Many strange things happened in last June’s general election, but perhaps the biggest shock – the Tories’ loss of their majority – should have been no surprise at all.
Because the one thing we all seemed to forget was that no British party that has made hostility to Europe a central plank of its platform has been able to win a majority. Michael Foot, William Hague and now Theresa May all had to learn that the hard way.
When the campaign began in April the consensus was very much that May was going to crush the saboteurs with a huge majority, and her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra was still going strong.
Labour, anxious to avoid the issue, went so far as to claim Brexit was not mentioned on the doorstep. But the British Electoral Study (BES) tells a different story, with one in three people citing Brexit as their most important issue in determining their choice of vote.
The BES shows that 6.5 million voted tactically. The scale was no accident: Those concerned about Brexit, the sort of people May called “citizens of nowhere”, got organised, and determinedly used their vote to protest against the Government’s Brexit. Best for Britain was part of that and half a million people used our tactical vote dashboard in hundreds of seats across the country.
Despite this history, Jeremy Corbyn’s party still has to make its strategic choice on the Brexit negotiations. While last year’s Labour Party conference voted to keep continued British membership of the EU as an option, the party’s front bench have prevaricated on Europe, cautiously committing to the lesser alternative of temporary single market membership only recently.
It’s plain the party’s leaders remain concerned formally committing to keeping the no Brexit option on the table would be seen as disregarding the referendum result.
The counter argument remains that keeping our options open on a deal that still has not been defined is entirely democratic. The treaty rules on leaving the EU state we must leave according to the rules in our own constitution, and surely for the UK that means an act of Parliament with a meaningful vote and a full debate on the final deal.
Fear of articulating an alternative to the Government’s insistence that we are going to leave no matter what has created a very un-British silencing of free speech, with politicians and business people alike seeming to misjudge their duties to society: Now is the time to offer advice, opinions and leadership, not to clam up.
The longer people stay silent on the need for a real choice on the final deal, the more uphill the struggle will be in the final months towards that decision point.
People, including Labour, need to have the courage to speak truth to power and ask for all options to be on the table. For the party to state that Brexit will definitely happen without seeing any of the terms of the deal means Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Keir Starmer accepting whatever the Conservative Party brings home.
The Labour Party would be wise make two clear changes to its policy and approach.
First, the party should insist on keeping all options, including no Brexit, on the table. Otherwise, when the final deal is put to Parliament, the opposition could find themselves trapped by the Tories into choosing between a bad deal and the even worse option of no deal.
Second, Labour MPs should understand just how important tactical voting was to Labour’s result – not just in London but all across the country.
A curious coalition of old right and old left has hampered the efforts of those inside the party – including many in the trade unions and so-called soft-left – to move the party towards a stance of opposing the chaos of the Tory Brexit and giving the younger, often University-educated, “Corbyn 2017” voters a voice in the debate.
The view that Labour can build a new consensus around the idea that no Brexit would be better than a Brexit that damaged workers’ and consumers’ rights or threatened the welfare state has often struggled to be heard.
But things are on the move. Amongst the trade unions there has been a growing realisation that ending free movement will not usher in a new era of rising wages and surging investment in skills. As we stagger ever closer to an exit from Europe driven by the concerns of the Conservative Brexiteers, trade union leaders have come to see the huge risks to their members’ jobs and protection in ever sharper focus.
Will the party go all the way towards once more making “no Brexit” a viable option in British politics? It is still hard to say and it is unlikely that the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week will settle the matter: But ever since the voters delivered their shocking non-surprise last June, the direction of travel has been clear.
Eloise Todd is CEO for Best for Britain