Labour’s ambivalence towards Brexit is coming under attack from good people. Simon Wren-Lewis says it would be an “historic error” for Labour to enable Brexit, and Chris Bertram says Brexit could be “the end of Labour”. I fear such criticisms are too harsh.
Granted, they do have a point. Most Labour voters, and the vast majority of the party’s members are Remainers. Tom Kibasi is thus right to say that Corbyn should worry more about alienating these than the small minority of Labour Leavers.
This, however, is not the only consideration. Brexit is of course a toxic and deeply divisive issue. In keeping a low profile, Corbyn has so far been able to minimize these divisions within Labour whilst allowing the Tories to implode. Barry Gardiner might have been imprudent to tweet Napoleon’s maxim, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, but the sentiment was sound. It's a good idea to keep away from the live rail.
More importantly, I fear that Corbyn’s critics are are insufficiently sympathetic to the philosophical dilemma that Labour faces. On the one hand, Brexit is a stupid idea: escaping weak constraints upon state intervention in the economy is too small a gain to offset the cost of leaving the single market. But on the other, there is a clear mandate for it. As Phil says, seeing Brexit through is “the democratic thing to do.”
This dilemma has little force for technocrats who think voters are Putin’s dupes or for paternalistic centrists. But it is a problem for the left. A big part of our philosophy is the desire to give working people greater voice in work and in public services. It’s difficult to say people should have more voice in boardrooms whilst denying that voice in a referendum*.
It is this dilemma, perhaps more so than electoral considerations, that justifies Labour’s ambivalence towards Brexit. What we need from Corbyn, then, is a way of retreating from Brexit whilst being able to show that there is a democratic mandate for doing so.
From this perspective, I suspect Paul is right to interpret Corbyn’s now-notorious Guardian interview as a tactical gambit. His claim that he could negotiate a less-bad deal with the EU is necessary if Labour is to demand a vote of no confidence in the government; an opposition can only demand the fall of the government if it can claim to do a better job.
I don’t think such a claim means that a Corbyn government would take us out of the EU without a second* referendum. The fact that most Labour members want one – and that Conference asked for the option to be kept open – must weigh heavily with the Labour leadership.
But as Paul says, timing is important. Demanding an early referendum would risk a no-deal Brexit, as this would be on the ballot paper if May set the referendum question whereas it probably wouldn’t be under a Labour government. Also, such demands could be presented as a way of thwarting “the will of the people.”
It would be better to call for such a referendum as a last resort. Under a Tory government, Labour should claim that as parliament and the government are unable to resolve the matter it should be put again to the people. And under a Labour government, the party should say: “this is the best deal we can do: do you want this or to remain?”*** Either approach has a chance of overcoming that fundamental dilemma, of how to reconcile staying in the EU with respecting the voice of the majority.
Now, I say all this cautiously: disagreeing with Simon and Chris usually means one is wrong. If, somehow, Corbyn were to take us out of the EU without a vote, he would lose my support – and I'd be in a big crowd.
I suspect, though, that we agree upon the principle. Brexit is a big heap of Tory shit. The question is one of tactics: how to get rid of it whilst minimizing the damage to the Labour party which offers our only hope of decent government.
* Not impossible, because the conditions requires for the wisdom of crowds to operate were probably absent in the referendum. But this is a tricky argument, and an impossible one to make in the idiot-speak of BBC current affairs programmes.
** Actually, third: the first was in 1975.
*** This would put Tory Brexiters on a nice hook: to call for Brexit they would have to argue that Corbyn had struck a better deal than May.