Robert Hoskins says the complexion of Labour’s Brexit offer in its upcoming manifesto for December’s election is crucial, and urges the imminent Clause 5 meeting to drop the fence-sitting and go for clarity.
Cards on the table: I have had more positions on how to solve the current Brexit impasse than I have had hot dinners.
My present preference would have been a confirmatory vote based on the Prime Minister’s deal with Remain being on the ballot rather than a General Election. However, it would appear that ship has now sailed and there is going to be a General Election on Thursday 12th December instead. Albeit the timing of this election will be best suited to secure the apparent electoral advantage of the SNP, Lib Dems and Conservatives rather than Labour who are currently languishing in the mid 20s in the polls – on average, 12 points behind the Tories.
If Labour’s radical aspirational policies are to have any chance of resonating with the electorate and sweeping the party to power on a tidal wave of hope for a better future, it needs to control the election narrative right from the start of this 6-week campaign. That means neutralising the attack lines of the opposition parties who all expect to make gains at Labour’s expense.
The Tories, Lib Dems and the Nationalists all want to make this a Brexit election for their own selfish reasons. The Tories want to collapse the Brexit vote and gain a thumping majority to implement their Brexit deal without any interfering opposition amendments watering it down. The Lib Dems want an election now as they are beginning to see a down tick in their poll ratings and a Tory Brexit passed in this current parliamentary session would make their Brexit stance of Revoking article 50 – their flagship policy – moot. Meanwhile the Nationalists are cock-a-hoop at this early Christmas present as it saves them from the most challenging fate of all – fighting a January election coinciding with the expected toxic fallout from the Salmond trial.
The Nationalists of course will pitch their party very firmly as the natural party for Remain in Scotland. My hunch is that it will be their Scexit manifesto commitment, not their Remain position, which will determine the number of seats that the party gets. My hunch also is that their Scexit commitment will go down like a plate of cold haggis with the electorate and will backfire.
In marked contrast to the other parties, strategically, Labour will want to talk about anything but its Brexit policy. Its strategy must surely be to make this election about its manifesto and neutralise any criticism of its Brexit position as quickly as possible. Constructive ambiguity on Brexit might have got Labour much closer to power than many had originally thought possible in 2017, but a similar fence-sitting policy will not fly in this election.
In order to understand why that it is, it is useful to remind ourselves first of the current Brexit positions of all the main parties.
- Brexit Party: A hard WTO Brexit.
- Conservatives: Johnson’s Brexit deal.
- Lib Dems: Revoke Article 50 and Remain.
- SNP: Remain and Scexit
- Labour: Reject Johnson’s deal and take No Deal off the table by negotiating our own Brexit deal instead. Six months after negotiations have been completed, put Labour’s deal back to the people in a referendum as the Leave option, with Remain on the ballot. Prime Minister Corbyn will hold a one day special conference to enable himself and the party to decide whether it will support Remain or its own freshly negotiated Brexit deal in the referendum.
Does anyone notice a problem with the above? If you are a Labour Party supporter having read the above 76 words that it took to explain Labour’s current Brexit position, and you do not have at the very least the beginnings of heart palpatations, I would suggest that you are in fact an SNP lurker relishing the schadenfreude of the bemused response to party activists trying to sell that on the doorstep. If Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategist, was to come up with a wrecking ball that would guarantee to keep Labour’s transformative agenda out of the electoral spotlight he would be hard pushed to better Labour’s Brexit policy. If alarm bells are not ringing in Jeremy’s team now they most certainly should be.
Every party will be praying Labour does not change its Brexit policy in its forthcoming Clause 5 meeting which determines what policies go into the party manifesto, as it provides Labour’s opposition with a massive stick with which to beat the party.
Firstly, and most damagingly of all for Labour’s chances of victory, is Corbyn’s determination to remain neutral over his personal Brexit preference. His prevarication will ensure that Labour’s Brexit position becomes the dominant electoral narrative of the campaign which keeps Labour’s radical portfolio of policies to improve the lives of the many well and truly off the electoral agenda.
Imagine the live leaders debate. ”What is your position on Brexit?” The other party leaders give their five word answers and it’s now Jeremy’s turn. After taking 3 minutes to explain the above, when repeatedly pressed to state his own position Jeremy eventually says he will decide this at a special conference after he has renegotiated his own Brexit deal. This obfuscation will not only ensure a derisory chorus of groans from the audience which will be echoed around the country by the watching electorate and dominate all the front pages of the main stream media, it will also reinforce the dominant public opinion of Jeremy that he is a ditherer and an ineffectual leader who doesn’t even have an opinion on how to vote on the biggest post war issue ever. Cummings’ dark ops will have a field day with his constructive neutrality by producing memes brutally exposing the leader’s lack of leadership and, dare I say it, unfitness for office.
If Labour’s current Brexit Policy is a damning metaphor which accurately reflects the electorate’s view of the Labour leader, it also fails spectacularly to meet its principal aim of ”uniting the country and healing the Brexit divide”. Pitching Remain against Labour’s own negotiated Brexit deal is fundamentally flawed as it excludes supporters of a WTO hard Brexit and supporters of Johnson’s deal.
This glaring weakness will not be missed by the Independent Commission on Referendums nor the Electoral Commission who are charged with the responsibility for scrutinising the fairness of referendum questions. Even if the Electoral Commission rubber stamped Labour’s deal being the only Leave option on the ballot, are we really expecting supporters of Johnson’s Deal or in particular supporters of a WTO hard Brexit to turn out and vote for Labour’s soft Brexit deal instead? As it is presently structured Labour’s Brexit negotiation is seen by the party to be the only leave deal which will be on the ballot paper therefore disenfranchising a large chunk of the Leave electorate who will possibly boycott the referendum rendering the result illegitimate.
All is not lost, however. By means of the forthcoming Clause 5 manifesto meeting there is still time for Labour to snatch electoral victory from the jaws of impending defeat by being the only party to offer the electorate a referendum which does what Labour’s current policy does not do and that is to reflect not only Remain voters preferences but also the broad church of Leave voters as well.
In a recent article on how to solve the perennial problem of what is going to be the Leave option in a Peoples Vote, Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP, Spectator journalist and Remainer, suggested the following answer which I think offers a perfect solution to this conundrum.
The ballot paper would be in two parts; the electorate would be asked to complete both parts irrespective of Brexit preference.
(1) Should the United Kingdom (a) Remain in or (b) Leave the European Union?
(2) If the United Kingdom were to leave, would it be better to leave (a) with the Government’s proposed deal (b) or without a deal?
If Leave wins the first part of the ballot, a second count takes place which identifies which type of Brexit that the electorate has voted for.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Labour adopted this new Brexit position. Let’s now revisit the live leaders debate and Jeremy’s response to the question “What is your position on Brexit?” ”We will let the people decide if they want the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal or to Remain in the EU. My party and myself will support Remain”.
Adopting this straightforward, uncomplicated referendum position turns the fundamental weaknesses contained within Labour’s current Brexit position into strengths. Firstly it finally gets Jeremy off the fence, firmly committed four square to backing Remain. Backing Remain destroys the most damaging narrative of all – of a leader who can’t lead and is unfit for office. It also gets those Remainers who have switched to the Lib Dems back into the fold with a unique once in a lifetime electoral offer which not only delivers a peoples vote but also offers a one off opportunity to vote for a party that will radically transform the economy and seriously address climate change.
This new offer could also appeal to a section of Brexiteers who reject Johnson’s deal and the Brexit Party’s hard WTO Brexit but who are excited by Labour’s transformative economic manifesto and are prepared to forego their Brexit preference in exchange for this. Most importantly of all, rejecting Labour’s current Brexit position in favour of a straight forward Peoples Vote as outlined above enables Labour to deal with its Brexit position swiftly by neutralising all the attack lines that the other parties are so looking forward to using, thus enabling the party to focus completely on its manifesto.
When the chosen few gather in the next few days to decide the content of Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto let them be reminded that a Peoples Vote pitching Remain v Leave on the ballot is already supported by millions of Remain voters throughout the length and breadth of the country. The very same Peoples Vote supporters who have had their hopes of a referendum shattered on the high alter of short term party political gain by both the Lib Dems and the Nationalists. These people need a party they can vote for which unequivocally supports Remain and which they can trust to deliver that referendum. Let that party be the Labour Party.