As the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal was being voted on, Labour MP’s, for the most part, fell in line and voted with the government. The vote for the Boris Johnson’s deal, orchestrated by Keir Starmer, is a monumental change in position for a man who had once been seen by some as the arch-Remainer. Starmer himself has come under fire from his former pro-EU supporters and fellow MP’s, even facing a minor frontbench revolt for voting for the deal. But in doing so, Labour has taken the best course of action available to them.
If Starmer had whipped his MP’s to vote against the deal, it would have made absolutely no difference to the outcome; the government’s huge majority guaranteed that. He could have scored a few points with Remainers, but that would have been completely counterproductive in Labour’s goal of winning back the red wall seats they desperately need. These constituencies are, for the most part, pro-Brexit, voting against the deal would have done nothing to win back these voters. If anything, it would have made this task much more difficult.
If Labour has voted against the deal, the biggest outcome would be a significant amount of political ammunition for the Conservatives. They could carry on talking about how Labour isn’t backing, or are undermining Britain; the next election would likely see billboards in red wall seats reminding voters that Labour voted against Brexit. Voting for the deal should neutralise these arguments and allow Labour to focus on issues where they have stronger ground.
Similarly, a poll taken by Opinium just prior to the vote found that 55% of people wanted MP’s to vote through the deal, with only 15% not wanting it to be passed. People are ready to move past Brexit, and Starmer has shown that he wants to as well. It has been a constant thorn in Labour’s side, with their traditional support bases being split along this line. To oversimplify, city-based Labour supporters backed remain, and working-class, red wall voters backed Brexit. This divide has proven to be disastrous and the sooner the party can move past Brexit the better.
Being a staunch Remainer, backing Johnson’s deal will not have been something that Starmer wanted to do, but it was the pragmatic move. It may not gain the party support in the short-term, it may even them lose support, but overall, it will be a net positive for Labour. It should help to win back red wall seat voters, at the very least it won’t alienate them further.
However, the biggest potential downside to this, in a political sense, is that Labour has now tied themselves somewhat to Brexit. If it turns out to be a catastrophic disaster it may be difficult to criticise the government for it, as they also voted for it. Any future issues with Brexit would have fed perfectly into the incompetence narrative that he is attempting to forge; prime territory for Starmer. Then again, perhaps this isn’t something Starmer would want to focus on, even if he could. Brexit is so partisan that any criticism of it, no matter how valid, has the potential to lose voters.
Overall, though, the decision to back the governments Brexit deal is a net gain for Starmer and the Labour party. The move away from Brexit as the dominant political issue is already underway, this will only help to further that. Importantly, the pragmatism that Starmer has shown around this issue is hugely encouraging. This is exactly the kind of approach that Labour needs to take if they are to gain power again in the near future.