Why we shouldn’t worry about Labour’s embrace of Brexit

Keir Starmer has resiled from his earlier Remain convictions. But the stance may well have different consequences. Picture credit: Sky News

A constant complaint from British pro-Europeans these days is that Keir Starmer, leader of the official opposition to this government, isn’t anti-Brexit enough and indeed, doesn’t in fact appear to be anti-Brexit at all. “Make Brexit Work” is the slogan Labour have adopted and it has caused many who remain passionately anti-Brexit on the left, where pro-European sentiment is still as strongly felt as ever, to reject Starmer and for some to say there is no difference between a Tory government and a Labour one in this regard.

For many, this tendency got worse this week when the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, refused to denounce Brexit repeatedly in an interview with Andrew Marr. She kept saying that Labour wouldn’t take Britain back into the single market, preferring instead to talk about tweaks to the current model Labour would make to ease tensions, such as a proposed veterinary agreement. 

I am here to defend Labour’s current Brexit policy. Not because I believe Keir Starmer is the man to reverse Brexit but because I feel certain he will do two things if he becomes prime minister: one, he will almost certainly ameliorate the worst of Brexit just by dint of wanting to be electorally popular; two, even if he doesn’t intend this, he will inevitably begin the process of unwinding Brexit altogether.

Before anyone accuses me here of being some kind of Labour partisan that would defend the party regardless, I should mention that I’m turning 50 this year and I have never voted Labour at a general election yet. I’ve mostly voted Lib Dem, but barring something dramatic happening, I will vote Labour at the next general election – and counterintuitively, it is partly down to issues around the UK’s relationship with Europe, even though in my heart I wish they could be more visibly against our having left the European Union.

Rejoin? It’s blasphemy for the Tories

Brexit has become an article of religious faith within the Conservative Party. If you doubt me on this, one need look no further than the reaction to Tobias Ellwood’s article on why Britain should rejoin the single market. It was in the government’s interests to not mention the piece and indeed, to put out the order for everyone to ignore it completely. It had been published on a website little read outside of the Westminster bubble and by piling on to Ellwood over it, all the Tories did was amplify the idea that re-joining the single market might be a good thing. Yet they could not help themselves – Ellwood had committed blasphemy and the church could not allow that from a sworn-in member. 

It is clear that the Tories will remain unable to have a serious discussion about post-Brexit Britain until they are out of office. The incentives will always be there to ramp up the hardest Brexit possible until the electorate punish them for it. They cannot fix the situation they themselves created unless they are chucked out of office and forced to think again.

“The more the Conservatives go on about Brexit in the next general election campaign – in the face of a Labour party not discussing it that much – the more they will be simply reminding people that they didn’t get it ‘done’. Why are the Tories still talking about this, they will ask?”

Yet Labour are still in a bind on Brexit, one that Remainers have little to no sympathy towards, despite the fact that getting this right may decide who forms the government after the next general election. The Tories want to fight that election along culture war lines. They want to be able to say that Labour don’t know what a woman is, hate the flag and the country, you know the routine. Brexit will be part of this, for it has become largely a culture war issue, even though that logically makes little sense. What the hell does being inside or outside the structures of the European Union have to do with “wokeness”? The obvious answer is nothing, but that isn’t how enough people feel about it for now. 

Why so many wanted to ‘get Brexit done’

You might think to add here that the majority of the British public, when polled, think Brexit was now a bad idea. So why would it be so toxic for Labour to talk about the downsides of Brexit or downright campaign to reverse it? Because one of the things that helped the Tories win the 2019 general election was “get Brexit done” – but not for the reasons most Tories seem to think. Your average voter was sick of the fighting around Brexit and wanted it out of their lives. They wanted it all to go away so we could talk about something else for a change. It wasn’t that the public desperately wanted Brexit for its own sake – they just wanted it to be over and done with. They didn’t want any more parliamentary infighting about it and definitely (sorry about this) did not want a second referendum on the topic.

Sign of the times? Updated campaign sticker at a bus stop in Hastings. Photo credit: Rick Dillon

The positive of this from a Labour perspective is that with their current position, which basically goes, “We will not reverse any major structural aspect of Brexit, but we will get rid of the worst parts of Johnson’s deal and make things work for the country”, they will be putting the Tories into checkmate. The more the Conservatives go on about Brexit in the next general election campaign in the face of a Labour party not discussing it that much, the more they will be simply reminding people that they didn’t get it “done”. Why are the Tories still talking about this, they will ask? Labour will seem like the reasonable and sensible ones on this subject, in line with the public, while Johnson and his bunch will seem like the ones obsessed with continuing to talk about something they promised everyone last time out they would lay to rest – but have clearly failed in that regard.

What terrifies hardcore Brexiters

I know that from the perspective of 10 years from now, having a Labour Party that won’t even talk about single market re-entry when some Tory backbenchers are already happy to vouch for it will seem insane. But everything about Brexit will seem insane in 10 years’ time, so that doesn’t help. Starmer doesn’t need to win an election a decade from now – he desperately needs to win the next one. And if he does, his government will draw closer to Europe on things like veterinary agreements and other tweaks. The hardcore Brexiters are terrified of this happening because it will set in train a difficult to reverse sequence which goes like this: moving closer and closer to the EU on regulatory alignment, joining a customs union with them, single market membership, then full rejoin.

Once Brexit loses its revolutionary zeal, it will be shown to be hollow.

But may I be bold here and suggest that it may well be the Conservative party that takes us back into the single market and perhaps even full EU membership. If that sounds insane, remember that we live in insane times but we won’t always. At some point, the country will come to its senses on Brexit. But it almost certainly won’t be before the next election, which is why Starmer and his shadow cabinet are playing the issue just about right for now.

I know you’d all like things to happen quicker and for Labour to be a catalyst for that. But we are where we are and Labour winning the next election is the most important thing by miles if you care about halting the craziness of the last decade. Please, let’s all give them space to do that.  

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