‘Complete betrayal’: how Labour’s moderate faction is playing with Brexit fire

I’ve been reading Chuka Umunna’s speech to Progress members.

I am worried about the ‘complete betrayal’ narrative used by Chuka over Labour’s Brexit strategy.

Indeed, I’m worried that Chuka himself will come, in time, to be seen as a key parliamentary facilitator of a new dark age for the countries that make up what used to be Great Britain.

I’ll explain.

In calling for Labour to “stop prevaricating” and to get behind a campaign for second referendum as the key route to stopping hard Brexit and its terrible consequences, (and in conflating, in the same speech. the whole Brexit debate with a purported Labour leadership plan to get rid of ‘moderate’ MPs like himself because they oppose racism), Chuka is playing a key part in the continuing factionalization of Labour, in which all actions and political routes by the other side are deemed unworthy by their very provenance.

In particular, the accusation of Labour’s “complete betrayal” fits with that new factionalist essentialism, in the way that his saying, for example, “prevarication on a second referendum is a mistake which could cost us all dear” does not, because it promotes the idea that the leadership intends harm.

Under these ever more factional conditions, the ‘moderates’ really do seem to be starting to believe that the Labour leadership is in favour of, and working towards, a harder Brexit than the Tories.

I witnessed this at a Progress ‘Labour Say” meeting in July [1], where leading ‘moderate’ MP Alison McGovern made the spurious claim that it was her faction which had pushed the Labour leadership towards a parliamentary position in favour of a Customs Union.

Alison quickly gave way on this when I challenged her with the evidence that the formal Labour position has been in favour of a Customs Union for quite some time, and that indeed its pro-Single Market position is also clear, but I still see the anti-CU trope appearing to justify a wider claim that Labour, in power, might seek to deliver a harder Brexit than the Tories [2].

The big risk is that — come October — the polarizing effects of a summer focused more on antisemitism and votes of confidence than on agreeing, cross-faction, the details of Labour’s Brexit strategy, will lead to a disastrous split on the (possible) crunch vote on Theresa May’s post-Chequers compromise, allowing it through on ‘moderate’ Labour votes.

These votes would be cast by people like Chuka, on a public stance of ‘putting party before country”’, based on an argument (and just possibly engineered as the first step in a formal PLP split) that Labour, by not committing to a second referendum position, is in some way firming up a Hard Brexit position (hence the importance of the trope about Labour being anti-Customs Union, set out above).

My suspicion that this is where we are headed is strengthened by a close reading of Chuka’s speech to Progress. Nowhere in it does he even so much as refer to the so-called Chequers plan, preferring to focus on what the Hard Brexit Tory mob are promoting.

In so doing, and by prioritizing support for a second referendum over Labour’s actual parliamentary strategy — the six tests of the soft fudge that Theresa May may gain at the last minute for an EU27 whose primary objective at this stage is stability in Ireland — it seems to me that there is a deliberate muddying of the waters going on [3].

Muddy the waters enough with some moderate Labour MPs (especially if that is also conflated with planning for that new party of theirs) and , come late October, Keir Starmer may finds himself unable to take through its culmination his two year plan, namely:

a) vote down the soft deal offered up by May, force a general election;

b) win it, and

c) then in power, negotiate a firmer Customs Union/Single Market deal with a couple of cosmetic benefits around State Aid clarity to put to a then putative second referendum, while recognizing that the need for a decent length extension of Article 50 would push back the need for a second referendum for some time, and may in time obviate that need entirely.

We should be clear about what could flow from ‘moderate’ Labour MPs voting (as Alison McGovern seemed to suggest they might), in support of a post-Chequers fudge, and against the Hard Brexit Labour leadership of their constructive collective imagination.

First, it will save the government from a general election which they would probably lose. Quite aside from any consideration of Brexit, the three-year continuation of a Conservative government intent on policies like Universal Credit [insert any other Conservative policy here], will be a disaster for most people.

But more specifically in terms of Brexit, a vote for through of a post-Chequers fudge in October, and the move from Withdrawal Agreement phase to Proper Negotiation phase will see the end of Theresa May as Prime Minister; she will have served her purpose, and the coup will come quickly from a parliamentary party that will, by the very nature of what May still needs to complete her post-Chequers fudging on, feel betrayed even as most of them support it through the lobbies.

From there, the obvious risk is that, when the Conservative two-stage process of leadership election has been played out, we will end up with a Hard Brexit ideologue as PM. Who exactly it is matters little for now (though I so still think Gove could re-emerge as either a candidate himself or a Keith Joseph-style figure to someone like Liz Truss).

The real risks under a new Hard Right/Hard Brexit leadership have to date been little-mentioned, but events in the United States should make us all, including Chuka and his colleagues, quite nervous about what may come next.

In the context of Brexit, can we really see a Michael Gove figure, in total power in mid/late 2019, abiding by the international legal treaty setting out the contents of the post-Chequers fudge of mid-2018 — one which s/he has already condemned in the burgeoning alt-right media as a national betrayal?

Or will we see such a figure prepared to tear up international law, and all the norms that flow from that, just to prove how how s/he is going to Make Britain Great Again?

In short, Chuka and his colleagues are playing with fire. This is all much bigger than an intra-party squabble, and should be treated as such.

For the good of us all, they should let Keir Starmer get on with playing the hand he has played so skillfully to date, and in which hand the second referendum strategy is not ruled out, but has its place in careful scenario planning.

They should perhaps take a leaf from erstwhile colleague Andy Burnham’s book in getting behind (albeit after couple of false steps) the possibility of a second referendum as a last resort, in the event of Theresa May not being able to bring any deal to parliament and ‘No Deal’ then looming.

What they shouldn’t be doing is staking the future of the country on a factually incorrect narrative about Labour’s approach to Brexit — a narrative developed perhaps less in response to Brexit itself, and more in response to the hurt they feel at not being in control.

[1] At the meeting there was a conflation of the question of whether Labour conference should vote on the party’s Brexit position with the wider question of whether Labour should support a second referendum. The notion that one might support a conference vote but be against immediate support for a second referendum, and how such a consideration might change the wording of a motion to conference, did not appear to have occurred to them, though it may have been another deliberate factionalization strategy.

[2] This is a good example of the trope, quite precisely developed, in which it is claimed that the Labour leadership’s position on the vital Customs Union bill was changed “at short notice” by Chris Leslie and Chuka.

[3] A Labour spokesperson describes the speech as “incoherent and inaccurate”. I tend to think it is deliberately so. Chuka and his colleagues are not stupid and I suggest knew what they were doing when they left the Chequers plan, and any mention of a parliamentary vote, out of the speech.

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Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.