Naked Politics Blogger
From Maastricht right up to the Cameron years, Europe had always been Achilles heel of the Conservative party. For many years this issue seemed to represent a cleavage within the party that continued to rear its head. Many predicted that the referendum would provoke ruptures within the party that would be irreconcilable. Despite a few dissident voices, the party now stands largely united in its push for a hard Brexit.
Conversely, it is the Labour Party who now seems beleaguered by Brexit. This is a remarkable turnaround for a party that was largely untroubled by the European question for a generation. Until Keir Starmer laid out his Brexit “vision” last week, the party’s position was at best ambiguous. A few days prior to the Shadow Brexit Secretary’s announcement, Emily Thornberry was left floundering on Newsnight trying to explain Labour’s Brexit stance. She admitted, “We haven’t picked a side yet”.
This is because the party faces challenges on two fronts regarding Brexit. In order to illustrate this dilemma, it is worth considering the constituencies of Cambridge and Wakefield. Labour won Cambridge by a margin of just 599 votes in 2015, with the Lib Dems coming a close second. It is a constituency that has an unusually high proportion of young people, in which 73% voted in favour of remaining inside the EU. Failure to offer a meaningful alternative to a Tory Hard Brexit will be capitalised on by the Lib Dems.
In stark contrast to this, Wakefield is a seat that voted overwhelmingly to Leave. Wakefield’s MP Mary Creagh is a fervent pro-European, who has not shied away from voicing her opinion on the matter since the referendum. She voted against the Brexit Bill, went on Good Morning Britain to say that Brexit has emboldened racists, and predicted a mass exodus of British business after the divorce. This has caused discontent amongst many her constituents, no doubt including some who voted for her in 2015.
Creagh beat the Tories by only 2,613 votes two years ago, Even before UKIP leader Paul Nuttall made his declaration this week, there were many rumours circling that UKIP candidates in the city would stand aside to help oust a remain MP. This is hugely significant, because UKIP got over seven thousand votes in this seat in 2015. If there is also a shift of Labour voters to the Conservatives as national polls would suggest, then the picture looks pretty bleak for Labour in this seat.
These two examples are extreme cases. Nevertheless, they encapsulate two fundamental challenges for labour. Firstly a pro-Single market push from the Lib Dems. Cambridge is most at risk, but this will be mirrored in Labour’s new heartland of London. Secondly, a pro-Brexit attack from the Conservatives on Labour’s traditional heartland in the North of England and Wales.
Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t. But I think Keir Starmer’s speech last week shows that Labour are waking up to the fact that you are also dammed if you don’t pick a side. This election will be dominated by Brexit. And ultimately, not having a clear and coherent position is not presenting an alternative. I believe Starmer’s speech this week was a step in the right direction for Labour. But it is not enough. Many of the electorate will still be unclear on the party’s position after watching his speech. The position needs to be concise, something that is simple and digestible for the electorate.
I believe Labour have missed a massive opportunity in failing to pin themselves to staying in either the Customs Union or the Single Market. And it would be relatively easy to make a simple case for either:
1. Staying in the customs union is vital for British manufacturing, notably the car industry. This could be articulated as part of a narrative that puts forward an alternative industrial strategy for the country.
2. Leaving the single market is a ludicrous act of economic self-harm, and is not what the electorate voted for last June. Our economy is largely based on services and leaving the Single market will affect this sector in a damaging way. Pointing to Blue Ribbond factory as an example of what might be to come.
For the past seven years, the Tories have successfully manipulated the mainstream economic narrative in their favour, presenting themselves as the “credible” option to swing voters. But May leaves herself wide open to attack in this regard through Brexit.
The retort to the above would be that it risks haemorrhaging traditional Labour to the Tories. My response to that would be that Labour cannot outdo the Conservatives on Brexit, and they shouldn’t try and appease them. In other words, I believe Labour will lose Wakefiled regardless of their Brexit position.
But they can still retain seats like Cambridge.
This does not mean abandoning their traditional voters in the North who voted to Leave. The only way that Labour is going to appeal to such voters is through their policies on housing, education and the NHS. But it is also important to remember that a considerable majority of Labour voters wanted to stay in the EU last June. For these voters, indifference over Europe will only deepen Labour’s problems.