Largely due to Keir Starmer’s skilful leadership in the House, Labour may have won a tactical victory over the Tories in last month’s Commons debate over the Brexit timetable. But the two recent by-elections suggest that it may be losing the strategic battle. Labour did equally badly in pro-remain Richmond Park and pro-leave Sleaford. It is understandably nervous about the upcoming contest in Copeland.
These electoral problems strongly suggest that the party has lost its appeal to both sides in the debate over Brexit. Not surprisingly, as it appears to be abandoning its pro-remain position, without embracing leave with any enthusiasm.
The bulk of the party appears to have accepted John McDonnell’s early conclusion that the democratic result of the referendum must be respected, and that it would be a mistake to obstruct Article 50. This despite the narrowness of the result, and the patent lies of the leave campaign – 17 in number at the latest count. (The remainers may also have made extravagant claims, but were not guilty of knowingly making false statements).
But recognising democracy must also involve a recognition that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Labour voters supported remain, according to the pollsters and the detailed analysis made by John Curtice. Much is made of the fact that around two-thirds of Labour-held constituencies voted leave, but even in many of these it is probable that most Labour voters supported remain, and of course very many of the Lleave votes came from Tories or Ukip supporters.
The Labour party’s position now seems to be to press as hard as it can for a soft Brexit result, however improbable this appears both in terms of the government’s attitude and the reaction from the EU side. This is an inadequate response not only on behalf of its own voters but also on behalf of the electorate as a whole. Labour surely has an inescapable duty to ensure that the result of the negotiation should be put to the country as a whole, despite Mrs May’s obdurate refusal to countenance such an outcome.
It would be an unconscionable scandal if a hard Brexit – or even a soft one – were to be forced through without any public consultation. The consultation has to be through a second referendum; a general election would not suffice – it might well be won or lost on a quite different issue, for example the fitness of Labour’s leader to be prime minister.
Incidentally, I believe that Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary claim that he would “instruct” Labour MPs to vote in favour of an early general election if the government proposed one is profoundly misguided. It goes against the intention of the Fixed Elections Act, which was drawn up to prevent a government from calling a premature election without the support of the opposition.
Even on the crudest electoral calculation, Labour would be well advised not to give more credence to the majority of 52 per cent rather than the minority of 48 per cent. In bidding for the former, it would be competing with both the Tories and Ukip for a probable meagre share. With the latter it would be competing only with the Lib Dems (and marginally the Greens) for the lion’s share. Simple arithmetic should give the answer. Above all, Labour cannot afford to be outflanked on the remain side by the Lib Dems. That way annihilation lies.
Image: European Parliament