Within recent weeks surrounding prorogation and the push towards a snap General Election, the Labour Party has been more vocal than ever on their stance on Brexit. Many leading politicians such as Emily Thornbury and Jeremy Corbyn have also tried to paint a picture of where the party may stand in their next GE manifesto. However, it hasn’t been as streamlined as you may think, with different views of what the Labour Party stands for on Brexit coming from the people that lead it.
Further confusion on the Labour Party’s stance came after Sadiq Khan said that Labour was “a remain party” while being interviewed on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday. However, what have other leading politicians in the party said and how close are their comments to the story they’re telling?
What is Jeremy Corbyn’s stance?
It has been argued in the past that Jeremy Corbyn is, in fact, a Brexiteer with many of his rivals and non-supporters sharing videos of him during the 1990s expressing his scepticism towards the EU. It is still believed that Corbyn still holds this scepticism but with a stance closer to reform. However, it is possible that Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking towards EU membership may take an altered view regarding the bigger picture and the survival of the Labour Party.
There are likely reasons for this including votes in a general election. In the past few weeks, Labour has announced that their manifesto will cover options for both Remain and Leave. This is potentially to win over traditional Labour voters that abandoned the party in 2015 and 2017 to vote for the Conservatives, UKIP and the Brexit Party. For this reason, it cannot be argued that Labour is solely a Remain party as suggested by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
However, most Labour voters backed remain, even if the overall majority in those areas was for Leave. Campaigning solely to Remain would alienate Labour’s Leave voters, however, the party aims to use more pressing societal issues to bring traditional voters back. The offer of a second referendum by some of the party’s leading politicians also may encourage voters to return with the hope that they can repeat their vote. Unfortunately for Labour, many want their first vote listened to and the curse of voter exhaustion may also prevail.
There is the aim to back Remain in the case of party unity, especially alongside the unions. Labour has always been the party of the unions and many want to Remain. Labour’s offering to stand as a Remain party may help to strengthen that bond. Mr Corbyn has been reported to have brokered a deal between unions to negotiate a leave deal to please Leave-backing unions such as Unite, while promising a final vote for Remain unions, such as GMB. With Labour’s national conference around the corner, unions usually take 50% of the votes on policy, making it more likely that Corbyn will be able to implement such a move.
Finally, taking the stance of both Remain and Leave may have everything to do with Jeremy Corbyn gaining personal authority. It has been reported that his reluctance to compromise on Labour’s Brexit stance and his attempt at bringing Leave and Remain voters together come as a result of this. Some of his colleagues such as Tom Watson are still hopeful he may change his stance and be convinced that there is no credible Leave option.
However, the main issue is, of course, Labour’s main pool of voters. More and more the electorate want parties to have a clearly defined Brexit stance of either Leave or Remain to ensure they are getting what they’re voting for but with Jeremy Corbyn’s aim to have both Remain and Leave in the party, this confuses people further and may make the party less popular than the opposition at a snap General Election. On the other hand, divisions such as this have been kind to the Labour Party as they were during the 1975 EU Referendum. Divisions over joining the EEC had been well known for over a year even during the 1974 General Election when Labour won over the Conservatives in both February and October.
A divided shadow cabinet?
A number of those Remain backing MPs are crucially a part of his shadow cabinet and would essentially be responsible for creating a new deal if Labour were elected. A number of those ministers include Shadow Home Secretary, Dianne Abbott; Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry; and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Within recent weeks all three MPs have announced their backing for Remain, even if a new deal is negotiated.
Neither MP has questioned Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership despite his unwillingness to compromise on the party’s universal Brexit stance. Speaking during her latest Question Time appearance, Emily Thornberry, said that her decision to back Remain was based on her beliefs that it was better for jobs and the economy. During her appearance on Preston Ms Thornberry also defended Labour’s abilities to negotiate a better Leave deal than the Conservatives. This has not left Thornberry without any standard heckling, with Fiona Bruce questioning the logic behind her decision during her Question Time appearance. To add further potential damage to Labour’s public image on Brexit, Dianne Abbott who has remained relatively quiet on her own opinion until this month, was reported to have said her party was ‘committed’ to honouring the Brexit vote with a deal that “will not harm the UK economy” during a Commons session in January, despite concerns from fellow MPs that Brexit would damage communities that Labour represents.
On the other hand, there are some members of the shadow cabinet, who have openly commented on Corbyn’s leadership, while encouraging the current leader to edge further towards being a Remain party. Tom Watson has said that there is ‘no such thing as a good Brexit deal’ and that the result of the referendum should be invalidated.
In response to a potential General Election, Mr Watson said that “elections should never be single-issue campaigns” and that “a general election might well fail to solve this Brexit chaos”. Admittedly, Tom Watson has said that his stance on Brexit has shifted due to ‘changing circumstances’, a potential cause for the shift from Dianne Abbott among others. The deputy leader sparked further discontent by suggesting a second referendum should be held before a General Election, saying it was the only way to break the deadlock.
In response to this Mr Watson said:
“There eventually comes a point when circumstances are so changed, when so much new information has emerged that we didn’t have in 2016, when so many people feel differently to how they felt then, that you have to say, no… the only proper way to proceed in such circumstances is to consult the people again.”
Tom Watson is not alone in this view, with Shadow Brexit Minister Keir Starmer also careful to back Corbyn. There was also an accusation that Mr Starmer was attempting to install himself as leader of a unity government as a result, furthermore stating “A lot of people think Labour would do better with a different leader” in a recording passed to the Huffington Post.
What next for the Labour Party?
It is certain that such differences have made waves within the party this week with the attempt to oust Tom Watson by undemocratically removing the post of Deputy Leader (this is elected by Labour Party MPs). With silence over Corbyn’s leadership coming from other opposition frontbenchers, it is uncertain whether the shadow cabinet could split further on opinions, especially as so many Remain backing opposition ministers are still close allies of Corbyn. However, among the general public Jeremy Corbyn is reportedly one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in history as recorded by the recent Ipsos MORI Survey. By adding a confusing Brexit stance to the mix, with several parts wanting to revoke the referendum result, Labour could well do worse than they expect in a General Election.
Overall, Labour’s feelings towards Brexit may seem clearer when you look at their parliamentary record. The bill to extend Brexit was backed strongly by Labour MPs producing 247 of the winning votes, which confirms the party’s position on negotiating a better deal. However, this won’t stop MPs from backing remain and continuing to be a mixed bag among parties.