Naked Politics Blogger
In this current Brexit crisis, there is one group who can claim to be in a true dilemma. The Labour Party and its leaders see a clear opportunity to unseat a divided and divisive Conservative Government, led by a weak Prime Minister, who faces the prospect of losing her confidence and supply deal with the DUP. They also see the potential to alienate a large number of the voters they will need the support of if they are to reach the magic figure of 326 MPs and take power in any election they manage to force.
The June 2016 EU referendum result has been debated at length and its meaning has been spun in every which way, but one certainty is that the country was truly divided by the choice, not least traditional Labour voting constituencies. An example is the Gateshead Council referendum result, in which 57% voted to leave, whereas in the 2017 General Election in the Gateshead Constituency, 65% voted Labour. It is also important to note that the turnout was 6% higher in 2016 than 2017. It is clear that many voters in this traditional Labour area voted leave.
In this context, if the Labour Party could be painted as a barrier to Brexit by a savvy Tory strategy, then the people of Gateshead, and similar areas could be prized away from the Labour Party for one election at least. This, it seems is the fear that is driving the nuanced approach of the Labour leadership, as reflected by its staged response to the Brexit deal that they agreed in September at their annual conference. The divisions in the party membership are nothing compared to the potential divide in their voter base at large if they choose the wrong path.
Let us examine the options open today to Corbyn and Co as they respond to the actions of the government.
- They could choose to back the deal Theresa May is proposing. Even if they could overcome the barrier presented by their own six key tests, being seen to allow May and the Tories to slip away, having secured a Brexit deal may well be unforgivable for many Labour members and would certainly lose support in the key core Labour voters.
- They can vote down the deal. The deal does fail their six tests so the leadership can justify this action as fulfilling election promises and the will of conference. It will likely alienate some of the more centrist MPs, but the bigger risk is that it could be portrayed as Labour blocking Brexit.
- They could abstain in the Commons’ vote. This would effectively offer a free pass to the government, but would probably preserve party unity more securely than voting against and would push the Conservatives MPs to either vote down their own government’s deal or live with what many of them think is a bad outcome.
In all probability, the deal will be voted down in the Commons. If this happens then the Labour Party’s options are:
- Push to form a minority government, with the argument being that the vote against the Brexit deal is effectively a vote against a core government policy and thus the Commons would have displayed a loss of confidence in the government. This is logical and would be constitutional, but such a Labour government, even with the support of the other opposition parties, would be very weak and would also likely galvanise the Tories.
- Push for a general election. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act this would need Conservative support, but it may well gain the support of enough disgruntled Conservative MPs, who would see an election as an escape to save their party from further damage; give the sinking ship to Labour. The risk for Labour is that they need many constituencies to change hands for them to win. If they lose, the momentum behind Corybn may diminish and hand back some power to centrist Labour MPs, many of whom have yet to be deselected by their local parties. In short, it may be too soon for Labour to win and/or win with MPs that will support their leader.
- If a general election proves impossible, try to obtain a people’s vote. This option is fraught with difficulty. Core Labour voters may well see this as a betrayal of their wish for Brexit and the practicalities of organising a vote would severely delay any deal with the EU. This is perhaps the most toxic option for the Labour leadership as backing it would alienate their voters, but removing it as a possibility would leave an open goal for critics.
All in all, if you hear a Labour shadow minister or Jeremy Corbyn himself picking their words carefully in the next couple of weeks, spare a thought for the tightrope they are walking. If they get this wrong their whole revolution could be left in tatters and give a fixed target for the Tories to rally around.