Of all the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, of which there are many, one of the more prominent in recent times has been the party’s ambiguous stance on Brexit.
Corbyn would rather not spend all that much time talking about Brexit, preferring to stick to his strengths and discuss inequality, championing the needs of the many over those of the few. But the upcoming 2019 general election is set to focus heavily on the issue and all parties need a clear, credible policy platform if they want to attract voters.
Jeremy Corbyn was heavily criticised during and after the 2016 referendum for his lukewarm support for the Remain campaign, famously assessing his support for EU membership as a “Seven, seven-and-a-half out of ten”.
Historically, Corbyn has not been a supporter of EU membership, voting against continued membership in the 1975 referendum. But his reasons for this are very different to those offered by groups such as UKIP or the Conservatives.
While the Labour Party has been very pro-European in recent history, this was not always the case, and in the 1980s the party leadership was much more hostile towards Europe. During the New Labour years, MPs such as Corbyn were a relic of Labour’s past, ardent left-wingers who saw the EU as a capitalist club, opposed to the socialist roots of the Labour Party.
After pledging to respect the result of the 2016 referendum, the Labour Party adopted an ambiguous stance on Brexit for most of Theresa May’s time as prime minister. The strategy initially proved to be somewhat successful, with the party effectively sitting on the fence and letting the issue of Europe tear the Conservatives apart.
But it eventually became difficult to criticise the Conservatives’ handling of Brexit without actually offering a credible alternative. Voters started to want clear, decisive party positions on Brexit, as evidenced by the success of the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party at the 2019 European elections.
The new plan
In an attempt to appear more decisive on Brexit, and after significant internal debate, Labour is now presenting a Brexit policy. The plan is to go back to Europe and renegotiate the Brexit deal. This new agreement would then be put back to the British public in a referendum.
Labour’s Brexit deal would, if all goes to plan, see the UK maintain a close trading relationship with the EU, creating a customs union and staying in close alignment with the single market, allowing the UK to continue to trade with Europe without tariffs. But this would likely mean that the UK couldn’t negotiate its own trade deals with non-EU countries – something that the Conservatives’ current deal would allow by effectively cutting all trading links with Europe and leaving the single market entirely.
Labour claims that it would take about three months to negotiate this deal, with a referendum held within six months. Alongside the newly negotiated “credible leave option”, the referendum ballot would also include the option to remain as an EU member.
Although this is a much clearer position than the party has held for a while, the policy still amounts to sitting on the fence to a certain extent. It is an attempt to appeal to both Leave and Remain voters.
It is also unclear how successful it would be if implemented. Would the EU be willing to renegotiate the withdrawal deal again? Signs from the continent suggest that many of the EU27 just want the UK gone already, with Brexit taking up far too much of their time at the expense of other pressing issues. Brexit is, and always has been, just one of many problems for the continent to deal with.
Assuming the EU did agree to renegotiate the deal again, how much effort would they put into it if they thought the government would then actively campaign against it in a subsequent referendum? That is a possibility under Labour, which has not been particularly clear about what its official position would be in a fresh referendum. Again, the answer may depend on whether or not Europe wants the UK to stay.