Until Labour remainers properly accept Brexit, the party will be stuck in limbo | Larry Elliott


Traditionally, Europe is the issue that afflicts the Conservative party. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May were all – in different ways – booted out of Downing Street as a result of Britain’s troubled relationship with Europe.

The political pattern has now been turned on its head. It will be five years next month since the UK voted narrowly to leave the European Union, and the Tories have accepted the result and moved on. Labour now says that it is reconciled to a post-Brexit future, but its predicted defeat in the Hartlepool byelection suggests the new approach has failed to convince.

Labour is now more fundamentally split over Europe than the Tories were under Thatcher and Major. The bulk of the party’s supporters voted remain and still feel strongly that the result of the referendum was bad for Britain. A significant minority, concentrated in towns such as Hartlepool, voted leave and have resented being told that they got it wrong.

Responsibility for this rift lies primarily with the hardline remainer element in the party, which, having gifted the Tories one election victory, now looks set to hand them the next one as well. A series of political blunders has made it much harder for Labour to piece together the electoral coalition it needs to win.

Immediately after the referendum, the assumption was that leave voters would quickly regret what they had done and show buyer’s remorse. When that didn’t happen, Labour remainers threw their weight behind the campaign for a people’s vote, a second chance for those who had got it wrong first time to come up with the right answer. This culminated in Labour’s worst general election performance since 1935 – and a much harder Brexit than would otherwise have been the case.

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After becoming leader last spring, Keir Starmer said Labour must accept that things had not panned out as those who backed a people’s vote had hoped. Yet the remainer left kept up the fight. Its conviction that life outside the EU would be disastrous was apparently confirmed when the government decided to organise its own vaccine procurement programme separate from Brussels. As talks on a new trade deal rumbled on into the autumn of 2020 there were confident predictions that the economy would collapse, supermarkets would run short of food and the M20 would become a lorry park.

None of this has happened. Instead, there have been two key messages from the early months of 2021. The first is that the EU’s botched vaccine procurement has delayed economic recovery and cost lives. A fact that tends to be overlooked by its devotees is that the EU’s attempts at central planning have not been awfully impressive. The second is that there can be big advantages to independence of action for nation states, something leavers on the left have argued for decades.

The left’s case for Brexit has always been that there are levers that can be pulled – tax, state aid, infrastructure spending, active industrial policies – that would start to tackle Britain’s longstanding economic problems, but it will be the Conservatives who have the chance to pull them for years to come.

A heavy degree of scepticism is warranted when it comes to Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda, but it is worth thinking for a moment how things look from Hartlepool and places like it. Around 1.7m jobs were lost in manufacturing under the 1997-2010 Labour government. London and the south east boomed while the Midlands and the north struggled. When voters in industrial Britain made their unhappiness about being forgotten known in the Brexit referendum, they were patronised and vilified. The government, through infrastructure investment, the siting of vaccine plants in the north east and the relocation of part of the Treasury out of London is at least seen to be doing something. And, apart from carping, what is Labour offering? Fair or not, that’s how things look to many in what were once “red wall” seats.

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Labour’s future now lies in the hands of its remainer supporters, because they have to decide whether their strategy is to work for Britain to rejoin the EU, or whether they want to help develop the policies that will help make Brexit work.

The first approach, if not doomed, will certainly be a long haul. Britain only joined the European Economic Community, as it then was, because it was obvious that the Germans, French and Dutch were enjoying faster growth in living standards. That no longer holds true, because even on the most pessimistic Brexit assumptions, the UK will have similar levels of growth and lower unemployment than the EU. Remainers often give the impression that they welcome bad economic news on the grounds that it makes rejoining the EU more feasible. This is not a good political look.

Alternatively, remainers can allow Labour to re-coalesce around the following propositions: Brexit has settled the UK’s relationship with the EU for years if not decades to come; there are advantages as well as disadvantages to life outside the EU; there is a duty to improve the lives of those who voted to leave in June 2016.

Accepting this is not going to be easy, because for many left remainers, belief in the EU runs deep. But at the moment they act as a purely negative force – because by making it harder for Labour to heal its wounds they are making it easier for the Conservatives to turn Britain into a one-party state.



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