Many commentators say that the election result for Labour was about more than Brexit. It was, but Brexit was by far one of the major reasons for the result. 43 of the 47 constituencies Labour lost in the 2019 election were leave constituencies. To argue that Brexit was not a major factor, or that perhaps Labour could have won with a stronger remain position, is utterly deluded.
In his concession speech Jeremy Corbyn said Brexit had been one of the main reasons for Labour’s loss. This sentiment was shared by Momentum leaders Jon Lansman and Laura Parker during election night coverage. Others in the party and in the commentariat have dismissed this as too simplistic or a way of avoiding other issues (eg Corbyn’s leadership).
As one of my earlier blogs post alluded to, this election was about Brexit. The Tories won on a policy of get Brexit done. The election was called because parliament was in deadlock over Brexit. The election was to break the deadlock and get a new direction set.
For Labour Brexit was not good ground to be fighting an election on. In 2017 Labour’s increase in support happened when the election debate moved beyond Brexit onto other policy areas. Trying to use the same tactic in 2019 was not possible. Therefore to win Labour had to have a clear position on Brexit, and find a way to win both leave and remain voters. It was much like trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat when there is no rabbit or hat to be found.
In 2017 both Labour and the Conservatives stood on a platform of respecting the 2016 referendum result. In 2017 both Labour and Conservatives had leave and remain MPs, happy to deviate from the party line and express opinions in the media. In short neither party had a real advantage over the other on Brexit. Also negotiations with the EU had only just begun, and whoever won in 2017 would have to negotiate the withdrawal agreement and subsequent ongoing relationship with the EU.
For Labour it would have been better having lost the 2017 election, to let the Conservatives get Brexit done. If it went wrong it would be on the Tories watch. If it went ok, then the debate would move onto other issues that were potentially better ground for Labour (eg NHS funding, education etc). For Theresa May, the Brexit negotiations bogged her government down and resulted in her losing 3 votes in the House of Commons attempting to get her Brexit bill through. Ultimately it was the end of her leadership. But for Labour, the last 2 and a half years of Brexit paralysis was as damaging.
The party opposed May’s deal, but was split over what should happen instead. Some in Labour wanted a second referendum. Some MPs wanted a Norway style arrangement where Britain left the EU but stayed in the customs Union. A few MPs from mainly leave voting constituencies thought it best just to vote for May’s deal. It quickly became a factional issue. For those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn had since 2016 condemned his refusal to call for a second referendum. Others argued against taking such a position and called for the Party respect the referendum result – as it has promised to do in 2017. Former Labour MP Laura Piddock in her letter to voters after losing her constituency of North Durham put it this way:
I repeatedly argued, inside my party, that we should respect the result of the referendum and avoid a second one. Of course, when you are in the Shadow Cabinet, you are bound by collective responsibility and I respected that.
Laura, who prior to the election has been considered a potential future Labour leader, had respected collective responsibility. Contrast this with former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who was in the media on a daily basis calling for a second referendum and for Labour to adopt this as its strategy. A number of other high profile remain MPs did similar.
The eventual change in position came after months of pressure, and a polling bounce to the Liberal Democrats after Jo Swinson became leader (a poll bounce that did not last up till the election). Internally those aligned with Progress the New Labour/Blairite aligned faction within Labour really pushed the second referendum. However the left of party struggled with this issue. Momentum aligned Guardian Columnist Owen Jones started 2019 opposing a second referendum, but by June was supporting a second referendum. After the General Election Owen Jones claimed Labour’s second referendum position had cost Labour the election. Momentum, and Corbyn supporters generally were split on Brexit. Just as EU membership had been a minefield for Harold Wilson in the 1970s, so too was it for Corbyn and Labour in the 2010’s.
Labour appeared incoherent on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, a former Eurosceptic was trying to balance a line so not to alienate leave or remain voters. His opponents in and out of Labour could use this against him. And to the general public it was not clear how a Labour Government would resolve the crisis. The 2019 position of negotiating a new deal where the UK remained in the Customs Union then putting this deal to a referendum where remain would be the other option, alienated traditional Labour voters in leave constituencies.
43 out of 47 constituencies Labour lost voted leave in 2016. Had it not moved to a second referendum position, the party may have had a tougher time in London (where it did quite well in 2019). But when 52% of the country voted leave in 2016, and with little sign of public opinion shifting since then, taking a stronger remain position was not wise.
The question of Brexit and the European Union was a huge challenge for Labour from 2016 onwards. After this defeat Labour will have to seriously reconsider its position. This will not be easy for the Party. But only with a viable social democratic position which respects the 2016 referendum result will it return to government.
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