Private and public chatter increasingly points towards a general election in Britain, either imminently, or within months after an extension of Article 50. After Theresa May’s deal suffered the biggest Parliamentary defeat in the history of British democracy, the obstacles to passing it are surely insurmountable. There is no majority in Parliament for a second referendum (even if the Labour leadership backed it), for ‘no deal’ or for an alternative deal. If Theresa May tries to soften her deal, she will split her party, paving the way for a general election if just a small group of Tory MPs (or the DUP) abstain in a vote of no confidence. An election isn’t inevitable; but it has become more likely.
Now, the only polling company which places Labour behind the Conservatives is YouGov: not because they are “Tory-run”, as some more colourful online conspiracies have it, but because of their methodology (I am told they’re not reallocating ‘don’t knows’ to other parties, although clarification would be helpful). But there are many reasons for Labour to be optimistic. The party started the last general election 24 points behind the Tories: six weeks later, they ended with a 2 point deficit. On the day of the general election, two polls placed Labour 12 and 13 points behind the Tories. When an election is called, broadcasting rules kick in which allow Labour to directly communicate its message to the public, instead of being largely defined by an overwhelmingly hostile press. Its overwhelmingly popular domestic policies can take centre stage. It will mobilise an even greater grassroots army than last time. The social media campaigns of both Labour and outriders such as Momentum will benefit from a dramatic uptick in political interest in an election period, and reach millions.
In a traditional election campaign, the Tories would portray Labour as a mortal threat to the economy. But how will a Tory message of “stability” versus “chaos” — the themes of the 2015 and 2017 elections — work? Not just because Britain was subsequently plunged into its worst peacetime political chaos, but how will the Tories credibly denounce Labour as a terrifying threat to the economy when they’re dangling ‘No deal’, and all of the consequent turmoil, as a possible outcome if the Tories won an election?
But Labour has huge challenges, too. Labour’s detractors constantly highlight that it has failed to build a sustained significant polling lead over a self-evidently catastrophic Conservative Government. Caveats about polling accuracy aside, that’s because the Tories have become the Brexit party: committed Brexit voters regard the Conservatives as the only major party as trustworthy on delivering a break with the EU, and are sticking with the party come what may. It remains a vindication of May’s strategic decision to try and absorb the large majority of the UKIP electoral collapse of 2017. The Tories have an apparent polling ceiling of about 40%, but they are also have a high polling floor.
When Brexit dominates, it’s bad for Labour for lots of reasons. Corbynism is an insurgent project defined by clear, popular messages which taps into an anti-establishment mood: tax the rich to end austerity, public ownership, a genuine living wage, an end to tuition fees, and so on. When Brexit is the pre-eminent political issue of the day, Labour has to keep its electoral coalition together: that means having something to offer both Remainers or Leavers. It inevitably leaves senior Labour politicians, and sympathetic commentators, looking like triangulators, with no clear cut through message. “Once you’re explaining, you’re losing,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.
The brutal reality is that Labour’s membership and voters are mostly Remainers, but the party cannot win a general election without winning over more Leave voters. Labour has a huge lead amongst the working age population; it’s among older voters, particularly men, it struggles with, and it needs to win them over to gain seats in, say, the Midlands, so that it can form a government.
There are those who say that this is putting “party before country”. Given Tory rule is the main generator of the country’s ills, from austerity to the slump in living standards to crisis-ridden public services to the housing crisis to rising poverty to the general chaos that has enveloped Britain, this is a nonsense. Ending Tory rule is putting the country first.
In 2017, Labour did not let Theresa May run a Brexit election, which is what she wanted: if the party had not whipped its MPs to vote to activate article 50, this would have been impossible. Clearly, this will be far more challenging in a 2019 election. But broadcasters must come under severe pressure to not crowd out other issues altogether. For a start, Labour can frame its policies as dealing with the injustices that caused Brexit in the first place: after all, even Theresa May in the “burning injustices” speech she delivered after becoming Tory leader (which turned out to be empty rhetoric) accepted that social and economic dislocation has taken us to this moment. The causes of our current discontent must be front and centre in an election campaign.
But what does Labour say on Brexit? It could just decide to argue that it will attempt to renegotiate a deal. But would it keep the party together in those circumstances? And even if there isn’t mass defections to the Lib Dems under the hapless Vince Cable, even a small trickle could make a difference; so could the disillusioned not coming out to vote in key seats. There might even be an attempt by some Labour MPs to foment a split.
So this seems to point to Labour committing to renegotiate a deal, and promising a referendum on that deal, with Labour ministers and MPs offered a free vote in a referendum campaign. That was the position offered by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, after all.
Of course there are problems with such a position. But every position has challenges, and in a Brexit-defined election, what other credible options does Labour have?
PS: Personally, I’m open-minded about Labour’s position in an election (personally if we can avoid any other referendums again I’ll be a happy man) — but I would like to hear other people’s thoughts and ideas.