In an election framed by Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street as the Brexit general election, Labour’s stance on the issue could be their biggest failing of the campaign. The Prime Minster announced that the reason behind the calling of a general election was that she needed a mandate for her Brexit negotiations, true or not, from that moment on this campaign was to be filled with Brexit debate.
A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Britons had Brexit as one of their three biggest issues for this election period, health was a distant second with 42%. It is also vital for Labour voters from 2015, 67% of whom voted Remain and in another YouGov poll showed that around 45% of Labour voters would be ‘delighted’ or ‘pleased’ if Labour campaigned for no Brexit. In recent British Election Study data released at the end of 2016, it found that of the 67% Labour voters in 2015 who also voted Remain in 2016, Labour had only managed to retain the support of 64% of that group.
Factoring this data in, along with the squeeze on Labour voters from Lib Dems on the Remain side and Conservatives on the Leave side, means that it is more important than ever for Labour to offer a clear stance on Brexit. However Keir Starmer made a speech this week in an attempt to offer clarity but many were left no clearer on where they stand and those that were clearer felt the stance taken was closer to Conservative than Lib Dem.
On Tuesday Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer, set out what Labour’s approach to negotiations would be should they be in government come early-July. He said that Labour accepted that free movement of people would most likely be sacrificed but at the same time said that Labour did not want to ‘sever ties’ with Europe, with unspecified access to the single market, customs union and participation in EU agencies.
This sounds remarkably similar to ‘having your cake and eating it’ as anyone familiar with the EU’s negotiating stance will know that single market membership is impossible without accepting the four freedoms of goods, capital, services and, crucially, people. Mr Starmer said in his speech that, “Moving away from freedom of movement has to be part of the referendum result,” this by necessity means no membership of the single market with the best hope being paying for a modicum of access.
Alongside the lack of clarity in this area Labour’s biggest problem is that they are merely mirroring the Conservative approach to negotiations. Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech specified that she would seek "freest possible trade" with the EU but that she wanted to take control of migration. This speech was described by Jeremy Corbyn as Mrs May ‘having her cake and eating it’ but this now appears to be essentially what Labour are offering voters in June albeit with a small amount closer to the customs union.
Labour did try to set out some differences between their approach and the Conservatives, such as the offer to guarantee EU nationals residency in the UK and that a ‘no deal’ that Theresa May had said would be better than a bad deal was not acceptable for Labour. Unfortunately for Labour this stance looks half-hearted as Labour MP’s were three line whipped to vote for an unamended article 50 bill when there was a chance to support EU nationals. The subtle differences between Labour and Conservative Brexit stances seem to be at best thin and highly nuanced.
The impact of these subtle differences are debatable but clarity is vital in an election campaign, especially in what is set to be the biggest single issue for the weeks ahead. The difficulty Labour are likely to face is anyone pro-Brexit is likely to vote Conservative, as witnessed by the collapse in UKIP vote share who polled at 4% recently, while anyone who is against Brexit happening would choose Lib Dem who have clarity in their pro-European message.
The confusion over Labour’s Brexit position is borne out in recent polling as YouGov found in Labour specific polling in January that 42% of people were not sure on Labour’s priority for Brexit. 15% thought that Labour wanted to stay in the EU, there were two variations of a ‘soft Brexit’ offered which received 17% and 18% respectively while 8% believed Labour wanted a ‘hard Brexit.’
The importance of the issue, set to be election defining, mixed with Labour’s inactivity and mixed messaging could be a major reason for the predicted fall in Labour vote share. This issue needs to be addressed quickly before more focus is put on each party’s Brexit stances and clarity is even more vital, if confusion continues to reign then it will surely spell disaster for Labour on Friday June 9th.