What Labour must do to get back into the Brexit debate

PUBLISHED: 12:30 27 February 2020

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.

DON BRIND, a former press officer for the Labour party, suggests how it can get back into the debate and who is the best placed leadership candidate to do so.

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Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Labour leader Ed Milliband (second left) speak with flood affected residents in Doncaster during the general election campaign. Photograph: Oli Scarff/PA.Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Labour leader Ed Milliband (second left) speak with flood affected residents in Doncaster during the general election campaign. Photograph: Oli Scarff/PA.

One of the most striking failures of the Labour campaign last December was any attempt to rebut or counter Johnson's "Get Brexit done" soundbite. The leadership's approach seemed to be to avoid the issue to campaign on bread and butter issues.

Should that be the approach adopted by the new leadership now Labour is on the sidelines, at the wrong end of an 80-seat Commons majority, or should we seek to offer a robust commentary on Johnson's conduct of negotiations with the EU? To do that the party would need to develop its own soundbites. I think there are three reasons for having a strong line. Firstly to seek to influence the outcome, thwarting the more dangerous and destructive consequence of the Johnson confrontational approach.

Secondly, it will help Labour to get an audience from the media, especially the broadcasters who will, otherwise, be tempted to treat it as irrelevant. There is every chance that the new leader will get a bounce, possibly having better personal ratings than Johnson and bringing the party closer to parity in the polls with the Tories. To appear to be ducking Brexit will diminish that effect.

Thirdly, it will help the party to make sure the Tories own the downsides of any Brexit deal they do.

(left to right) Sadiq Khan with Keir Starmer. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA.(left to right) Sadiq Khan with Keir Starmer. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA.

So, what should Labour be saying? Here are some first thoughts. It should preface everything it says with an acceptance that Brexit is going to happen. That also means eschewing a policy many party members would support of going into the next general election advocating rejoining the EU.

It should say that "We support a Fair and Family-Friendly Brexit". The subtext to that is the party's test of any proposed deal is whether it protects jobs and living standards and is in the interests of British families and businesses.

Labour should also say: "We oppose a wrecker's Brexit", condemning any proposal or demand that hurts business and families in the pursuit of some illusory future deal with the US and others.

It should have a consistent line when companies cut jobs and investment on the explicit grounds that they were forced to do so by Brexit. My suggested soundbite is "1,000 job losses - Undone by Brexit."

(left to right) Labour leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer after the Labour leadership hustings at the SEC centre, Glasgow. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA.(left to right) Labour leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer after the Labour leadership hustings at the SEC centre, Glasgow. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA.

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As with Johnson and his soundbite, the key is repetition. It's a lesson Labour needs to learn. It used to be good at it.

So who will be the party leader to take on the Tories over Brexit? It's pretty clear that Keir Starmer is determined not to be outflanked on the left by Rebecca Long-Bailey. That was my firm conclusion
from attending one of his campaign meetings last week. By and large, I liked what I heard - especially his answer to a question from a member of Labour Business who complained that the party's December manifesto had nothing to say to business.

But I came away worried - not about Starmer but for Starmer. My concern is that control of the party is still in the hands of people strongly opposed to him, notably Karie Murphy, who ran the general election campaign, Seumas Milne, director of strategy and communications, and Jon Lansman, NEC chair.

Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey speaks to supporters at a campaign event in Hackney, London. Picture: PA Wire/PA ImagesLabour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey speaks to supporters at a campaign event in Hackney, London. Picture: PA Wire/PA Images

The allegation of a breach of data rules by the Starmer campaign have their fingerprints all over it. There's speculation that it might be the prelude to a Stop Starmer procedural ploy. I only hope those contemplating such a move realise they'd be taking on one of the country's top lawyers.

Key question - assuming Starmer is victorious, would he be able to sack Murphy and Milne? On the face of it, he ought to have Long-Bailey's backing. She has pledged to "professionalise" the
party. "Promotion would be based on
what you know, not who you know," she says.

If Starmer needed more ammunition he would consult the thoughtful former MP Alan Simpson. I'm a fan of Simpson, who is green and a Europhile. A former flatmate of Jeremy Corbyn, he is nonetheless scathing about what he calls the "corridor cabal" of top aides who sabotaged Labour's election campaign. He lays the blame on a small band, including Milne and Murphy for organisational chaos and for "suffocating" the leader.

In a submission to an independent review into the election disaster, Simpson says: "Jeremy will inevitably carry much of the blame. But Labour's deeper problems lie more in the cadre of senior advisers surrounding Corbyn. None should be allowed within a million miles of Labour's rebuilding."

A great deal will depend on the scale of a Starmer victory. The yardstick will be the Corbyn margin in 2016 when he thrashed Owen Smith by 313,000 to 193,000. But look a little closer and you find that more than 20% of the membership - more than 100,000 - sat out the contest, leaving Corbyn with a bare majority of eligible voters backing him. Corbynite control actually rests on elections to the NEC where turnout was far lower. It took fewer than 70,000 to elect Lansman and two other Momentum backed candidates.

NEC elections are taking place alongside the leadership elections. Starmer must hope that his campaign will create a bandwagon that carries his supporters into power at the top of the party.

Don Brind is Labour Movement for Europe press officer and a former BBC political correspondent; these blogs also appear at www.laboureurope.eu

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