Just as opinion polls show that a large majority now consider Brexit to have been a mistake (53% to 35% according to a YouGov survey), the Labour leadership seems to have concluded that now is the time to distance the party from any criticism of it.
In backing not just Brexit, but a hard Brexit (outside of the European single market and customs union) – something practically the whole Labour Party previously argued vigorously against – Keir Starmer is doing a disservice to the national interest and, at the same time, risks alienating voters that Labour needs to win a general election. It also does him no favours in terms of being seen to be a man of principle, unafraid to speak up for what is right.
Starmer seems to have forgotten that, already at the time of the 2019 general election, Labour haemorrhaged more support to the parties seen as being vigorous in their opposition to Brexit (the Greens, the SNP, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru) than it did to the Conservatives. Even in the so-called ‘Red Wall’, Labour lost nearly a dozen seats to the Tories by a smaller margin than the number of votes lost to such parties. I was at the January 2020 national executive committee meeting that pored over the results, and this was apparent for all to see.
Yes, there is an ongoing concern about not alienating those Labour voters who voted Leave in the referendum. At the time of the referendum, they totalled some 29% of Labour voters (again, according to YouGov). But many of them no longer believe that Brexit was a good decision. Others would not desert Labour just on that one issue. And quite a few would welcome at least a return to participating in the single market and attenuating the multiple problems that have arisen due to Brexit. By bending over backwards to placate a dwindling number of Brexiteers, Labour risks losing far more support among the majority of voters who do not think that Brexit is going well.
A number of myths have gained currency and may go some way to explaining this position. One is that working-class voters backed Brexit. In fact, at the time of the referendum, a majority of working-class voters in work voted against Brexit, while a majority of those not in work (mostly retired) backed it. That age profile matches other classes and is actually another factor for the trend against Brexit, as six more years of younger voters have since joined the electoral register, while the cohort born in the 1940s and 50s has inevitably shrunk.
Another myth is that the North backed Brexit, while the South didn’t. In fact, great northern cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds voted Remain, while smaller towns and rural areas didn’t – much like in the South. And in the northernmost part of Britain – Scotland – the vote was overwhelmingly to Remain. Labour is now vulnerable to criticism from the SNP that there is little difference between the two main UK-wide parties on this issue, making it more difficult for Labour to regain precious Scottish seats.
But even if these myths were true, they are based on what happened in 2016. Since then, the country has had six years to discover more about the Brexit reality. Every time Brexit is in the news, it is bad news: queues at borders, extra costs, red tape for businesses, disruption in supply chains, rising taxes to make up for the shortfall in government revenue, labour shortages, multiple inconveniences for travellers, failure to secure new trade deals with countries across the globe that are any different from the ones we had via the EU and, above all, a shortfall of some 4% of GDP compared to where it would have been, adding to the cost-of-living crisis and the shortfall in government finances.
Despite Tory rhetoric and desperate attempts to find Brexit benefits, the public can see that Brexit falls well short of the sunlit uplands that Boris Johnson and his cronies promised. Opinion has continued to shift even without the main opposition party making a noise about it.
Yet all Starmer is offering at the moment is to tinker with the edges of Johnson’s flawed trade agreement, reducing only certain non-tariff barriers with the EU but not eliminating them and leaving the rest intact. The party leadership needs to be more ambitious. It would be pushing an open door.