Let’s share an inconvenient truth – Labour have played a Brexit blinder. The ‘constructive ambiguity’ approach adopted by the Party during the 2017 General Election may have infuriated many Remainers, but it also held together a potentially fractious coalition, and allowed Jeremy Corbyn to decisively move the political conversation on to natural Labour territory – education, the NHS and the impact of austerity. On this and more, the Tories have been on the back foot ever since. Austerity isn’t quite off the agenda, but – as the easing of the public sector pay freeze and increased funding for the NHS have demonstrated – it’s no longer quite the vote winner it once was.
At the general election, Labour – without making any firm commitments on Brexit beyond a prioritisation of jobs – became the de facto party of choice for Remainers. As an experienced Labour activist myself, it became increasingly clear on the doorstep over the summer of 2017 that millions of people were being inspired by a radical Labour manifesto. But many more – some of them traditional Labour supporters, others new voters or converts from other parties – were backing us because they knew that voting Labour represented their best shot at stopping or softening a hard Tory Brexit.
Thanks to the hung parliament, in part a consequence of Labour’s strong campaign and inspiring manifesto, the public were able to ask not just what Brexit should mean but – particularly in light of the government’s shambolic handling of the negotiations – whether it should happen at all. Labour’s paths to electoral success over the years have always been clearest when we’ve built a broad electoral coalition. Jeremy Corbyn’s boldness has allowed us to shift the ‘Overton window’ and talk openly about the need for social democracy, where his predecessors have been accused of running from their own shadows.
But it’s also clear that in a renewed ‘two-party politics’ context, with the Tories also enjoying an historic surge in vote share, that Corbynism alone is at this point in time not quite to enough guarantee the Labour majority that we – and the country – so desperately needs. Labour leaders in the past have been seen to compromise on their ideals in order to secure a sufficiently broad portion of the electorate to govern.
In a People’s Vote, Jeremy Corbyn has a unique and frankly unmissable opportunity to build such a coalition, without diluting his brand of politics that has proved so inspirational to so many people. In 2017, we saw nascent signs of this coalition, without Labour even having firmly committed to the Remain cause. With clear evidence that many people – not least the 8% of the electorate who’ve shifted from Leave to Remain in the North East – have now changed their minds, the time to speak out for a final say is surely fast approaching.
As it becomes ever clearer that the government can’t and won’t meet Keir Starmer’s ‘six tests’ on issues such as trade, security and workplace rights, Labour has a political opportunity at hand to speak powerfully not just to our own supporters, but also to the hopes and dreams of the voters who could hand us the keys to Downing Street. Labour canvassers know this, and the shift in mood so many of us have seen on the doorstep isn’t just anecdotal; indeed, new research has shown that as many as four million votes may be at stake. Our trade unions – rightly concerned about the impact of Brexit on jobs – have been speaking out too, with the GMB balloting their members and the RCN, TSSA and Prospect already in the Remain camp.
As well they should; Brexit is being led by the far-right reactionaries like Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mogg and Steve Bannon - their choice of rhetoric - anti migrant and inward looking is anathema to everything the Labour movement stands for.
The government is offering us a binary choice between a bad Brexit and a catastrophic ‘no deal’, both of which will prove disastrous for jobs, health and investment. Labour has a responsibility to take a stand against this kamikaze approach to our economy – a socialism of scarcity is no socialism at all.
These issues will be weighing heavily on the minds of Momentum members this weekend as the National Co-ordinating Group meet to decide on what their next steps will be. In hundreds of Branches and CLPs across Britain, activists are voting to have the Labour Campaign for a People’s Vote motion heard at Labour Party Conference. Trade unionists, members, supporters and pressure groups are all speaking with one voice – now is the time to act. The window of opportunity is narrow, but the prize on offer is the chance to transform our country. Let’s grab it.
Patrick Moule is Chair of Springfield Labour CLP, Student Officer of the Labour Irish Society and a supporter of For our Future’s Sake, a youth and student-led campaign calling for a People’s Vote