Don’t Expect Labour to Mop Up U.K. Brexit Mess

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party tearing itself to pieces over Brexit, anyone might wonder whether the opposition Labour Party would do a better job directing the country’s divorce from the European Union. The prospect of new elections in the autumn or spring next year if May’s government implodes makes the question far from academic.

A recent poll from the Observer put the Labour Party four points ahead of the Tories, its biggest lead since the June 2017 general election, when Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, did unexpectedly well as supporters of closer ties with Europe defected from the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, May is bleeding support from all sides of the hugely divisive Brexit debate. In a scathing resignation speech in Parliament on Tuesday, ex-Foreign Secretary and chief Brexiter Boris Johnson attacked the “miserable permanent limbo” of her Brexit plan, saying it was tantamount to “volunteering for economic vassalage.” That was hours after she was criticized by strong Remain-supporting MPs, who voted against her in a key Brexit vote on Tuesday.

The Conservative infighting should create an open goal for the Labour Party. So far it hasn’t, and for several good reasons.

One is Labour’s own schizophrenia. If Conservatives are irreparably divided over Brexit, any unity Labour has shown is largely a veneer. In fact, May scraped by on two votes this week only with the help of a handful of Labour MPs — who defied their own party’s marching orders. In May, 83 Labour peers ignored their party’s line to back a vote in the House of Lords that effectively called for the U.K. to remain in the EU’s single market.

The official Labour position during the 2016 Brexit referendum was to remain in the EU, but Corbyn himself is a lifelong euroskeptic who sees the EU as a killer of his socialist dreams. And euroskepticism itself has a long Labour pedigree. In the 1975 referendum on membership in the European Economic Community, precursor to the EU, the balance among Labour members was 65 percent to 35 percent for leaving. Former Labour leader Michael Foot’s speech at the time of that referendum makes Boris Johnson’s Brexit credentials look almost weak:

And I say to our country — our great country — don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilize our resources and overcome our economic problems. Of course we have. We can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time.

Corbyn has carefully built his Brexit strategy around the idea that he’s respecting the will of the people. He is acutely aware of the fact that Leave carried the day in over 60 percent of districts that elected a Labour MP, according to estimates by Christopher Hanretty, a politics professor at Royal Holloway University of London. That’s mainly because the anti-Brexit Labour voters were concentrated in London and other urban centers.

Corbyn also understands that anti-immigration sentiment was a major motivating factor for the Brexit vote. So while Labour supports remaining in the customs union, staying out of the single market means that Corbyn can promise tighter immigration restrictions; it also jibes with his plans for nationalizing various industries, which would probably be blocked under EU rules limiting government aid.

And yet Corbyn can’t just roll with the hard-line Brexiters. There are more Remain voters in his party and they reflect Labour’s changing voter demographic. Labour voters are increasingly likely to be young, middle-class urbanites with college degrees and social democratic leanings rather than socialist ones. Education was a major predictor of voting in the 2017 election; the party also scored highly among ethnic minorities.

The party has always been a broad tent, but the current cultural split makes it look like one of those odd photoshop jobs where the head doesn’t match the body. For Corbyn himself, Brexit seems more of a distraction than the political opportunity of a lifetime for an aspiring prime minister. His posture of permanent disgruntlement is suited to attacking the government over inequality, but not to setting out a positive vision of post-Brexit Britain.

Labour needs two things if it wants to capitalize on Tory weakness, neither of which seems attainable under its current leadership.

First, it needs a credible Brexit plan of its own. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, a former chief public prosecutor who is respected by many Tories and well-known in EU circles, has made clear that the party will not support May’s Brexit plan; his six tests for backing any Brexit deal pretty much guarantee Labour opposition to any deal May can swallow. Labour has neither supported nor ruled out a second referendum.

Labour would also need to take a hard look at its economic program in light of Brexit. Should Corbyn manage to break Labour’s long spell in opposition once the U.K. officially leaves the EU next spring, he would be taking the reins of a country whose debt burden is growing, whose businesses are reeling and whose growth prospects had just been severely limited. Delivering socialism in the best of circumstances is hard; doing it post-Brexit would be suicidal.

In a rational world, the trauma of Brexit would be forcing party splits and a major political realignment. But the U.K.’s winner-takes-all electoral system makes that highly unlikely if not impossible. Even a paltry vote share, say under 30 percent, guarantees that the Labour Party, out of power now for nearly a decade, remains the main opposition party.

Brexit should be Labour’s big political opportunity. But under its current leadership and Britain’s electoral setup, it seems that Labour can’t lead, can’t follow and won’t get out of the way.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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