The Labour Party still hasn't learnt its lesson from Brexit
Updated: Jan 14
This piece was originally published on the Comment Central website.
Cast your mind back to the General Election campaign 13 months ago. The dominant issue of the day is Brexit, with candidates across the country clashing passionately on this the most fundamental question about Britain's place in the world.
Having come under intolerable pressure from his zealously pro-remain MPs and party members, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had capitulated and committed to a second referendum but, in a nod to the millions of Labour voters who voted to leave the EU, said that he wouldn't take a side in that referendum campaign.
The rest is history. Stood in the middle of the road to the December 2019 election, Corbyn predictably got knocked down by traffic on both sides, gifting Boris Johnson a stunning 80 seat majority.
Under Corbyn's successor, Sir Keir Starmer, we were told that Labour had learnt its lesson. Sir Keir appeared to experience a Damascene conversion, performing a remarkable transformation from one of Labour's most pious Remainers to born-again Brexiteer, vowing not to get in the way of the inevitable march towards freedom.
In line with his newfound commitment to respecting the result of the 2016 referendum, Sir Keir 2.0 declared that he would back the excellent new UK-EU free trade deal. On Wednesday, I tuned in to witness many of his troops marching through the lobbies to back it.
So that's it. Labour's election-losing fence-sitting has been consigned to the history books, right?
Well, not quite.
In the Brexit deal debate, Sir Keir looked like an unconvincing actor who felt uncomfortable about the character he was portraying. His strong Remain instincts were barely concealed, as through gritted teeth he declared that Labour would back the same deal that he used familiar old Remain rhetoric to criticise.
In supporting the deal he simultaneously tried to distance himself from, the echoes of Corbyn were deafening. Once again, here was a Labour leader trying to straddle two horses at once in an attempt to win back Leave voters while keeping it's Remain supporters and MPs on side. Despite reluctantly backing the deal, Sir Keir was stuck on the same fence as Corbyn.
This indecisiveness is hardly anything new for Sir Keir. After all, his first nine months in the top job have shown that he is only ever consistent in being inconsistent. Throughout the Covid crisis, he has flip-flopped, U-turned or simply failed to take a stance on everything from the 10pm curfew to the rule of six to the tiering system.
Anyway, back to Brexit. Having criticised the deal, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, said that an incoming Labour government would 'build on [the deal's] foundation'.
Considering that the agreement could be strengthened in some specific areas long before any Labour administration could take power, questions must be asked about what the party means by this ambiguous promise. Would a Labour government seek to form a customs union with the EU? Re-join the single market? Once again, the party can't resist leaving the door open to EU integration.
Of course, the Labour Party doesn't just consist of its frontbench, and it would be remiss not to touch on the MPs who rebelled against their leader on Wednesday. This uber Remain faction of the party helped to drive the ambivalent Corbyn Brexit position last year, and it ultimately played a significant role in alienating Leave voters living in the Red Wall and elsewhere.
This rebellion is important because it shows that – far from becoming relics of the past – unreconstructed Remain figures are alive and kicking, continuing to wield power and influence within Labour.
During the prolonged Brexit wrangling, these Labour MPs would ostensibly rally against No Deal, leading to the accusation that they were simply trying to cancel Brexit. After their behaviour on Wednesday, there can be no doubt that this accusation was entirely correct.
By failing to back a comprehensive trade deal and in effect opting for No Deal, these MPs have demonstrated once and for all that their narrow-minded dogmatism meant that they were only ever prepared to accept EU membership. Blinded by their own euro-fanaticism, they clearly view all other arrangements outside of the EU as equally as bad. Why else would they not bother to prevent No Deal?
There can be no doubt that we've got Brexit done, but many of the benefits of being an independent country are only just honing into view. It's an exciting new epoch for the UK, and voters will be looking to our politicians to ensure that we fully capitalise on the freedom unleased by the Brexit vote four-and-a-half years ago.
All eyes will be on Labour. Will the party choose to take its failed Janus-faced approach to post-Brexit Britain, with its fanatically pro-EU elements constantly pulling the leadership towards European integration, or will it turn over a new leaf? If Wednesday's proceedings are anything to go by, it's clear that Sir Keir's Labour Party simply hasn't learnt its lesson. And just as they did 13 months ago, the electorate will see right through it.