Have Labour Made a Mistake by Not Campaigning as a Pro-EU Party?

At last week’s BBC Question Time election special, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn stated that if his government were to negotiate its own Brexit deal and offer voters a second referendum on it, he would maintain a neutral stance. One audience member called Liam Shrivastava, who has since been exposed as a Labour communications officer, defended Corbyn’s Brexit stance by claiming Harold Wilson was neutral during the 1975 referendum on the UK’s EEC membership, even though he campaigned to remain in the Common Market at the time.

When it comes to leaving the EU, Labour find themselves equally, if not more divided, than the Tories. They are a pro-EU party led by a man who has always believed Britain should leave the bloc. 61 per cent of Labour’s current MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave the EU, while 68 per cent of Labour voters opted to remain in the bloc. It is understandable why they have struggled to form a coherent policy over the issue for the last three and a half years.

Although Corbyn has failed to declare how he would campaign in a second referendum, his party has finally managed to adopt a clear stance on Brexit. They seek a deal that ensures Britain remains in the Customs Union, is aligned to the Single Market, and protects workers’ rights. On their website, they attack the Tories for threatening to ‘sell the NHS’ and the Liberal Democrats for wanting to overturn a democratic result. Once they have negotiated an agreement with Brussels, they want a second referendum so that it can be approved by the electorate. But their deal is similar to the Norway model – it equates to the UK remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union without a say. It is a position designed to appease Labour Remain voters who cherish the EU’s institutions and Labour Leave electors who want to quit the EU.

Their strategy to appeal to their Remain and Leave voters worked in 2017 when they increased their number of MPs by 31 and denied the Conservatives a majority. This is what they are continuing to do now, only circumstances have changed since then. Labour’s vote is torn between the Brexit Party, the Conservatives who are so far leading in the opinion polls, and the resurgent Liberal Democrats who are promising to cancel Brexit altogether. From Labour’s perspective, they have made a terrible mistake adopting a neutral stance and considering 68 per cent of their voters opted to remain in the EU, they should have campaigned in this general election as a Remain party.

Jo Swinson formed a pact with the Greens and Plaid Cymru to contest a single Remain candidate in 60 constituencies, which means the Liberal Democrats have a chance of retaining seats like Brecon. The Brexit Party have also refused to fight 317 constituencies the Tories won last time, improving their chances of gaining a majority this time.

But if Labour could have united under a Remain banner and formed a pact with other pro-EU parties, they could have caused significant damage to the Conservatives in seats like Worcester, which is currently being contested by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and in Broxtowe, where the Remain vote was split in 2017 but a single pro-EU candidate has every chance of winning the seat this time.

Corbyn’s neutral Brexit stance may cost him seats elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph reported that Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry is at risk of losing her Islington South and Finsbury constituency to the Liberal Democrats. If Labour formed a pact with other Remain parties under a pro-EU banner, this would be unlikely to happen.

A pro-EU stance from Labour has its risks of further alienating its core Leave voters, but under first-past-the-post, they have more to gain from being a Remain party. Corbyn wants a majority, but ironically he has adopted a Brexit position that could cost him one. Whatever the outcome of this general election, in years to come Labour will regret not being clearer on Brexit sooner.