Time for Labour to become an Opposition on Brexit

Substantial Labour gains in the local elections in 1995 were the first clear indication of the landslide that brought labour into overnment in 1997. The 2018 Local elections haven’t matched that, despite the mess the Tories are clearly in over Brexit. What’s going on?

Andrew Adonis, speaking at the Institute for Government

Comments since the Local Elections have highlighted the significance of Labour’s failure to make substantial gains on Thursday, which is particularly striking given the savaging that the EU Withdrawl Bill is getting in the upper house.

Lord Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) captured it sharply in a tweet as the result was sinking in:

Labour’s big weakness, & why we did so poorly on Thursday, is being a Vacillation not an Opposition on Brexit. Oppositions never win power as handmaiden of the government’s big policy. If people really want Brexit & think it is/was a success, they will mostly vote Tory

While @tony_nog was even sharper, writing on Election day:

So….will probably regret saying this….
But if Labour don’t make significant gains tonight, they’re are never going to make gains anywhere, ever, under the current leadership & #Brexit stance

Why vote for #brexit lite if Tories are offering full fat over the cliff Brexit?

I have speculated that Labour might be in a careful shift on Brexit, which could enable them to come round and bring at least some of their Leave-voting supporters with them. It’s worth hoping.

But Adonis has a point. The nature of Tory support has been changing for several decades, at least since the cultural shift when Margaret Thatcher succeeded Edward Heath. When the phrase “Basildon man” was coined, it caught a sense of traditional Labour voters switching to the Tories because Thatcherism was speaking to their aspirations. They were voting Tory out of a sense of where they wanted to be, where voting Labour would have reflected where they were.

Now things are more complicated. Thatcherite vision of everyone growing richer through enterprise is looking a little tarnished. In her day, the vision worked for some, but dealt brutally with those who were not gaining. Today there is less sense of assured progress — and those with their eyes open will note that Britain’s sliding position in the G7 is not a good indicator.

Against that background, Adonis is right about the loss of Brexit-supporting Labour voters to the Tories. This is one step beyond “Basildon man”. At that time there clearly were people doing well, and enough of them to create pain for those not included. Brexit now offers a fantasy of hope. It hasn’t actually happened, so we‘ve yet to experience the harsh realities, but for today’s equivalent of “Basildon Man” the story of coming prosperity is deeply appealing. The introduction to Nick Clegg’s How to stop Brexit points out that the UK’s entry into the EU came soon after the loss of empire. The sense is that there are fantasies of future wealth and recovering what has been lost. Both are out of step with reality.

I hope I was right to predict that Corbyn was/is on a gradual repositioning over Brexit. But Adonis is right. With the Tories making such a mess of Brexit, it is astonishing that Labour has failed to make progress, and we need a firm opposition to spotlight where they are failing the nation. Right now we need an opposition that can point out that the proposed solutions to the issue of Customs and the EU is magical thinking — at best both plans (a “Customs partnership” and “Maximum Facilitation”) are very ambitious. They may well be impossible.

Liberal Democrats have been providing opposition to Brexit, but there is a limit to what a party with 12 MPs can do. Crucially, at times of anxiety people to tend to default to a binary thinkiing — in this case Labour-Tory — so there is a real need for Labour to be active, and take up the constitutional role of an opposition (to oppose…).

Unless Corbyn moves soon on this, he will be guilty of handing the country to the worst instincts of the Tory right. The Left is right to chastise Margaret Thatcher for the brutal side of her policies, but at least a reasonable number of people gained from them. We’re now facing a time when those who gain are a tiny minority, with Labour being accidental accomplices in harming the vast majority of their supporters, and the country at large.

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