Ever since Keir Starmer became Labour leader, there have been calls for him to publicly embrace Brexit to win back seats in the ‘Red Wall’. Starmer has stayed quiet on Europe since his victory, to the consternation of many Remainers who wanted him to push the importance of extending the transition period, before that opportunity passed.
This silence has been wise on Starmer’s part – and he should continue to stay silent on the European question for the time being. The calls for Starmer to announce that he’s converted to Brexit misunderstand several things, including: the nature of the electoral coalition Starmer needs to build, why Red Wall seats fell in December, and how Brexit plays out from here.
To win the next election, Starmer has to keep enthusiastic English Corbyn voters, while getting back swing voters who went for Blair but have voted Tory ever since. He also needs to find some way to win in Scotland again. There is one thing that connects all of these voters: they backed Remain in heavy numbers and continue to do so to this day. To alienate key sections of the electorate that he needs to both get back for Labour and retain, all in an attempt to win back the Red Wall, is a very bad idea. It would hand another opportunity to the Lib Dems, who would probably screw it up anyway – but I wouldn’t take that chance if I was Starmer.
Besides, Brexit's impact on why Red Wall seats fell to the Tories has been vastly overstated. The ridiculous position Labour had on Brexit going into the election didn’t help the party, but even if they had wholeheartedly been pro-Brexit, that would not have saved them. Those constituencies fell to the Tories because traditional Labour voters felt the party under Corbyn did not share their values, of which Brexit was just one relatively minor part.
The fact is to get those seats back, Starmer needs to do more than saying he thinks Brexit is a good idea – which would mostly be taken as too little, too late anyhow. One of Starmer’s positive attributes is that he seems genuine; the Labour leader suddenly becoming a Brexiteer after playing Captain Remainer for years will just seem like a desperate attempt to win over Leavers. Red Wall voters are far too politically savvy to fall for that. They will want to see Labour really understanding what is important to them and feel like the party can be trusted to work in their interests once again. Starmer’s real challenge is finding a way through the culture war which works for all the sections of the electorate he needs for a majority. Brexit is a side story in all of that.
Then there is the way that the UK leaving the EU will play out over the next year. Every possible scenario favours Starmer remaining quiet on the issue for now. If there is no deal, he can attack the government for failing to get one – something which will resonate with a significant enough portion of Leavers. If no deal turns out to be not too bad, Starmer can drop the issue. If there is a deal, and it’s a bad one – full of compromises many Leavers won’t like – he can pounce on the particularly egregious bits of it. In other words, something is definitely going to happen to significantly change the UK’s relationship with the EU at the end of the year, and why Starmer should say anything about it until that occurs is beyond me.
Many Leavers with public platforms like to think Brexit is a finished issue; that the 2019 general election with its thumping Tory victory sealed Brexit’s future. Yes, it did hand Boris the majority he needed to see Brexit through, but the next stage of it – including what our relationship with the EU 27 will look like – is still up in the air. Starmer is right to stay clear of this and let the Tories own Brexit, which is why I don’t think we’ll see his Damascene conversion on the issue any time soon.