Since the time of the Brexit referendum, the Labour party’s position on Brexit has been, shall we say, ambiguous. Whether by design or accident, in an effort to appeal to both sides, the party has managed to alienate many former supporters. It has been argued that Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit was a major factor in the government securing an overwhelming election victory in 2019.
Five years on from the referendum, and two years on from the general election, is Labour’s attitude to Brexit any clearer? If the slogan ‘Make Brexit Work’ is anything to go by, then perhaps not.
I have watched with interest the discussions on social media as to the rights and wrongs of the current Labour position. I admit to having been swayed in both directions at different times. Commentators that I trust on Brexit-related topics are not all of a like mind. Also, it would seem that I’m not alone in my confusion as to what would be the best course of action for the country, or indeed for the Labour party itself.
Make Brexit Work
It is certainly true that Labour have been in dire need of a good slogan for some time. A good three-word slogan has the power to capture the public imagination, even one as equivocal as Theresa May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Boris Johnson won an election on the back of ‘Get Brexit Done’, and let’s not forget the power and effectiveness of the ‘Take Back Control’ mantra.
Whether the meaning behind these slogans was clear or not, they were certainly effective. In light of former Brexit slogan successes, then ‘Make Brexit Work’ sounds a perfectly reasonable addition. The issue, though, is what on earth does it mean and is it the right approach in the face of what many see as Brexit carnage?
In favour of slogan ambiguity
The fact that the Labour slogan, like Labour policy on Brexit, is ambiguous is one of the reasons it has support. Many believe that Labour are right to be cautious when mentioning Brexit. They should focus on winning back the lost red-wall seats, whose Leave-voting supporters left in droves in support of Johnson. Brexit has happened, and no good can come from dwelling on past lost battles, they say. Better to focus on other ways to defeat this government – over corruption, levelling-up, the NHS, etc.
Certainly, we have seen a more passionate, angry Keir Starmer on his return to the House of Commons this week. Not only did he call out the prime minister’s appalling handling of the Owen Paterson affair, and his cowardice in failing to attend the debate on parliamentary standards, but Brexit got a look in too. As rumours increased that the UK is about to take the ‘nuclear’ option and trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, Starmer accused Johnson of picking fights with the EU to distract from various scandals.
There is also speculation that the government plans to fight the next election on Brexit. Labour would rather focus their efforts in other areas than have the next election be another Brexit battle – one that perhaps they could not hope to win.
Political commentator Nick Tolhurst argues that the ‘Make Brexit Work’ slogan “reminds voters that Brexit isn’t working”. He describes politics as a “community bus” not a “personal limousine”. He goes on to explain, “The bus gets you nearer where you want to be. But some Remainers are refusing to board it because they are waiting for a super fast limousine that isn’t coming”.
Making Brexit work, won’t work
Lord Andrew Adonis is not exactly renowned for being a fan of Starmer in general, or of Starmer’s Brexit policies in particular. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he has been critical of the ‘Make Brexit Work’ message. As well as tweeting “Well that can’t be done”, he shared a photo suggesting that Starmer was merely a reflection of Johnson.
Scottish National Party MSP Angus MacNeil responded to the slogan by citing the economic damage of Brexit. He tweeted, “Brexit can’t work… Anyone promising to make Brexit work are [sic] simply telling lies”.
Political activist Femi Oluwole, who co-founded the pro-EU campaign group Our Future Our Choice, explained his take on why Brexit won’t work in a 50-second video, making five specific points:
- Trade is all about geography – the closer your trading partners, the better
- The biggest barriers to trade are differing regulations between trade partners
- It is in UK’s interests to have similar laws to the EU
- As non-EU members, the UK has no say in EU laws – so much for taking back control!
- The choice is therefore between EU laws or making ourselves poorer
The problem with ‘Make Brexit Work’, he said, is that everything required to limit the damage caused by Brexit would result in the opposite of what Leave voters actually wanted in the first place. So, regardless of whether Remainers would be happy with Starmer’s proposals, Leavers certainly wouldn’t be.
Labour’s slogan should be better than this
Of course, the arguments for and against the ‘Make Brexit Work’ slogan are not all about the policy itself. While the basic principle of the proposal might be acceptable, the slogan itself is an issue. As ‘woke and proud’ Richard Bentall says, it alienates Remainers. While pro-Europeans are no strangers to feeling left out – not least by Labour – they do make up the vast majority of Labour supporters.
A slogan that further alienates Remain-supporting Labour voters who have been hoping for better representation, for stronger arguments, and for Labour to take a stand and call out what they see as the Brexit disaster, is probably not a wise choice. Since it risks appearing to make no sense as we increasingly hear about economic damage and businesses going under – or moving abroad – as a result of Brexit, it’s likely to be seen as another frustrating swerve on the part of the opposition.
Many are still confused about the Labour message, and its validity. Whatever the best course of action for the party, they are no doubt firmly focused on the main goal – to ‘get the Tories out’. Whether they can do that with the promise of making Brexit work, and without making cross-party alliances ahead of the next election, is another matter altogether.
Recent polls have shown a shift in public opinion, even before the latest sleaze and mismanagement have been completely taken into account in the numbers. The always-dubious attractions of Johnson are no longer enough to satisfy many of his followers. Johnson has proved, once too often, that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t do detail, and that he doesn’t abide by the rules. Starmer, by contrast, is growing in stature, and is generally regarded as an honest broker, if, at times, a dull one.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Labour’s position on Brexit, let’s hope they’ve got it right.