Ed Miliband gave an interview this week in which he decided it would be a good idea to bring up the topic of Brexit. The interviewer spotted an opportunity and asked Miliband if he had ‘embraced’ our departure from the EU. ‘You’ve got to embrace it because that argument is over,’ was the former Labour leader’s response. That one sentence was a perfect demonstration of the way Labour’s top figures keep getting Brexit wrong, and continue to fail to understand why the issue hurts them as it did in Hartlepool a month ago.
Labour now have two basic ways to go on Brexit. One is to become the soft anti-Brexit party they were before the last election – and that a lot of voters still see them as, deep down. They could pledge to re-join the single market if elected or aim to renegotiate the current Brexit deal with the EU to get something better.
This direction would have large short-term downsides, particularly in seats like the one currently held by Ed Miliband, Doncaster North. But if Ed and other Labour MPs are so sure Brexit was the wrong decision for the country to make, then surely they must believe that an anti-Brexit position would yield political benefits at some point in the medium term? By going down this path, the Labour party could also keep their new core vote happy and stop bleeding voters to the Greens.
The second logical direction Labour could take on Brexit is the polar opposite. The starting assumption would be that the problems with continuing to fight against Brexit now that we have left are simply too great. Labour should therefore give in and ‘embrace’ Brexit.
But if they want to go down this route, Labour have to explain why they opposed Brexit in the first place. As it happens, it isn’t difficult to construct a left-wing argument for why Brexit was a good idea. A good, recent example involves Tim Martin, owner of the Wetherspoons chain and noted Brexiteer, complaining about how we should re-liberalise immigration to allow a few more Europeans into the country to staff our pubs.
Someone like Ed Miliband could say this is a great example of how Brexit is a positive for low-wage British workers. Tim Martin and other employers may now have to put up salaries to make jobs attractive to British workers. Labour could turn against globalism and talk about the ways in which the protectionist elements of Brexit will help the working poor. They could then contrast this with the Australian trade deal, pitting themselves against the globalist Tories who only care about the wealthy.
But as Ed Miliband perfectly demonstrated this week, Labour have chosen neither of these paths, deciding instead to constantly claim that they have ‘embraced’ Brexit without explaining why they have changed their minds. The reason for this is blatantly obvious: Labour don’t really want to ‘embrace’ Brexit in any real or meaningful way. They want instead to offer half-hearted platitudes that make no sense on the topic, hoping this will be enough to make the electorate forget the fact that Labour tried – even half-heartedly – to stop Brexit before the 2019 general election. The underlying message of Ed Miliband’s little take on Brexit this week was: Look, you gammons decided that leaving the EU was a good idea when it was plainly idiotic, so now I have to blankly ‘embrace’ the idea even though it’s clear I still think you’re all morons for supporting the whole thing. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, will you all just vote for Labour like you used to?
It’s clear that Labour don’t understand that the voters aren’t stupid and won’t fall for such blatant posturing. To many, it will just look like Ed Miliband is the MP for a seat in the north that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and he is worried in the wake of the Hartlepool by-election result about losing his seat at the next general election unless he tries to be more Brexit friendly. Without a genuine reason for ‘embracing’ Brexit, it all comes across as painfully insincere.
Labour still haven’t worked out how to handle our departure from the EU. Being the party that accepts Brexit sort of, kind of, even though they still think it's rubbish isn’t a position that they can sustain for much longer if they expect to ever win an election again.