Staying in the best option

We’re in the right place, says Alex Sobel. Now Labour must campaign hard for a vote on Johnson’s offer or Remain

The Labour Party has taken a lot of flak for its positioning on Europe since the 2016 referendum. Not all of it is deserved. While it has been frustrating for MPs like me who led the way in calling for a second referendum that it has taken this long, Labour is now in the right place.

It is also the only Remain-supporting party with a sensible position that can survive both the writing and delivery of a manifesto. We are the only party that can come through the scrutiny of a General Election campaign with our position coherently intact.

The truth is that any party seeking to offer the public a second referendum needs to be able to say more than simply ‘Bollocks to Brexit’. That may be a fun slogan that will appeal to hardcore Remainers – those who would actually rather revoke Article 50 than take the time to convince the voters to change their minds. But as a governing philosophy in a starkly divided country, it’s a hopeless cry of anger – not an answer that can be implemented by any conceivable election result.

The polls are in a complicated flux at the moment. Boris Johnson has seen a slight bounce in Tory popularity – though not much more than you would expect from any new Prime Minister – especially one following the deeply unpopular Theresa May. There is little sign yet of his so-called Heineken ability to reach the parts of the country other Tories cannot reach.

However, this has not meant that Labour is advancing in the way one might hope given the Tories have been in power for nearly a decade of cruel austerity, national crisis, deteriorating public services and stagnant growth. The Brexit divide is sweeping away all old certainties about how politics work and, for the moment, Labour simply cannot rely on an anti-austerity message alone to get a hearing.

This is why we need to be clear about what will be in our manifesto at the next General Election – especially as this seems increasingly likely to happen sooner rather than later.

One of the key arguments made in favour of a second referendum is that it was unclear during 2016 what leaving meant. During the campaign, so many different flavours of Brexit were offered by different Leavers to different groups of voters that everyone who feels they knew exactly what leaving meant at the time of the referendum can argue loudly with everyone else who agreed to a slightly different vision. Was it staying in the Single Market and Customs Union? Was it leaving on WTO terms? Are we to be Norway? Canada? Singapore?

This obfuscation was deeply helpful to the Leave cause in the run up to the referendum and has been helpful in convincing people not to support any actual deal since. The position will fall apart when the Tories actually have to choose a Brexit to deliver. If they continue down the path towards a destructive no deal, they may find a vocal minority support them – right up until it turns out to be the disaster for the country every reputable source has warned it will be. That obfuscation will then allow even those who are currently ‘no dealers’ to argue that this wasn’t the Brexit they fought for.

Labour must not make the same mistake. We need to define the terms of the offer we are making to Remainers, to soft Brexiteers and to the country as a whole and make it explicit. Labour must offer a confirmatory vote on Brexit and be clear about the terms.

The truth is, you cannot have a referendum without at least two options. Labour cannot put ‘no deal’ on the table as they cannot countenance delivering it. But this must be made explicit to the electorate in the manifesto in order to ensure a mandate to drop no deal.

Therefore, any Labour election campaign should promise a straight choice between the offer on the table at the time of the election – i.e. May’s deal with any window dressing Johnson manages to wangle – and staying in the EU. It must also make clear that in these circumstances, it will be campaigning for the vastly superior option of staying in the EU and fighting to change both it and Britain for the better through socialist cooperation between towns, regions and the countries of the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Alex Sobel

Alex Sobel is Labour and Co-operative MP for Leeds North West.