Not being the Tories is no longer enough for Labour
PUBLISHED: 12:00 05 May 2019
The desire to vote against something or someone you oppose will only get you so far, says MITCH BENN, at some point you have to vote for something.
I've got a lot of time for Tom Watson. I've met him a couple of times and he's always been personable and sincere. He turned up to speak at the Put It To The People rally in March and put forward what seemed to me to be a very reasonable proposition: that Labour should agree to support the prime minister's Brexit deal on the proviso that it be put to a public vote before being implemented.
This seemed like a sensible suggestion if only because it would be difficult for the government to construct a logically cogent argument against it; one might contend that parliament should not be allowed to obstruct the will of the people; one might also contend that the government should not be allowed to obstruct the will of the people; it's altogether harder to make the case that the people should not be allowed to obstruct the will of the people. Like I said, an eminently reasonable idea, so it's no surprise that it went nowhere.
It was a surprise, however, to see Watson turn up on Twitter this week making one of the most maddeningly vacant statements to be issued by a British politician in recent weeks (and I'm sure I don't have to point out how the stiff the competition has been on that score). He posted, with reference to this week's local elections:
“Every cross for Labour in the ballot box on Thursday can send a powerful message that we are fed up to the back teeth with this destructive and divisive Tory government.”
True enough in and of itself, Tom, but the trouble is that any cross in any box other than that of the Tory candidate would send that exact same message.
Lots of parties aren't the Tories. UKIP aren't the Tories. The Greens aren't the Tories. The Monster Raving Loony Party aren't the Tories (are they still a thing? Did they give up when the 'proper' parties started to out-loony them?). Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that *all* the parties except the Tories aren't the Tories, and in fact since the advent of the ERG not even all the Tories are the Tories any more.
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The point is that if Labour's sole selling point is “We're not the Tories”, that's scarcely a unique selling point. So why vote Labour in particular? Is it beyond even someone of the evident wit and perspicacity of Watson to make a positive case for Labour?
Of course, in fairness to Watson, it's difficult for anyone to make a positive case for supporting a party when that party's position on the most urgent matter facing the country is so vague and contradictory as to be meaningless.
It's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for all Labour's advocates when they know that any statement they make on Brexit is likely to be back-pedalled, undermined or just flatly denied by someone further up the Corbyntology food chain.
The trouble with Watson's exhortation to vote Labour in this local elections (and by the time you read this I imagine most of you will have voted already, and if not, why not) in order to 'send a message' to the Tory government is that on the matter of Brexit, their message still falls far short of a People's Vote.
Polling suggests that a good majority of Labour voters (and members) at the very least favour a final deal vote, or indeed advocate revoking Article 50, but if they go ahead and vote for a (possibly) pro-Brexit Labour Party will they see their votes offered as evidence of continued popular support for leaving the EU?
We saw this after the 2017 general election; Brexiteers on both the left and right pointed to the combined Conservative and Labour voting figures and claimed that since “80% of voters supported pro-Brexit parties” this meant that the country was overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU, despite specific polling on this issue suggesting nothing of the sort.
This isn't just a Labour problem; it's a problem facing the whole Remain movement. The desire to vote against something or someone you oppose will only get you so far; at some point people want to vote for something.
Last weekend I was on a panel discussing Brexit at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival with the Remain campaigner Dr Rachel Clarke, Femi Oluwole and Ian Dunt; we agreed on a lot of things (it was, let's be honest, a pretty one-sided panel, but at least the one side was our side just for once) but the thing on which we were most unified was the need to construct a positive case for Britain's continued, and active, participation in the European project. If Labour aren't willing to make that case, we'll just have to make it without them.