Everybody knows the saying: if you stand in the middle of the road, you get run down from both directions. It was the late, great Aneurin Bevan, Socialist Labour MP and Health Secretary who is credited with having said this. Maybe through the decades, it’s been lost in translation.
Don’t get me wrong, you only have to trawl through a few of my recent articles to know that I have been wholly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit – trying to be all things to all people. And hey, it worked in 2017. So why isn’t it working now?
Well, a day out on the doorstep with Labour will tell you. With the EU elections upcoming this Thursday, I can only imagine that the leaders office wants to spend the next four days re-affirming the message that it’s been peddling up to now – Labour negotiation first, general election second, ‘peoples vote’ as final measure as long as the above cannot be secured first.
Up until this very moment, I have seen this as a sensible compromise. It was perfectly reasonable for the Labour Party to be cautious in the months after the 2016 referendum not to unequivocally oppose what the people had just voted for in historic numbers. That would have been politically unviable.
But having listened to people’s concerns on the doorstep in my constituency, and from reading about what people are saying in other areas across the country that voted for Brexit, Labour’s message is not cutting through. I think there are several reasons for this.
People like easy answers. If you think about it, leaving the EU is the easy answer. We don’t like it, let’s just pack up and leave. Staying and reforming would be the harder task. At least, that’s what the likes of Nigel Farage would like people to think. That is his appeal. He offers supposedly ‘easy’ answers.
People don’t have time in their busy lives to study the complexities of customs arrangements, trade and the issues with the Irish border. So, ‘just leaving’ on a “clean break”, WTO Brexit is appealing because that’s it. People don’t have to explain that position. Labours position isn’t like that. It is a multifaceted compromise position that works in stages, and realistically that is simply too complicated for most people unfortunately.
The other reason is voters respect and reward principle. People have known Farage’s views on Europe for over two decades, and as people never stop telling us, he ‘speaks his mind’. Corbyn and the Labour frontbench do not ‘speak their kind’ in this way, and that’s because they are thinking about the political calculations they have to make.
Another big beast of the Labour Left, the late Tony Benn once said that in politics, there are ‘signposts’ and there are ‘weather vanes’. Like a chameleon, the weathervane shifts and shapes it’s political colours against the tide of public opinion, it moves in whichever way the wind of the day is blowing. The signpost on the other hand is firm and grounded in its beliefs, it is principled and not wavered by that tide.
I don’t know where the current labour leadership is on this spectrum, and neither do the public. The problem with the principle of ‘constructive ambiguity’ is that it only works up until the point that everybody knows you are being constructively ambiguous. That point is now.
So what does this dilemma spell for Labour at this weeks European Parliament elections, and going forward ahead of a future general election?
Well, despite what can only be described as good intentions in trying to please everyone, one of the harsher rules of politics is sometimes you will just have to upset people. You cannot simply tinker around the edges of the big, controversial decisions. People need certainty. And even if that certainty isn’t the certainty they want, people respect political parties and politicians that just say what they truly believe.
Labour is an internationalist party. It fought in that 2016 referendum to ‘remain and reform’, and Labour knows full well that even in the governments own Brexit impact assessments, any which way you spin this, brexit will not benefit UK workers, it will not benefit the economy as a whole, and it has, and it will continue to, diminish our standing on the world stage.
Therefore, Labour must stand up for its guiding principles and say that enough is enough. What happened to calling out David Cameron for calling this referendum to settle a decades-old Tory feud? What happened to showing up a Tory government for running down the clock on the 2-year article 50 negotiating period? What happened to calling out the charlatans of Farage, Johnson, Gove and their other assorted ghouls in pushing a Brexit that will only serve to deregulate, privatise and shackle our economy to the USA?
If we don’t move to an unequivocal position of remain and reform, we will be buried at each election until this is resolved. Listening to people on the doorstep, it’s clear that people have an urge to vote for us. They like our manifesto, they like a lot of our Labour representatives. But thy don’t like prevarication anymore. They don’t want equivocation on the biggest issue of the day.
It might not be the politically sound option to take, but it will be the right thing to do. Currently, instead of being ‘all things to all people’, we are simply pissing everybody off on both sides of the debate. If Labour, like the Liberal Democrat’s, like the Green Party, like the SNP and yes, like UKIP and the Brexit Party, says what it actually believes then maybe, just maybe, the voters will reward that honesty at the ballot box.