• Patrick Cox

Labour and Brexit: not believing in leaving?

Updated: Feb 10, 2019

What is the point of Labour's position on Brexit?

Barry Gardiner Shadow Secretary of State for International Aid and Development let slip his true opinions about Brexit
Barry Gardiner let slip his true opinions about Brexit

It's hard to tell what Labour really thinks about Brexit. Or at least it's been hard to tell, until Barry Gardiner let slip that the Labour's stated policy position is "bollocks".

That situation is that while (1) the Labour Party campaigned to remain in the EU, (2) the referendum vote went against them. What has been tricky has been reconciling these two opposing realities. Leaving the EU will be detrimental to the country as a whole, which most within the Parliamentary Labour Party recognise. The official post-referendum policy is a hopeless papering over of cracks: that the UK would leave the EU while keeping "the exact same benefits" as staying in. I, and many others, pointed out at the time that this was a total nonsense.

Gardiner's comment - meant to be kept private - acknowledges the impossibility of Labour's public position. Which does beg the question: if Gardiner, and presumably everyone else, knows their policy is "bollocks" then why stick with it

On the one hand there's the problem that Jeremy '7.5' Corbyn has never been that keen on the EU and wasn't exactly that upset that the UK voted to leave. The Labour Party under his leadership was never going to be full throated in its opposition to Brexit while it was led by the arch-Bennite. However, not even all Corbyn's allies are as anti-EU as Corbyn was. So there must be another reason why Keir Starmer - an intelligent man - had to come up with such an abjectly bad position on Brexit.

Presumably it is because it is to Labour party political advantage to let the Tories get the messy business of Brexit out of the way, implode, as they surely will, and leave the way clear for the Labour Party to stroll in and form a government. It is a tactic beset with difficulty, not least that the public are not so stupid as politicians seem to think and it will become increasingly obviously how self-serving an approach it is.

More than that, though, it is a betrayal of the Labour Party's role as an opposition. If parliamentary democracy is to work then the opposition must put forward opposing policies and scrutinise, rather than let the government of the day smash themselves on the rocks whilst keeping quiet.

Even worse though: while Gardiner, who in his unguarded comments was being critical of the idea, reveals the extend to which the Labour Party is lacking ideas on Brexit. His alternative proposal for the party policy was just to say 'we'll hold them to account on their claim to be leaving with exactly the same benefits'. That might have spared him some blushes inside his local party having to enunciate a party line he didn't believe in, but it hardly helps the rest of us.

If the Labour Party doesn't believe in Brexit it should collectively say so and become a conduit for the alternatives - like a vote on the terms of exit - or else admit they're not up to the job.


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