replaced by Orthodoxy Autocracy Nation-ism. Hitler cheers while Churchill and G. Washington writhe and turn graveside.