Labour’s muddled approach to Brexit creates its own risks

Labour’s muddled approach to Brexit creates its own risks

Parliament returned from their respective party conferences last week with the Brexit process reaching a critical moment. As negotiations continue over the weekend and the critical October EU summit this week, which both sides hope culminates in a deal, key parliamentary votes are lingering in the next two to three months. Whilst Conservative infighting poses its own risks, this article analyses the current sentiment within the opposition Labour Party. Their inability to form a cohesive counterweight to the Conservative exacerbates potential risks.

Reactions over Europe are frequently near the surface in the Conservative Party, this was true long before the 2016 referendum. These quarrels have been exemplified in the Brexit debate; from July’s Cabinet resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, to frequent interventions from Brexiteer backbenchers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and rumblings this week of the Cabinet’s opposition to May’s Northern Ireland-backstop proposal. In order for the prime minister to get a deal past Brussels and Parliament, she needs to finesse a delicate balancing act. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has a similar quandary and this creates risks with regard to Brexit legislation as well as feasible outcomes if Labour were to prevail in a general election.

Corbyn’s quandary

Labour’s fundamental problem is the schism between their membership and their voters. Labour’s membership consists of over half a million people according to August estimates, dwarfing the roughly 124,000 Conservative members. These members elicit significant influence, as they directly vote for the leader of their party. Consequently, it would be shrewd of Corbyn to listen to this collective voice but its members form a staunchly Europhile cohort.

These credentials are demonstrated by a September YouGov poll which indicated that 86% of Labour members prefer a second referendum, or “People’s Vote” on the final Brexit deal. Meanwhile, a sweep of the vastly more numerous labour voters finds that they are not so receptive to remaining in the European Union. Putting an exact figure on this is tricky, given that the 2016 referendum wasn’t counted by constituencies, as the general elections are. However, estimates reveal that 61% Labour constituencies voted to leave in the referendum of June 2016.This puts Labour’s policy makers in an unenviable position, facilitating the counter playing wishes of their voters and members.

Jeremy Corbyn faces constraints in Westminster akin to those felt by Mrs May as he does not have the unwavering support of his MP’s. Ironically, Corbyn is perhaps the most famous Labour rebel since taking his seat in 1983, but this may come back to bite him. Disloyalty from his party has already played out in the Commons. In June, during a vote on an amendment regarding membership of the European Economic Area, seventy-five Labour MP’s voted for continued EEA membership, ignoring party instructions to abstain.

Labour are also antagonised by other internecine rows such as their response to anti-semitism claims and the potential deselection of moderate MP’s.

Labour parliamentarians remain conflicted over their stance towards a ‘People’s Vote’ on the details of Britain’s deal with Brussels. Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell remain unsympathetic towards clamours for another referendum, seeking a general election instead, where they aspire to continue on the unexpected gains they made in the 2017 election. However, as the opposition, they have no prerogative to force one. In the U.K. an election must be called at least every five years, with the next not due until 2022. This places Corbyn, who remains eurosceptic with only a dozen Labour MP’s, at an impasse with his front bench colleagues. Labour front benchers have been openly freewheeling in the media with these juxtaposed opinions. Deputy Leader Tom Watson has publicly pushed for a second referendum. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer (MP for the remain stronghold St Pancras constituency) received warm support at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool when he posited “campaigning for a public vote must be an option.” Corbyn remains on a collision course, not just with his members, but also his fellow MP’s.

Likely outcomes

Needless to say, the risks facing May’s government and the United Kingdom as a whole are already extensive. Crunch talks with Task Force for Article 50 are looming, swiftly followed by the EU summit commencing on October 17. From December, Parliament sees critical votes on legislation (the Withdrawal Bill, Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill) as well as the Withdrawal Agreement drawn up with Brussels. Failure to pass these could result in the UK crashing out of the European Union in a no deal scenario. The Conservatives have been beset with disagreements with the DUP and amongst themselves over how to rectify the Northern Ireland backstop solution and agree an end date to a temporary customs union.

So where does Labour fit into this? With Parliamentary gridlock becoming a realistic possibility in the next three months over the key Brexit related votes, Labour’s situation uniquely shapes political risk in Westminster. The Tories’ wafer thin majority and May’s tempestuous relationship with the Eurosceptic European Reform Group within her party make these votes a toss up. Although they will be whipped by both parties, many believe some Labour MP’s will vote with the Tories or abstain on key votes and defy Corbyn. They would rather do so than sit in the same boat as the Jacob Rees Mogg’s of the Conservative Party. This mitigates the biggest economic and political risk the UK faces, a no deal.

Inability to pass this legislation makes a no-deal scenario probable, with only weeks to find a better arrangement with Brussels before March, the U.K. would be on the brink of political and economic distress. Corbyn wants to stick to his guns and force a general election. If  he can successfully corral all his MP’s into voting along party lines, he has a moderate chance to succeed, meaning May might require a referendum or election to break the deadlock. Yet this brings other possibilities. Labour defeat in an election risks a more Eurosceptic Conservative successor prevailing as prime minister. A Labour party in power could be little more united over Europe than the government they are replacing.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

David Grant

David is a political risk analyst with regional specialisation in Europe. His interests include European security, Brexit and European business risk. Previously he has worked for a start-up security consultancy and at the European Union's Representation to the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in International History & Politics from the University of Leeds and an MSc in Defence, Development & Diplomacy from Durham University.