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Home / Simon Wren-Lewis / Labour’s Brexit stance was a tragedy for Labour but not for the country. Brexit is an entirely Tory failure.

Labour’s Brexit stance was a tragedy for Labour but not for the country. Brexit is an entirely Tory failure.

Summary:
Before deciding that I’m writing about Labour when I should be writing about the disaster that is Theresa May, please read to the end. As it becomes obvious (sort of) that there is no majority among MPs for a People’s Vote (something that has actually been clearfor some time), the argument has been madethat this justifies Labour’s failure to support a People’s vote and instead to seek a compromise, a softer Brexit. I have talked about the wisdom of compromise over Brexit before, but I want to make a different point here, about the stance that Labour has taken over Brexit. In 2015 Labour lost a General Election where the strong card, perhaps the only strong card, of the Conservatives was their handling of the economy: in other words austerity. It would therefore not be ridiculous to claim

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Before deciding that I’m writing about Labour when I should be writing about the disaster that is Theresa May, please read to the end.

As it becomes obvious (sort of) that there is no majority among MPs for a People’s Vote (something that has actually been clearfor some time), the argument has been madethat this justifies Labour’s failure to support a People’s vote and instead to seek a compromise, a softer Brexit. I have talked about the wisdom of compromise over Brexit before, but I want to make a different point here, about the stance that Labour has taken over Brexit.

In 2015 Labour lost a General Election where the strong card, perhaps the only strong card, of the Conservatives was their handling of the economy: in other words austerity. It would therefore not be ridiculous to claim that the vote was a verdict on austerity. Some Labour MPs did just that, and arguedthat if Labour were to win the next election it had to match George Osborne’s policy.

Thankfully on that occasion a new Labour leadership did not take their advice. There were three compelling reasons to continue to argue against austerity - indeed to argue against it much more strongly than Balls and Miliband had done. First and most importantly, it was a policy that made pretty well everyone worse off, and almost certainlyled to premature deaths. Second, austerity was a policy that was very unpopular among party members. Third, there were good reasons to believe that the popularity of austerity among the public at large would fade away over time.

I think all these points apply to Brexit as well. Does the fact that 2016 was a referendum while 2015 was a General Election make a difference? Here we have to talk about the nature of the 2016 referendum result. It was not, and could never be, an unconditional instruction to leave under any circumstances. As the form of leaving was unspecified, and the conditions under which we would leave were strongly disputed (with the winning side proving to be completely wrong), it should only have been a request for the government to investigate how we might leave.

It was also won narrowly, with the winning side spending significantly more than was legal. That alone casts a question of legitimacy over the result. I find it extremely odd that some on the left say otherwise, and suggest Remainers have to prove that the additional spending made the difference, something that it is almost impossible to do. Do they realise the precedent they are setting? The right always has more money for obvious reasons, and if the only consequence of overspending by the right is a fine then that is an open invitation to try and buy elections.

Labour’s early approach to Brexit was successful in avoiding the 2017 election being a rerun of the referendum, but there were other ways of doing that. A reasonable strategy that would have achieved the same end was to accept the vote (obviously), but to reserve judgement while the government was negotiating. It would make sense to put down markers about being extremely skeptical that Brexit promises could be met and, crucially, whether a deal that was beneficial could be found.

As the outlines of the government’s deal became clear, Labour should have done what was right and what its members wanted, and campaigned for a second referendum. Once Labour had to put its cards on the table, triangulation ran out of road. The case for a vote on the final deal became unassailable once it was clear Leave promises about what the EU would do were worthless, that there were alternative ways of leaving each of which had some public support, and the public were not getting behind Brexit but were still deeply divided about whether to Leave and how to Leave. 

The Labour leadership’s arguments against doing that were of exactly the same form of those who wanted to adopt Osborne austerity after 2015: the policy that members wanted was seen as a vote loser. Even if they are right about backing a second referendum being a vote loser (and I strongly suspectthey are wrong), the only argument I can see for treating austerity and Brexit differently is a belief that one matters much more than the other, and such a belief is very misguided.

What about the argument that there are not enough MPs in parliament to support a second referendum? In my view that is an entirely separate point. In general opposition parties cannot get their way, but that does not mean they stop campaigning for what they think is right. It may well be that parliament will never vote for a second referendum, and some compromise - a softer Brexit - is all that can be achieved. I hope that is not the case, but it could well be. But that does not mean a party should start off campaigning for the compromise you may be forced to reach, rather than campaigning for what is right.

Some people argue that we have to support Brexit to show solidarity with those left behind who support it. That ignores those left behind who voted against it, but even so it is not a good way to proceed. You could say exactly the same about immigration, which many of those left behind blame for their situation. It would be quite wrong for Labour to adopt an anti-immigration policy they did not believe in just to show solidarity with those who wanted it. The same is true of Brexit.

But I have to make one final, and critical, point. I think Labour’s Brexit policy is tragic because it has, directly or indirectly, diminished support for Labour and its leadership among many people who might vote Labour. However I cannot say with any certainty at all that Labour’s policy has had any effect on the Brexit process as such. That has been an entirely Tory affair. To quoteAlison McGovern, “This is a Tory problem, a Tory solution and a Tory obsession.” It is Tory disunity and madness that has delayed Brexit. It is a terrible Tory Prime Minister that has made democracy in the UK become a laughing stock among the rest of the world. I cannot think of anything Labour could have done that was likely to have stopped Brexit.

Her speech to the public on Wednesday night was Trumpesque, and extremely dangerous. She blamed MPs for delaying Brexit when she had delayed one vote for no good reason, and then basically said its my deal or no deal. She pretended she was acting for the people while parliament was frustrating the people’s will, when in reality less than 40% of voters support her deal and parliament is reflecting that. She seems on the point of taking us over the cliff edge and it is only Tory MPs that can stop her. To make such an authoritarian, populist speech without realising what she was doing tells you all you need to know about her character and political ability.

Her proposal to the EU only made sense if she was prepared to leave with No Deal, which in turn signals to the ERG that they should not vote for her deal. The EU is much too sensible to agree with that, and has in effect given parliament three weeks to work out an alternative to May’s deal. That requires Tory MPs to cooperate with the Labour leadership, something they have not yet been prepared to do [1]. To the many who suggest that somehow the Labour leadership could have prevented the mess we are in I say show me how you can be sure of that, because to me this looks like all the Tories own work from David Cameron to today.

[1] If Tory MPs do finally have serious discussions with the Labour leadership, the Single Market is critical. If all the leadership does is demand to stay in a Customs Union (something inevitable with May's deal given the backstop), it will be responsible for the damage caused by leaving the Single Market. Phrases about 'access to' or 'staying close to' the Single Market bind the government to nothing. 

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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