Responding to Labour Remain

Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?

European and British flags.

Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.

The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.

For Liberal Democrats, the enormity of the task can make us escape to the local. That’s always been important to the party, but it can become a displacement, making us fail to engage adequately on the ground with Brexit and its consequences. That short-changes the nation, deep principles in the party, and the many people who have joined us since the referendum. It’s worth remembering that a recent poll put support for Remain at 55%, with even greater support for a referendum on the terms.

In some parts of the country this will be sounding so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But there are many places which, a few years ago, would have struggled to campaign in more than a handful of wards, but have seen their membership increase three or four fold since 2015. This makes all sorts of things possible in addition to that targetting.

If we were going into a General Election, there would be the inevitable need to target. Instead, faced with the slow-motion car crash that is Brexit, it’s time to help shape the resistance. That means putting the case for a referendum on the terms, and also helping people through the painful realisation that the Brexit they voted for is not what is emerging.

We can have the biggest impact in places where people will be surprised to hear from us. This is about making a difference — directly, by swaying opinion, and indirectly by pressure on sitting MPs.

It can be a shock to a local party that’s used to thinking of itself as small and now finds it has 400 members, but on those numbers, a typical constituency would need each member to deliver little more than 100 leaflets and contribute a couple of pounds to the printing to reach every door. It’s a powerful statement of conviction on Brexit to be delivering regularly in constituencies we are unlikely to win.

Going alone like this is not to undervalue Labour Remain, but it does avoid getting sucked into Labour’s struggles. The best way to put pressure on Labour and the Conservatives is to stick to our values and push against Brexit, helping to turn the tide of public opinion that will bring those parties with it.

This was originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 18 January 2018

The survey showing Labour supporters disagreeing with Corbyn is here.

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