Given todays results, I hope someone, somewhere reappraises the strategy of triangulating our own Brexit posn based on Mays #KamikazeBrexit
— Clive Lewis (@labourlewis) May 5, 2017
So tweeted Clive Lewis MP today.
“Kamikaze” is a plausible sounding technique which has one major problem – it has a very low hit rate. Kamikaze (神風) were suicide attacks by military aviators from the Empire of Japan against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II, designed to destroy warships more effectively than was possible with conventional attacks. During World War II, about 3,862 kamikaze pilots died, and about 19% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. Labour’s Brexit strategy suffers from one big problem – not many people, with the best will in the world, understand it. Like Labour’s previous electoral offering for the 2015 general election under Ed Miliband, it feels a bit too little far too late.
A major strategic flaw about Labour’s Brexit reaction is that, as Clive Lewis observes today, it is entirely a reaction to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, rather than a reaction to the EU referendum itself. There are certain features of the current political situation which are more robust than others, but it appears that many UKIP voters are thinking “job done” as regards getting the Brexit case successfully argued. It is now up to someone – and it doesn’t particularly matter who – to execute the implementation of Brexit competently. This is reminiscent of the New Blair approach to running NHS services – it doesn’t matter who runs them, e.g. Virgin, NHS or Serco, as long as they’re run as well as possible. The issue then is that the emotional attachment to Labour doesn’t matter. This is borne out by Tees Valley and West Midlands voting for Tory mayors, despite the ‘past’. The perception of these UKIP turned Tory voters is that Jeremy Corbyn is not the most effective person to be on the other end of the negotiating table, whatever the negotiating strategy is.
Given that the central argument of Richard Angell in Progress, and that of some others, is that it is Jeremy Corbyn who is the central liability in Labour – for whatever reason, whether the inclination of his bow, his tie knot, his talk style, his past positions on foreign affairs, Jeremy Corbyn is part of Labour’s Brexit problem allegedly. So if you assume that Brexit is the forthcoming big issue, and you have a strong (even if irrational) dislike of Corbyn, the most logical conclusion would be for Corbyn to outsource this negotiating rôle to someone else who is well loved by the general public. But this is genuinely focus group stuff – more at home in the pages of the ‘Unfinished revolution’ by Blair guru Philip Gould. Who is the person within the current Labour parliamentary party who is best placed to represent the UK’s interests in Brexit?
It is no accident that Theresa May has whipped up emotions against Jean-Claude Juncker, as this plays very well on the front cover of the Daily Mail. Some time ago, Anna Soubry MP, a person with whom I don’t have much ideologically in agreement, suggested that the anti-EU rhetoric would get far stronger at around the time of the triggering of Article 50, citing that the ‘divorce bill’, now estimated at 100 Billion Euro, would become the centrsal figurehead for this hatred. So, it can be argued that, given Jeremy Corbyn is fully signed up to Brexit, he would be willing to pay the EU any pay cheque because he is a ‘soft touch’. Here, there is clearly a divergence between the position of hardline Conservative-UKIP voters and that of people who want the most pleasant relationship with the EU after the Brexit process – the latter group would happily leave the amount of the divorce bill up to an external court. The reason that this does not curry favour with hardline Conservative-UKIP voters is that this is not ‘taking back control’.
In the past few weeks, once touted as the future Prince across the water, Sir Keir Starmer is not the solution to all of Labour’s problems. He is responsible for producing an overly technocratic, though albeit perfectly logical, position on Brexit so that Labour can face ‘both directions’ at once. Today has revealed a nonsense that the Conservatives are pretending that they are not becoming too complacent whereas the main opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats with their withering vote, are still ‘in the game’. The one decision of the EU referendum was settled, for better or for worse, on June 23rd 2016 – that we will leave the EU. But the triangulation has no solution. It is unlikely that there will be a second referendum, even though some people may have changed their mind. And the second, more crucial, bit of the referendum was never asked – “Should we leave even if the alternative is worse?”. The answer, of course, for many Brexiteers will be ‘yes’ still.
All of this points at the other robust factoids about the Kamikaze Brexit.
One factoid is: the British voters have not actually been offered much meaningful choice about the style of Brexit. You can either vote for the Conservatives, with their ‘hard brexit’, leaving the membership of the single market, or Labour who appear to be ‘waiting and seeing’ having rubber stamped Article 50 through parliament. Or you can vote Liberal Democrat, Greens or UKIP, who are unlikely to have much negotiating power in the unlikely event of a coalition. Or, if in Scotland, you can vote SNP, but if the Conservatives become the largest power, this Scottish vote is in fact worthless. There is of course the huge disclaimer that local elections are different from the general election – there are more protest votes with a much lower turnout – but it looks unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Brexit is THE winning formula.
The second factoid goes back to the triangulation with the ‘May position’, so to speak. We know that left wing voters, despite their opinions of Jeremy Corbyn, find May entirely unpredictable rather than “strong and stable”. Theresa May saying “strong and stable” five million times doesn’t make it true. As one Tweep put it, Theresa May is not actually ‘the iron lady Mk. 2’ after all – more like a robotic Metal Mickey, or as John McDonnell referred to the situation today, a ‘dalek’. Triangulating to the May position takes no account of the changing dynamics in the European Union – for example, if the new French president is able to be more successful in reforming the EU than David Cameron ever was.
So a more logical position would be for a strong negotiator of Labour to deal with the Brexit situation as it evolved, but this would be to go against the approach of Brexit at any cost. But given the mood music from Juncker and Tusk (and Merkel), it is unlikely that the 28 EU states are thinking very much about the size of Theresa May’s mandate. So all this fundamentally goes to the root of the problem – whether other voters are logical and reasonable, or simply irrational or bigoted? Let’s assume that Jeremy Corbyn’s domestic policies are unobjectionable (a big IF) – the solution for Labour to resurrect lost voters would be to say the policies are there to stay even if Corbyn isn’t for the full three terms (he would be approaching 80 if Corbyn started three terms). And Labour would have to stop standing in the middle of the road where it is bound to get run over as Nye Bevan warned. That is, it makes a stance – that of a party which believes that immigration is necessary to meet the social and economic needs of the country, and that the UK is better off being signed up to the single market, but our position as a unified UK can only dealt with with any certain as the political and economic situation of the EU evolves. This might be totally incomprehensible – but so is the current position of Labour on Brexit.
It is however clear that Labour can still produce ‘hits’. Look at Steve Rotheram in Liverpool or Andy Burnham in Manchester. The immediate drastic solutions to the kamikaze Brexit would be to find a ‘bloody difficult’ negotiator on behalf of Labour, but who unlike ‘that bloody woman’ will want to negotiate some of the advantages of inclusion within the European Union. But the current public perception of both the Labour and Conservative Parties wanting the same outcome on Brexit, but with the Conservatives with the better negotiator, is untenable. Also, one needs to factor in that the mainstream press will not allow ‘other issues’ to take central stage, like the NHS, social care or schools, even if the infrastructure of the UK goes to hell and a handcart on June 9th. And clearly – for such a big decision – the UK does need more time. It needs to ask the EU for an extended negotiating period to get the negotiations right.
And Labour needs to get personal with Theresa May, having made the entire debate so personal.
Can British voters entirely trust ‘strong and stable’ Theresa May to get back control of immigration figures, when she objectively failed as the Secretary of State for the Home Office?Can Labour extract out of May any ways for us to measure her performance on this? In other words, how can we hold Theresa May to account for her special ‘May Brexit’?
It’s a pity that Sir Keir Starmer spent so long working on something which has failed to address Labour’s central weaknesses on Brexit, but, given that Labour has now voted for political suicide (Clive Lewis MP was also against the triggering of the premature end of the ‘fixed term’ without invoking a vote of no confidence), Labour now has to produce some sort of eye-catching stunt on Brexit to allay voters’ fears. Or else it could be game, set and match – finished for Labour, with more loss than three hundred council seats.
We know that, if Labour had a free choice, it wouldn’t start from here – that is Lord Mandelson working ‘every day’ to undermine Labour (in his own words), or members of the parliamentary Labour Party continuing to rubbish Jeremy Corbyn – but it is too late to complete a third leadership election within the space of six weeks. Jeremy Corbyn needs to do something drastic and fast on Brexit, and also pin his nails to the Union flag, if he has any hope of standing up to the Tories or the SNP.
To this extent, the ‘moderates’ are right – there is little point in having principles without power? It is said that Kamikaze pilots who were unable to complete their mission (due to mechanical failure, interception, etc.) were stigmatised in the years. It is possible McDonnell and Corbyn are unable to ‘complete their mission’, but they would be the first to agree that if the current strategy is not working it is perhaps time for a re-think.