Labour Slips Off The Fence – Almost
Under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour party, has tried to appeal to both sides of the Brexit divide, but it was always a policy doomed to fail. The policy of fence-sitting was widely blamed for Labour’s poor showing in both local and European parliament elections with remainers and Brexiters deserting the party in favour of alternative elective choices with clearer positions on the question of the day.
Much of the Labour party (over 70% of its members) has long wanted the party to adopt a pro-remain stance and the vast majority of its MPs support this position, but there has been a fear amongst some MPs from staunchly leave-backing constituencies that “ignoring the will of the people” could lead to an anti-Labour backlash. Some in the party favour a so-called “Lexit” believing that by leaving the EU, the party (if in power) would be able to nationalise key industries although others have pointed out that such nationalisations can be seen in other EU member states.
The official position of the Party, following its 2018 conference, was that it would seek a general election and if this was not possible, it would campaign for a second referendum, throwing its weight behind the People’s Vote movement. Despite seeking and losing a vote of no confidence in the May government, the March 29th Brexit deadline came and went with no definitive pro-referendum position being adopted by the party. Corbyn entered into 11th hour talks with the government to see if they could find a compromise position that the party could back, but neither side was prepared to give ground, so they failed (as predicted), yet Labour still remained on the fence.
The leader’s position has shifted incrementally over time to demand a confirmatory vote on any deal that emerges on Brexit (this was not enough to save it from electoral embarrassment). Pro-EU MPs and party activists urged Corbyn to shift to a pro-remain stance after the elections, but he wanted to “consult with the unions” – a major union, Unite (under Len McCluskey) remains opposed to the shift – despite the fact that their blessing was given last October at the conference.
Finally, Corbyn has come out in favour of backing a further referendum on any deal, or in the event of a “no deal” exit looming. However, should he emerge as PM following a snap election before the UK leaves the EU, Labour policy is that it would try to negotiate a better Brexit with the EU to honour the original referendum outcome – despite the fact that most members accept that any Brexit will leave the country worse of economically, diminished internationally and will lead to significant job losses in the UK.
Of course, Mr Corbyn has no power to call a fresh referendum and some in his party have voted against the whip on matters related to Brexit. The two challengers for leader of the Tory party (and therefore PM) both advocate Brexit and are willing to leave the EU without a deal, but the decision of the Labour party means that all the opposition parties in the UK are now pro-remain and in favour of giving the electorate a “final” say on the matter.