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Labour’s Brexit Divisions

December 2nd, 2019

Political parties have always been coalitions in themselves. They are big tents and broad churches that try to keep everyone singing from more or less the same hymn sheet, or at least not fighting in the aisles. But sometimes you can see the stretch and the strain in the canvas as it tries to hold it all together. As James Maxton quipped during Labour party splits in the 1930s, “if you can’t ride two horses at once then you’ve no business being in the circus”.

Since becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has certainly undergone a crash course in dual equestrianism as longstanding fault-lines within the party were re-opened by the prospect of Brexit, and they all looked very familiar.

Harold Wilson had long been a pro-European in private, and during his first spell as Prime Minister Labour applied for the UK membership of the then-EC, but after his fall from office it was Edward Heath’s Conservatives who took charge of the negotiations for the UK’s entry. Wilson was against British membership under those terms and set the Labour party squarely in opposition to EC-entry. The Roy Jenkins-led revolts on the issue helped squeeze the bill through parliament, and culminated in Jenkins, Harold Lever, and George Thomson resigning from the cabinet (Jenkins and Thomson both went on to become Lib Dem MPs).

Faced with a divided party Wilson tried to bridge the rift by calling a referendum and outsourcing the decision to the people. The Labour manifestos of 1974 promised a referendum on re-negotiated terms but carefully avoided committing the party to one side or the other (for the sake of completeness Labour won a plurality of seats in February and a small majority in October). The party declared no official position for the referendum with the leading figures of the party splitting heavily in favour of staying in while the Trade Unions and wider membership supported leaving.

Wilson also decided that if democracy was good for the nation it might also be good for Labour. At the Labour Party conference of 1975 a vote was to be held with a condition attached. If either side won the vote with a 2:1 majority then it would become the official party stance. In the event the ‘leave’ side won only ~65% of the vote and neutrality was outcome by a whisker. Wilson held on to official impartiality for the start of the campaign before coming out in support of remaining within the EC.

Wilson used that vote to release the divisive pressure building within the party, while weighting things heavily towards the outcome of an officially neutral party that was split on the issue but not divided against itself. The leadership moved the decision out of its hands but kept a thumb on the scale.

Corbyn has followed many of Wilson’s decisions on neutrality but veered away when it comes to internal democracy. The party’s position of supporting a referendum and combining freedom to campaign with official neutrality was laid down by the leadership. It was a stance they’d taken such a hammering at the European Elections that holding on to a Labour Brexit was no longer possible and the leadership had to bow to the pressure from the remain wing of the party.

The party manifestos of 1974 and 2019 share many similarities, the support for a renegotiation of a Conservative deal and a referendum on the result alongside the calls for reform if remaining inside the European project. Modern manifestos have all extended greatly in recent years, the 2019 Brexit section at over 1200 words is significantly longer than both 1974 manifestos put together (about 650 and 250 words respectively) and in those extra words there’s a wealth of tension. It is clear and comfortable in what it is against, but when it comes to what it supports it reads like it was created during a Mexican standoff, with each side taking their turn to write a paragraph.

The Labour party conference in September passed a motion committing to the support of freedom of movement, in a significant shift from its pre-existing policy of ending it. In the 2019 manifesto there is a paragraph waxing lyrical about the benefits of immigration and freedom of movement to the country, and a very pointed omission of any commitment to retaining it in a Labour Brexit deal. It’s tempting to imagine Len McCluskey and Ian Lavery diving over the table to prevent it going any further.

The Labour party is now going out of its way to trumpet how it’s changing tack and going after leave voters. Its existing strategy of trying to focus on issues other than Brexit had delivered mixed results. Their focus on the NHS has coincided and probably helped it rise to being the most important issue of the election, but they still trailed heavily in overall voting intention polls. 

This new tactic suggests a powershift at the top of the party, but also sets it up for later conflict if it manages to surge in the coming weeks. Leavers will take it as evidence that the party should be pursuing a harder Brexit, while Remainers will point to the shifts that had already happened and claim it as a continuing trend. It’d be a problem Jeremy Corbyn would be delighted to have to deal with (as opposed to spending more time with the damsons on the allotment) but is something to keep an eye on.

Beyond the factional struggle for control is the question of whether the tactic is a good one for the campaign. It’s ostensibly aimed at winning back Labour leave voters who had defected to the Conservatives after it underestimated ‘the willingness of Leave voters to switch from Labour to the Conservatives.  They may have internal polling to recommend this view, but it would represent a shift from earlier in the year when BES data was showing anti-Tory tribalism outweighing leave voting preferences. For it to work it’s more likely that they’ll have to hope that the remnants of Brexit party support (sitting at a stubborn 3-5%) includes some voters they can pull back. It’s a hope that seems possible but doubtful, the hardcore last few percentage points of any party tend to be particularly difficult to shift.

They may be targeting undecided voters, and Ipsos-Mori’s November political monitor found that Labour supporters were far less likely to say they had ‘definitely decided’ (71% to 54%). But most of the undecided Labour voters are leaning Liberal Democrat as their second choice (and vice versa, while very few undecided Conservatives are considering Labour). One of the justifications for changing strategy was that the Lib Dems had not proved to be as big a polling threat as had been expected, when that could also be evidence of the previous strategy actually working.

It’s unlikely to make the campaign trail questions on Brexit any easier for Corbyn, especially when it becomes such an obvious target for any journalist looking to find an awkward spot to dig into (and Corbyn’s tendency to get riled up by such questions). When there’s such division within the party not just on remain vs leave but also on what a Labour Brexit would look like it makes pushing any clear message very difficult. Boris Johnson has taken an old political lesson, one mastered by the Labour party during the Blair years, and applied it relentlessly. The public like political parties to appear united in the ranks and clear in their messaging, the moment the politerati are utterly sick of a slogan is the moment the public starts to hear about it.

The Labour party are unlikely to be troubled by unity or clarity on Brexit, either before or after this coming election (and in victory or defeat). This new strategy probably won’t improve relations between each side. Corbyn needs to either find a way to get the horses going in the same direction, or he’s likely to fall through the gap between them.

Tomas Forsey

Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal