It’s clear that the Conservative Party leadership, like the wider party, is profoundly split on what its Brexit policy ought to be. When Number 10 is willing to admit that a Cabinet meeting was “impassioned” the chances are that it was, at the very least, extremely bad tempered (I am inclined to think “blazing row” would be more accurate).
The Labour Party leadership’s unity around its Brexit policy looks armour-plated by comparison. Admittedly the policy they are (reasonably) united on is to be as vague and noncommittal as possible. The rallying cry from the party’s annual conference was that:
should parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate general election that can sweep the Tories from power. If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.
Putting a call for a general election before a vague commitment to maybe campaign for a “public vote” is hardly surprising. The overriding desire for either of the main parties when in opposition is to swap sides in the House of Commons and take over the government benches. Anti-Brexit campaigners clearly want to use a people’s vote to stop Brexit entirely by including the option to vote to remain – but that is of little interest for the Corbyn leadership. Firstly, because a referendum, regardless of which way it goes, will not get you into government. Only a general election will do that. Secondly, because Corbyn himself is not exactly a huge fan of the EU.
This was clearly illustrated by the fact that Corbyn has made no public statement about the huge people’s march on October 20. He was himself away in Geneva talking to victims of the Augusto Pinochet regime when the event took place. Corbyn usually enjoys a nice rally, as was evident in his performance in the 2017 election. His absence and lack of comment shows the vagueness of the Corbyn leadership on this most divisive of political issues.
This “constructive ambiguity” has so far served the party reasonably well and has helped avoid the increasingly bitter rows currently ripping the Conservative Party apart. But there are limits to how long such ambiguity can be maintained. Whenever the next general election comes – currently scheduled to be 2022 – the party can no longer use the “demand-a-general-election-and-let’s-talk-about-all-the-other-options-some-other-time” approach.
A government needs a policy
Whatever happens to Brexit between now and 2022, it is highly unlikely the issue will have gone away – and so the Labour Party will have to make a decision on what to do in government. It is possible that another vague formula can be found for the party’s next election manifesto that yet again postpones the decision. However, should a Corbyn-led Labour Party win the next general election, the luxury of not having to make decisions will be brutally ripped away.
That will then be a defining moment for Labour. According to the BBC, roughly two-thirds of constituencies represented by Labour MPs voted leave. At the same time, the young voters who have been “flocking to Labour” also overwhelming rejected leave. But it was reported in late 2017 that while 68% of students backed Labour, they also believed that Labour generally – and Corbyn specifically – back remain. This appears to have led to a disappointment with Corbyn over his promise to see Brexit through. Finally, Labour Party members overwhelmingly support remain. Squaring Corbyn’s and many Labour constituencies’ support for leave with the party members’ and younger supporters’ support for remain would probably be one of the first challenges facing any Corbyn-led government.
Being ambiguous on the most divisive issue of modern British politics probably makes sense for Labour as the main government-in-waiting opposition party. However, leaving a blank slate means that people will fill it in with their own interpretations of what the party stands for – indeed that is the whole purpose of Labour’s Brexit ambiguity. The problem is that a blank slate is simply not an option when in government. Indeed, the Conservative Party’s current problem is exactly that they disagree furiously on what to fill the slate with.
Whenever the Labour Party is next in a position of having to make government policy, they will inevitable have to disappoint some of their supporters over Brexit. Which supporters they decide to disappoint is a decision that is likely to have profound consequences for the future direction and character of the party.