How Labour is failing both Leave and Remain supporters

Henry Porter suggests that the lack of opposition from Labour is one of the critical symptoms of Britain’s broken politics

Henry Porter
April 18, 2017

Step forward the Conservative government’s best friend – Jeremy Corbyn. That is one way of viewing the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition following his speech last week, which suggested that Brexit would give the UK government more powers to protect the environment, create jobs and protect workers’ rights.

The transformation of Corbyn’s views is remarkable. On June 11 last year, he said precisely the opposite. Only by remaining in the EU would we manage to protect “paid holiday, the anti-discrimination legislation, the maternity leave, the paternity leave and particularly environmental protection”.

Wherever you stand on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it is hard not to marvel at the lack of intellectual coherence that allows Labour to turn long-held convictions on their head in order to support Theresa May’s Hard Brexit strategy. A key part of Britain’s constitution – that the Opposition opposes and holds the government to account – has evidently now fallen into disuse, for Labour is failing abysmally in its duty to provide trenchant analysis for millions still unsure about the path Britain has chosen.

And this must be a concern for us all, which is why Labour’s failure will be a central part of the Convention’s inquiry into the broken politics of our era, to be held on the first of two days of essential debate, discussion, polemic and open forums at Central Hall Westminster.

Corbyn is not simply letting down the majority of Labour voters who opted for Remain in the referendum, he fails to recognise that Leave voters also deserve the Opposition’s unwavering gaze on the day-to-day elaboration of government policy. Let’s not forget that the referendum was not about leaving the single market: no one in the UK voted for a hard Brexit. Leaving the single market was not on the ballot paper and although the hardliners of the Leave campaign insist it was the implication of what they were saying, implications carry no weight morally or legally in this matter.

Only three quarters of Leave voters wanted to exit the single market. If membership of the single market had been the issue tested in June last year, there would undoubtedly have been a majority for continuing access. (The total leave vote was17.4 million. Three quarters of that is 13.0 million. The total vote to remain in the EU, and thus the single market, was 16.1 million).

The Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said of the current course, “A reckless exit from the single market was not on the ballot paper.” It is a historic failure that Labour is not articulating the same view, when the majority of Labour MPs and the majority of Labour voters actually agree with Mr Farron. But there again, Corbyn has proved remarkably flexible in his opinions. During the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009, he was hailed by the Convention site for voting against seven key authoritarian measures, which were brought in by his own party, including 90 days detention without charge and ID cards. But as leader, he ordered Labour MPs to back Theresa May’s long-burnished Investigatory Powers Bill, among the most intrusive surveillance laws in the West.

The inconsistency between Corbyn’s expressed beliefs and his actions is familiar. Even so, it is hard to understand the failure to oppose the government because opposition is not only its constitutional duty, it is in its own interest.

Labour seems to be having a hard time figuring this out. Sometime after the referendum, the party became obsessed with the threat posed by UKIP in its northern strongholds. As the Guardian’s John Harris wrote after the Copeland and Stoke by-elections, “Labour seems to have decided in recent weeks that its first priority is to stave off the threat from UKIP to its traditional working-class vote, much of which supposedly voted to leave in the EU referendum… the party is thus at greater risk of losing votes to the pro-remain Liberal Democrats than to pro-Brexit UKIP”.

Instead of supporting an identifiable majority of pro-EU Labour voters, Labour is chasing after votes that went to the minority UKIP party and are now migrating to the Conservatives. UKIP suffered a nine-point drop in its support at Stoke, while the Conservative vote rose by two points.

It is clear what is happening – the Conservative party has absorbed the UKIP virus and, to a greater or lesser extent, has taken on the party’s policies and rhetoric. Yet Labour is still behaving as though UKIP, not the Conservative party, were the enemy.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we have been deprived of a proper opposition for the last nine months. Wherever you stand in the political spectrum, this is a disastrous state of affairs – under Corbyn Labour has misread what is happening and in doing so has failed in its primary obligation to the nation.

Reason enough to meet and debate our broken politics on May 12 and 13.

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