Detail, difference, deferral & deference: Labour’s summer challenge

What this piece is

This a follow up to my ‘three scenarios’ piece on how Labour might develop its Brexit position; that piece reached a large (for me) readership and I know was read by people around Corbyn and Starmer. This piece summarizes how events of the last few days have narrowed the range of October outcomes for the May government, and how Labour is likely to/should respond over the summer and into Autumn.

Updating the scene

It now does look like May’s government will survive the summer, arguably thanks to the Labour’s four Brexiteer numb-skulls, but I do not now see how it can survive much longer than October.

Forget the Trade Bill amendment on a Customs Union in the event of no trade agreement, lost by six votes. The real story remains the acceptance by No 10 of the previous day’s amendment to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, put forward by the ERG and supported by the DUP, which inserts a new clause 37:

It shall be unlawful for Her Majesty’s Government to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain (column 160)

If we leave aside for now the claim, potentially taken up in the Lords, that this amendment might itself be unlawful because it directly contradicts the so-called Patten amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the former amendment passing into law narrows the possible outcomes come October.

The EU is not going to back down on the need for a backstop now directly ruled out under UK law — a separate customs arrangement (and single market for goods) with a border in the Irish sea. Even Robert Peston gets that. The Irish government is calm and confident about EU solidarity, not needing to make any further comment or move until May’s compromises unravel.

So come October, one of two things will happen.

  1. May will return from Brussels empty-handed, unable to sell her latest ‘max fac’ concoction as a substitute for the proper backstop, and will have to declare to parliament that there is No Deal to be had, and that there is consequently now no possibility of a near-two year transition period in which to make any arrangements for future relations with the EU.
  2. May will come to an agreement, ready to go to all EU27 capitals if the UK parliament votes it through, which is absolutely secure enough on meeting all four Single Market freedoms so as to make the need for the backstop actually go away. This will be difficult because of the total lack of trust on the part of the EU, but enough reference to the UK agreeing to abide by all Single Market requirements might be enough for the EU to let May off its hook so that she can focus on wriggling on the ERG’s hook.

Labour’s response

So how does Labour deal with all this?

Under the first ‘No Deal’ scenario, the idea of a ‘meaningful vote’ becomes a nonsense, because there is no deal to vote on. In this case, the numbers may stack up well enough to make what would have been a meaningful vote on a proposed deal into a meaningful vote of no confidence.

A lot here would depend on the Tory Remainers who have not rebelled in the latest series of votes e.g. Justine Greening but who may decide to put country before party, as well as on which way the Labour Brexit numb-skulls go (I suspect they may split, with Hoey and Field going full UKIP, and Mann and Stringer preferring to bring the government down, and solely for this reason I do not think it tactically sensible to remove the whip from them).

Beyond that, Labour does now need to prepare for the possibility of May capitulating totally to the ERG, accepting that the UK will have to move towards No Deal, and then actually avoiding or winning a No Confidence vote because Tory Remainer rebels do not in the end rebel. The appointment of Raab in succession to Davis, and his immediate focus on sham preparations for No Deal does suggest that this now a real risk.

I covered what I think Labour’s response to the risk of No Deal — a national emergency if it ends up happening — in the previous piece. It boils down to the acceptance that parliament will have failed in its duties, and that extra-parliamentary opposition is now not just justified — it already is — but the only recourse.

As grist to the public demonstration mill, I suggested that Labour’s leadership look specifically at working with Labour local authorities on the holding of council area referendums under the provisions of Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003, and on a simply No Deal vs Seek Article 50 delay question. The feedback at the time on this was that, alongside it s limited applicability (it excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland) the idea of co-ordinated local referendums remains a little ‘far-fetched’, but I suspect that it will become less far-fetched if No Deal does become a more real prospect than it is now.

The second ‘Tory soft Brexit’ scenario is arguably more complex for Labour, and needs a summer of preparation, because there is the danger of a split within the party which will dwarf the Brexit numb-skull one in magnitude and significance. Conversely though, it also bring a huge opportunity to unite Labour, not just on Brexit, but more broadly.

Come a meaningful vote on May’s proposed deal (aka abject surrender if you’re in the ERG), Labour moderates will face what they may think is a stark choice:

a) vote down the deal and force a subsequent vote of no confidence in May; or

b) help vote through the deal because it delivers on the Customs Union and Single Market deal they may say they have supported all along but that they think Labour does not want to deliver.

Is b) a real possibility?

I’m afraid it is. There is currently a toxic mix of general anti-Corbyn sentiment and failure to engage with the detail of Starmer’s consistent approach to the development of Labour’s Customs Union & Single Market position, including Freedom of Movement, which means that a big grouping of MPs, headed by the likes of Chukka Umuna and supported by the real Corbyn haters like John Woodcock and Chris Leslie, who will really believe that they are acting with integrity if they let May off the ERG-set hook, and allow a Tory soft Brexit to develop, hopefully (they will think) allowing for a new Labour leader to face her in 2022).

At a Progress meeting I attended the other day with leading ‘moderate’ MP Alison McGovern, ( to be fair to her, not an anti-Corbyn extremist and apparently open to debate), I tweeted on her explicit statement that she would support “with relish”, in the context of a second referendum, a soft Brexit deal negotiated by May, and I see no obvious reason why Alison would not therefore support this line in a pre-referendum parliamentary vote. Jess Phillips, more of an outright anti-Corbyn reactionary than Alison, has of course been explicit on social media about her support for a May soft Brexit.

The focus of Starmer and team’s energies over the summer, therefore, on working with moderates on two key issues, which I’ll call for alliteration’s sake detail, difference, deferral & deference.

Details

Like the rest of us, Labour moderate MPs live in an echo chamber. While it might be argued that they’ve chosen the wrong echo chamber to live in, it’s more charitable simply to understand and accept that the only views they’ve assimilated about Labour’s position on Brexit are that Labour doesn’t have one. Tony Blair told them that again today, after all, referring sardonically to Labour’s ‘creative ambiguity’.

It has been this failure/inability to engage with information about Labour’s actual position on Brexit — summed up as a commitment to a biliateral Customs Union & Single Market deal with the EU which meets Starmer’s own six tests — which has fed the continued nonsense statements about wanting to remain in the customs union and single market, in spite of this being a legal impossibility and, even more amazingly to Labour reputation with many self-defining as #fbpe, supporting an amendment about joining the EEA via the EFTA without cottoning on to the fact that this doesn’t solve the border question, or that you actually have to apply to join the EFTA[1].

So the first task for Keir Starmer and team (I should say here that I’m happy to join the team if asked) is gently to set the record straight, especially in respect of Labour commitment to a Customs Union & Single Market deal which respects totally all for freedoms held sacroscant by the EU, including Free Movement. Free Movement will end, Keir should say, but be replaced by free movement, in the same way that Tony Blair himself has just identified as being the Tory’s real position:

The practical reality is that the difference between current freedom of movement and this new [Tory] framework will be miniscule because for economic reasons it must be. Also, there is no way Europe would ever agree to this partial acceptance of the Single Market, unless freedom of movement was, in essence, retained.

The difference, Keir can continue, is that this has been Labour’s position for a year, while the Tories have been dragged to it kicking and screaming.

Difference

With this basic clarification on the fact that Labour moderates are in the same place as the leadership on Customs Union & Single Market — and Alison McGovern’s vigorous head-nodding agreement when I made that point to her at the recent Progress meeting suggests it can be done — Keir and team will be ready to move on the next crucial stage: convincing moderates of Alison’s ilk, who currently “relish” supporting a soft Tory Brexit, that they should help vote it down.

There are two interrelated public grounds on which moderates should be asked/advised to base such a vote against May, other than the very obvious one that voting it down will lead to a General Election and see in a Labour government which will save public services etc. (such reasoning on its own will be anathema to many #fbpe advocates).

First, no Tory soft Brexit will meet the six tests, however soft it is, for the simple reason that they will not have negotiated anything which adds social or economic value to the current arrangement; logic dictates that giving away membership with no added value is a worse deal, because membership gave a seat at a table which might have added social or econopmic value.

Second, as and when Labour takes over in government, it will seek that added value, such that the six tests are passed.

Here again I refer back to my earlier piece on what in particular that added value might be if it does turn out to be negotiable: greater clarity and flexibility of State Aid and public procurement rules of the type which appeals not just to the previous Lexit tendencies of McDonnell and Corbyn , but also to those Labour moderates such as Anna Turley representing areas of industrial decline and in need of the kind of boost that EU Objective 1 & 2 funds used to give us.

The extent to which such clarity and flexibility is actually needed over and above existing exemptions might be is of course a matter for substantive debate, but it would certainly not harm the economy, so if worth pitching for in a way that clearly differentiates a Labour soft Brexit from a Tory soft Brexit, and this is the key to helping secure Labour moderate votes against any moderation May is able to exert on her party.

Defer

Alongside this argument for differentiation, there is a realpolitik to discuss with Labour moderates tempted to back any soft May offer. Again, I have covered it previously so can be brief here.

The realpolitik, not for open consumption but ok for a chat between MPs, is that Labour is unlikely to win an overall majority, given the SNP’s position. Any Labour government is likely to depend for votes on a Remain party, and seeking deferral of Article 50 while the mess is sorted, with or without a second referendum, is likely to be part of that deal, although of course it is worth stressing again that any such deferral depends on the level of goodwill the EU27 are prepared to show a new government, and in the first instance may be constrained by the need to elect a new European parliament, with different seat configuration, in May 2019.

Labour moderates’s realpolitik choice, come October, is therefore not actually between a Tory soft Brexit and a Labour soft Brexit, but between a Tory Brexit and a Labour-led deferral of Article 50.

(There may also be a case to argue for deferral pursuant to the Electoral Commission’s findings, but I leave that whole aspect out here as it constitutes a wholly different strand of argument and action, outside Keir Starmer’s remit, though not competence).

Deference

The first three Ds above are the proposed substance of Labour’s summer challenge: to bring those MPs (and their allied thinktanks and pressure groups) in line with the leadership and create as united a front as possible by the time of the crunch votes.

But it’s never quite as easy as that. Anyone who knows anything about the management change knows the importance of getting people who’s views and behaviours need to be changed to think that it was they who led that change process.

So here with Labour’s moderates. They need not only a bit of TLC. They also need to feel is that at least to some extent they’ve been making the running, and that Labour’s position on a Customs Union & Single Market is at least to a degree down to them (the EEA irrelevance can quietly be forgotten).

The need for this gesture of deference is reflected again in something Alison McGovern said to us at the Progress meeting, and which I tweeted (badly) at the time: she was keen to let us know that Labour’s (for her) developing position on a Sinlge Market was down to her and her colleagues’ pressure.

So heh, throw them a bone [2]. It’s all for the greater good. Labour’s leaders should praise their fortitude and consistency, whatever they think in private.

Notes

[1] By way of contrast, the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, to whose founding statement I offered my own signature (I’m 1,914th in line so quite important) has actually faded away after after its high octane start in August 2017, presumably because its leading members feel it’s a pressure group no longer needed, given that Labour’s actual position aligns with it wanted to campaign for.

[2] Of course, I’m in my own echo chamber. I don’t think Progress and its loyal MPs have had any influence at all on Keir Starmer’s excellent game management, but what would I know? Maybe there has been daily contact, and I’m happy to be corrected (by which I mean I would reluctantly be persuaded by actual evidence).

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