The impact of the Brexit vote may finally be losing its chokehold on the two-party duoply of British politics. The Labour Party has now called for a transitional period after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, during which it argues single market and customs union membership should continue unchanged. This is the first evidence that Labour is ready to start challenging the dominant Brexit narrative.
Remember, that narrative has been all pervasive: Brexit means Brexit, and anyone who argues for anything other than the total breaking of ties with our European partners is trampling over the will of the British people. So why has Labour broken the pattern now, after so many months of seeming prevarication?
There are two principal reasons for this. The first is the most obvious and yet one that seems curiously overlooked: despite all major politicians still playing lip service to “the will of the people” from the referendum vote, that will has actually been expressed again since. The June 2017 election result showed that Theresa May and the Tory version of Brexit was losing support, and fast. If there is one overriding lesson of the 2017 election, it is that hard Brexit was not a convincing vote winner.
The Labour Party also experienced an unexpected surge in support at the election. This was based largely on a manifesto that argued in all but name for continued membership of the single market in the party’s version of a “jobs first” Brexit. Recent research showed how significant a vote winner this was for Labour.
This shift in public mood away from a hard Brexit has only intensified over the summer, as evidence of the economic impacts of Brexit continue to mount, and as the government continues to misjudge the sensitivities involved. Its approach to the negotiations and the drip feed of complicated “position papers” on Brexit have hardly inspired confidence.
But more than this, Brexit will continue to dominate every aspect of British politics for the foreseeable future as we hurtle towards the March 2019 deadline. It will be nigh on impossible to fight any other cause in the coming months that will not be overshadowed by Brexit. Much better to take ownership of the whole issue, and reach out with a distinct position – even if the Labour party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn is lukewarm on the European project as a whole.
All about the manifesto
The second reason for the Labour shift stems from the other great lesson of the election: the Labour manifesto. The proposals it contained – an end to austerity, national investment, abolition of tuition fees – struck a chord with voters in the UK, particularly the young.
If Labour wants to build on this momentum, and move closer to actually making these proposals into policy by forming a government, it has to fight the Conservatives on Brexit. It must now sense the opportunity to do exactly that as the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to parliament on September 7. With a distinct position from Labour on Brexit in place, May’s shrunken majority looks shakier than ever.
Fighting the Tories on Brexit is now more important than ever if Labour wants to ensure its surge in popularity continues. The only chance any of its manifesto proposals ever have of becoming policy depends not only on Labour winning an election, but also on a healthy and growing economy. A hard, cliff-edge Brexit, is a mortal danger to any hope of making the Labour manifesto into policy.
Making the first move
Beyond these two driving forces behind Labour’s shift in favour of remaining in the single market during a transitional period, there is perhaps one other concern. As the Brexit negotiations rumble on, and surely even Leavers eventually begin to tire of the whole affair, someone, from somewhere within the British political class, will eventually stand up and tap into the growing social discontent. If this concern is not already gnawing away at Labour strategists, it probably should be.
This will be beyond the Liberal Democrat position on a second referendum, and will come from the heart of the two-party consensus on Brexit. Though the UK’s voting system precludes such a meteoric rise, this could be a Macron-type figure, who could very quickly transform the face of British politics, if not in votes then in framing the debate.
But perhaps more concerning still to Labour, it could be a senior Tory who breaks ranks, who stands loud and clear and says: “Sorry, we got it wrong: the evidence is in, time for a rethink on Brexit.” It would be a high-risk strategy indeed for any Tory who dared to do it, but it is not beyond the realm of the possible, and the damage it could do to Labour as an opposition may be catastrophic. Any chance to craft out a clear, distinct voice on the issue of our time would be quickly lost.
The Labour shift in favour of remaining in the single market and customs union during a transition period can be seen then for what it is: not necessarily a change of heart at the top of the party, but a strategic imperative to stay in touch with the shifting political sands of Brexit Britain. This new flexibility may well prove to be its strongest suit.