Labour’s annual conference panned out precisely as expected. The now customary factional infighting underpinned by a black-and-white partisan assessment of Starmer’s essence; unions kiboshing an attempt to make electoral reform party policy. Overshadowing all of this, however, was the party’s stubborn refusal to state the glaringly obvious; that Brexit isn’t working.
Starmer’s speech contained six references to Brexit. In all cases, the leader was either attempting to pin a ‘botched Brexit’ on Johnson – entirely justified – or trying to convince his audience that he could make a post-Brexit future work. What Starmer and his associates singularly failed to acknowledge is that Brexit is intrinsically and fatally flawed. The needlessly hard Brexit pursued by Johnson and co has inflicted permanent structural damage on our economy and led to ingrained supply chain disruption. Far from teething problems, this chaos is destined to only worsen with the end of various grace periods and the ushering in of more stringent border checks. The simple truth is that Starmer is no more able to make this form of Brexit work than Johnson. Why? Because it is wholly unworkable.
Fundamentally right-wing project
Labour Party members are overwhelmingly pro-EU or at least in favour of free movement. This is easily explained. Brexit is a fundamentally right-wing project with deregulation and the inevitable associated erosion of workers’ protections at its core. Watching Labour politicians, from Starmer to the Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, desperately seek to either dodge the issues entirely or else to equivocate in order to avoid the evident idiosyncrasies in their ‘position’ is painful to say the least. In a particularly bizarre twist, this week also saw Lisa Nandy claim that the reintroduction of free movement is not a priority for ‘either side’. This assertion not only has no verifiable basis in truth, it also ignores the fact that the loss of free movement is the central battleground for a great many Remainers/Rejoiners.
It’s hard to know exactly who Labour are trying to appeal to with this strategy, if indeed it is one. With the Brexit Party now a spent force, the Conservatives have occupied the extreme eurosceptic platform with many more moderate voices having been replaced by single-issue Brextremists in 2019. If Labour’s priority is winning back votes from Brexiteer ‘Red Wall’ voters, they should remember that many of them have adopted Boris Johnson as their idol. They are unlikely to shift their loyalty to a Labour Party with an approach to Brexit that underlies their whole philosophical foundation. Furthermore, if reconquering their lost heartlands is the motivation for their stance, this also betrays a baffling lack of insight within the party. After all, the presumption that all voters in these constituencies are ardent, unreconstructed Brexiteers is as offensive as it is demonstrably false.
The principles of internationalism
Labour has effectively abandoned the principles of internationalism and cooperation in favour of an opaque outlook that has seen the party effectively render themselves hostage to the Tories’ Brexit fantasy. There are millions of moderate voters in the UK feeling politically homeless as a result of the failure of the opposition to engage with reality and merely state the obvious. This willingness to entirely ignore socio-economic reality and outright sideline the sincerely held feelings of millions of citizens still grieving the loss of a freedom they held so dear is shortsighted. The party may well wish that Brexit would simply disappear from the political landscape but this is for the birds. From the now apparent blockages in supply chains and the negative experiences of many EU citizens at the UK border to the ever-expanding list of problems in Northern Ireland, Brexit is going nowhere.
Were Labour to take this battle straight to the Tories and state the obvious – that rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union is not only desirable but urgently necessary – there is no doubt they could turn their electoral fortunes around. A credible opposition must never be afraid to look the electorate in the eye and speak the truth. Until that time, the Labour Party will struggle to find its focus and wallow in the wilderness to the benefit of no one except Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers.