Brexit won’t dominate politics forever – and that gives Labour reason to hope

Labour must have a post-Brexit strategy for the 2020 election


I sometimes feel that Brexit is a huge weight that sits on our politics pulling the political universe out of shape. Like a massive gravity well Brexit distorts all nearby issues and political discourse.

For example, all new economic data are scanned for evidence of the impact of Brexit. If investment falls it is credited to policy-related uncertainty, even though investment is at unusually low levels already. If living standards stagnate then the culprit is inflation caused by a fall in the value of sterling. The restraints on wage rises escape blame.

Suddenly in foreign affairs the top issue is trade deals; not trade which continues as before but agreements on ‘free trade’. When the prime minister met with the presidents of the US and Turkey, it seemed that trade deals overshadowed the many complex issues in these important relationships.

Changes to public spending are seen as responses to Brexit, rather than the choices of a new chancellor aware of his predecessor’s failure to meet debt and deficit targets. Reform of finance is forgotten as, post Brexit, preserving the banking passport overtakes the need to regulate it.

The crushing weight of Brexit sits most agonisingly on the Labour Party. Many party members and supporters want to resist leaving at any cost. For them Europe embodies values of openness, solidarity and internationalism that are fundamentally Labour’s.

At the same time other party loyalists worry that Labour has lost touch with the concerns of many working people who no longer feel engaged in or represented in the country’s policy process. From this perspective respecting the referendum result is an essential first step to rebuilding Labour’s winning coalition.

Finding a space that unites and champions both strands is the challenge facing Labour today.

Labour’s opportunity

Before the obituaries are written, here is one hopeful thought. While leaving the EU will weigh on politics this year and next, and possibly into 2019, the election in 2020 will not be fought on Europe.

By 2019 the exit deal will most likely be sealed and the outline of Britain’s future relationship with the EU will be known. Europe will still present issues but it will no longer dominate the conversation.

Theresa May might hope to sweep the election as the prime minster who achieved Brexit. However elections called on one topic are often settled on a different question altogether. The recent Richmond by-election is a good example. The idea of an election to show opposition to Heathrow expansion barely lasted the first week of campaigning.

Ms May will find that voters are less motivated by gratitude than by self-interested hopes for the future.

This is the opportunity for the Labour Party. Winning an election is often decided by which party can determine the agenda. The party which brings the focus on to an issue which both resonates with voters and which plays to its natural advantage has the best chance of success.

In the aftermath of leaving the EU, Labour needs to turn the national conversation to those concerns where Labour is most trusted.

We can’t yet say what that new agenda will be. It may be restoring public services — from policing and prisons to social care and hospitals — after a decade of austerity. It may be modernising the economy with an industrial strategy and workplace democracy. It may be a housing revolution making home ownership and long term renting viable choices. It may be driven by events as yet unforeseen.

While Brexit exercises its gravitational pull, it will not be possible to shift the discussion. Indeed, it would be wrong to try. For now there is important work to be done holding the government to account on its exit strategy. Labour must seek to preserve the best possible relationship with the EU not just economically and commercially but also on security, diplomacy, science, culture and people to people contact.

One step we can take however is to avoid seeing the impact of Brexit in every development. Inflation at two to three per cent is not a disaster but it is an opportunity to talk about wages and the need for working people to have a fair share of growing national income.

Low investment has many causes, singling out ‘uncertainty’ misses the chance to point out the long term failure to invest and the need for more interventionist industrial policy. If growth falters it might be a delayed reaction to the referendum result, or it might be caused by the productivity problem to which the government has no solution.

Realising that the dead weight of Brexit will not oppress us forever does not help us to find a way through these difficult years. However, the awareness that he battleground of an election in 2020 will be on different territory from today should inform political strategy and future policymaking.

It might even set free a little hope into the political universe.

Jos Gallacher has lived in Brussels for 15 of the last 18 years. He has been active in the Labour Party since 1979 and currently represents Labour International on Labour’s National Policy Forum.

See: Did the experts really predict a post-Brexit recession?

8 Responses to “Brexit won’t dominate politics forever – and that gives Labour reason to hope”

  1. NHSGP

    The basic problem remains. You’ve predistributed all the state pension money and civil service pension money. It’s all gone.

    You still owe people a pension. That means you have to tax and not deliver services in order to pay.

    How do you deal with a 10 trillion pound pension debt hidden off the books?

  2. Mike Stallard

    ASSUME makes an ass of U and me.
    You are assuming that Brexit won’t make much difference.
    Please read this:

  3. patrick newman

    There will be plenty of opportunities for Labour to make an impact in the Brexit process. It is a phoney war stage and the Tories will be going down hill from here on. Their party unity is simply not believeable and any deviation from the true cause of complete separation will set up serious internal conflicts. Economic Armageddon has proved very stubborn so far but a whole raft of indicators are looking distinctly queasy. Unity is important (Woodcock note) and so is the basic measure on jobs, standard of living and public services.

  4. Michael WALKER

    Nice to read people are still living in a fantasy political landscape.

    Without realistic policies – which rules Labour out – and a credible Leader – which rules Labour out – a Party wins nothing.

  5. David Lindsay

    Just as Labour had barely won Copeland in 2015 (I don’t know where this safe seat business comes from; is that just because it’s “Up North”?), so the Conservatives barely won Copeland last night. But they did win, and they did so on Theresa May’s left-of-Ed-Miliband programme.

    Meanwhile, UKIP died at Stoke Central, and its only MP appeared on Question Time to say that that was because it was not, “A traditional working-class party of Keir Hardie.” This country’s sinistrisme is complete. Between them, there is nothing that cannot now be enacted by two Party Leaders who are respectively a Left Christian Democrat and a Left Social Democrat. Opposed only by the MPs who signed the anti-Bercow motion. And there are all of five of those. Five. Out of 650.

    If most people, including most Leave voters, never heard the word “Brexit” again, then it would be too soon. A high proportion of those who voted in the referendum did not, do not, and will not vote in elections, including yesterday’s elections. The Right died last night. Copeland ended any possibility of a challenge to May, or even of a critique of her, from that wing of her own party, in which she now has a completely free hand. Meanwhile, Stoke Central ended UKIP altogether.

    Based on May’s staggeringly left-wing domestic programme, the centre is now whatever Jeremy Corbyn happens to say. Just so long as she still gets to be rude about him personally while reading out the policies that two years ago were peculiar to him and to John McDonnell. The death of UKIP means that there is no one to object to that from the Right. Her reading out of Corbynism in the style of Margot Leadbetter is now as far right as British politics goes. She has entirely accepted Corbyn’s terms of debate.

    And the capture of Copeland (hardly Bolsover, but even so) cannot be seen as anything other than a vindication of that acceptance. That is what Britain now is. A country in which the Christian Democratic Left seeks to enact as much as possible of the Social Democratic Left’s programme while holding it up as a bogeyman for electoral purposes. It seems to be working.

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