Keir Starmer’s relative silence on Brexit has frustrated some remainers, but BEN BRADSHAW – one of Labour’s most prominent Europhile MPs – insists his strategy is the right one.
It was April 2016. I was at the annual Anglo-German Koenigswinter Conference in Oxford.
Attended by politicians, journalists, academics and people from business and industry, Koenigswinter started after the Second World War to foster reconciliation between our two countries. The 2016 conference attracted a particularly strong interest, falling during Britain’s EU referendum campaign.
I arrived in an anxious mood. I had spent every spare moment of the preceding few weeks knocking on doors in my constituency for the Remain campaign. What I’d found did not correspond with the opinion polls or with the complacent atmosphere of the assembled gathering.
The conference began with a presentation by leading pollster, Peter Kellner, of YouGov.
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Peter went through the figures at that time, which showed a small but comfortable lead for the Remain campaign. While the margin of error meant nothing was certain, his assessment was that Remain’s lead would be likely to firm up, as undecided voters opted for the safety of the status quo.
I raised my hand to speak in the following discussion.
‘I’m worried,’ I began, ‘there are too many traditional Labour voters who are planning to vote Leave. Some, because they are convinced Eurosceptics, but most because they either do not know that the Labour Party backs Remain or because they see a campaign fronted by David Cameron and George Osborne, figures they loath, and are saying to themselves: ‘If they’re in favour of it, I’m against it.”
Part of the responsibility for this undoubtedly lay with the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose half-hearted approach to the referendum is well documented. But the greater responsibility lay with David Cameron and the government. They were in charge of the campaign and arrogantly thought they could win the referendum on their own. ‘Where are the trade union voices?’ I asked. ‘Why aren’t you using respected figures like the TUC’s Frances O’Grady, senior Labour politicians who aren’t Jeremy Corbyn, non-politicians, people from civic society.’ And then I made my prediction that if the campaign didn’t change dramatically, we were going to lose.
It’s important to go back over some of this history. We’ll all have slightly different versions of it. But unless, as pro-Europeans, we are prepared to try to find a common understanding of how we got to where we are now, we won’t get the important decisions about the present and the future right.
The period from the referendum result in 2016 to the general election result in 2017 was a dismal one for pro-Europeans. The best we could hope for under the new prime minister, Theresa May, was that the Commons majority that existed for a soft Brexit would prevail. But that would have meant May making common cause with Labour and splitting her party, something she was unwilling or lacked the courage to do.
When she called the early election in 2017, we thought the game was up. The Tories were more than 20% ahead in the polls. Everything pointed to a Conservative landslide. Pro-Europeans’ last hope was that if May was returned with a bigger majority, she would be able to ignore her hard-liners and cut the soft Brexit deal that was in the country’s best interests.
But the worst Tory election campaign in memory and an unexpectedly strong showing by Labour – thanks to tactical voting by Remainers – changed everything.
I texted my husband straight after the exit poll came out saying: ‘This means we have a chance to stop Brexit.’
With no majority, May would either have to work seriously with Labour on a soft Brexit or come up with something herself to put back to the public in a confirmatory referendum. There then followed two years of gruelling parliamentary trench warfare and, running in parallel, a campaign within Labour, ultimately successful, to shift Corbyn, first towards a single market/customs union-type Brexit and, eventually, to supporting a confirmatory referendum on any deal with the option to Remain.
When Johnson ousted May in the internal Tory coup of last summer, it was obvious that his and Cummings’ strategy was to force another election, which, because of Johnson’s greater appeal and campaigning skills, public fatigue with Brexit deadlock and the unpopularity of the Labour leader, they believed they would win.
But there was no simple route to an election because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. So, they closed down parliament unlawfully, created the political narrative of ‘the people versus parliament’, and fostered a sense of crisis designed to make people believe a fresh election was the only way out.
It wasn’t. The parliamentary numbers for a second referendum had been growing all the time. There were still, then, enough moderate Tory MPs prepared to support a People’s Vote once all the other options were exhausted to make a Commons majority. Corbyn and his immediate circle wanted an election. But they were pulled back by a Parliamentary Labour Party, virtually unanimous in its view that the result would be a bloodbath.
The SNP wanted an election, in which they expected to clean up in Scotland, while claiming they didn’t. So, when the Liberal Democrats, also riding high in the polls and expecting to gain seats, decided to grant Johnson his wish, it was game over. Johnson had the simple Commons majority he needed to go to the country and further opposition from Labour to an election was pointless.
Scroll forward to today. When people ask me why isn’t Keir Starmer going more on the attack over Brexit or calling for an extension to the transition period, they are failing to recognise the political reality.
With a majority of more than 80, Johnson can do what he wants. It would be futile for an opposition leader to call for something he or she doesn’t have the power to deliver.
Far better to remind people of the promises Johnson made of an ‘oven ready’ deal and the commitments he signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration and do what we can to hold him to them.
When Britain gets a bad deal or crashes out with no deal at the end of this year, Keir can remind the country of Johnson’s broken promises and make the case that he would have done better, just as he has over the government’s mismanagement of the Covid pandemic.
Like millions of others in this country, I hope that one day in some form the UK will resume our place in the European family of nations. But that’s not for now. Brexit will be completed on this government’s terms. This parliament has at least four more years to run. Who knows where we will be by summer 2024?
We must and will tirelessly highlight the damage. And when the next election comes Labour will need a credible attractive policy on Europe that reflects our internationalist and pro-European instincts.
But Keir’s current strategy now is the right one.
Brexit is still a disaster for Britain and Johnson’s Brexit the worst we feared. He and the Tories must be made to own it. It will fall to the next Labour government to pick up the pieces and begin to repair the damage.
Ben Bradshaw is the Labour MP for Exeter.