The Labour party has updated the old metaphysical question: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ It ought to be protesting on behalf of all who are suffering because of Brexit. It ought to be throwing the government’s broken promises back at it and ramming home the message that voters cannot trust Boris Johnson. And yet, listen as hard you like, you cannot hear a sound.
If no one can hear Labour opposing, is it really an opposition?
The Brexit debacle is drowning once viable business sectors in bureaucracy and threatening what peace and prosperity Northern Ireland enjoyed.
Leading Labour MPs – not Corbynite has-beens, I must emphasise, but natural supporters of Keir Starmer’s leadership – cannot understand why he isn’t hammering a government that has betrayed the national interest and with it the futures of millions.
‘It’s not as if we have to make abstract arguments,’ said one. ‘We just need to keep it practical and tangible. Keir and backbenchers representing their constituents should simply be standing up at PMQs every week and asking the Prime Minister what he is doing to support Mr X in Coventry whose precision engineering business is going to the wall because of the red tape? Or Mrs Y who’s going to have to slaughter all her pigs because of export issues?’
‘It is so incredibly frustrating. I just don’t understand why we’re not doing it.’
Conservative MPs cannot represent their constituents or stand up for business. Now surely is the moment for Labour to begin the battering of a Conservative party that has been in power so long its extremes have driven away what sense it once had.
I find the silence incredible too. Before criticising, however, I will lay out the explanation I received from the Labour frontbench for what it is doing, or rather, what it isn’t doing, as fairly as I can.
The Labour leadership believes the public is exhausted with Brexit and does not want a return to the divisiveness of the referendum campaign and its aftermath. People who committed themselves to leave do not want to hear bad news. In particular, they don’t want to hear an ‘I told you so’ tone in remainer voices. (Even though we did tell them so – to the point of exhaustion.) The standard responses to anyone pointing out the realities of Brexit are: ‘You want Britain to fail.’ ‘You’re just gloating.’ ‘You’re saying I’m stupid.’
Labour doesn’t quite say this but the rest of us can acknowledge that Boris Johnson and his crew have pulled off a remarkable propaganda coup – for the time being at any rate. In normal times, voters punish politicians who sell them a false bill of goods, and turn on them, as they turned on Tony Blair after the Iraq war of 2003.
‘You lied to us,’ they say. ‘You took us for fools.’ They don’t blame themselves for believing the lies. Why should they? Democracy is a system where the electorate holds the rulers to account, not the other way round.
Or it used to be. Perhaps because Brexit was decided by a referendum or because it tied into wider cultural divides, a substantial minority of the electorate acts as if it is personally responsible for the false promises the Brexiteers delivered. It is as if they did not just believe the propaganda about a glorious and prosperous future but wrote it themselves. They are now as determined as Johnson to avoid having to take responsibility. They see a reckoning with reality as an attack on them rather than on discredited leaders.
In these circumstances, Labour believes it must wait for passions to cool and for voters to work out for themselves how the Conservatives sold them short. Labour won’t say a word. It polls the voters it lost in the north of England and Midlands regularly, and believes they will not return to a party that is a bearer of hard truths.
‘The sad reality is that until the logjam of public opinion cracks, speaking out just takes Labour backwards,’ one former campaigner for the People’s Vote said. ‘The problem is that the number of people who have changed their mind since 2016 is tiny. Until 60 per cent realise that Brexit was a mistake, nothing will change’.
His point about not ‘taking Labour backwards’ is widely shared. The party leadership knows that Labour only wins when it owns the future and does not want to come out of the Covid crisis refighting the battles of 2016.
Joe Biden’s victory has reinforced Starmer’s natural caution. Biden didn’t try to be a liberal version of Trump any more than Starmer is trying to be a liberal version of Johnson. ‘He was so low key it’s almost as if he won the presidency from Zoom conferences in his basement,’ said one admiring Labour figure. Labour politicians are in constant contact with Democrats. They believe the 20th century cliché that what happens in the US happens in the UK a few years later. America had Trump and then we had Johnson. America has Biden and – could it be possible? – we will have Starmer
The longer I listened to them, the more convinced I became. Then I shook myself and looked at the politics of the 2020s and the realities of Britain’s perilous position. Brexit has not been ‘done’. It will never be ‘done’. Living next door to the EU is like sharing a bed with an elephant. It may not notice you, but you must think about it constantly. The future will be a constant state of worry about access to our biggest market. Labour cannot plausibly go into an election with no alternative European policy.
And then there are the jobs that are going, businesses that are closing and lives that are being trashed: the reality of Britain as it is rather than as the Tories want it to be. By refusing to talk about the suffering of the country, and failing to hold the guilty men to account, Labour is making itself complicit.
Biden did not win by doing next to nothing. He offered a radical economic plan to restore America. Labour might think that silence is a strategy rather than a denial of responsibility as well as of reality. The rest of us must wait and see if Keir Starmer can win political battles without fighting them.