Joshua Hockley-Still (University of Exeter)
In our blog forecasting the impact of Brexit on the 2019 General Election (published by the DCU Brexit Institute), my friend Emil Sokolov and I highlighted that the more Brexit featured as an election issue, the worse the outcome would be for the Labour Party. The result turned out to be a catastrophe for Labour, with Brexit widely considered to be one of the leading reasons why they performed so badly. Nonetheless, the ensuing Labour leadership contest has seen a continuation of the same strategy; talk about Brexit as little as possible, in the hope that it will somehow go away.
Five candidates gained sufficient support from Labour MPs to advance to the next round of the contest; Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Sir Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry. All 5 voted Remain, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Yet none have made this the centrepiece of their campaign, with the possible exception was Phillips, who declared in an interview for the Andrew Marr Show that Labour could campaign for the UK to rejoin the EU under her leadership. Yet this bold pledge did not gain Phillips enough support even to make it onto the final ballot paper, and she quickly ended her campaign.
Frontrunner Starmer shares Phillips’ enthusiasm for Remain, and his rise up the Labour Party has owed much to his championing of Remain in his role as Shadow Brexit Secretary. Yet his campaign has taken a more circumspect approach towards it. Appearing on the same programme as Phillips, his message took a very different tone. ‘We are leaving the EU in the next few weeks and it’s important for all of us, including myself, to realise that the argument for Leave and Remain goes with it. We are leaving.’ Meanwhile Shadow Foreign Secretary Thornberry, who attended a recent party conference draped in an EU flag, has emphasised her experience rather than her Remain credentials, and in an interview explicitly denied sneering at Brexit voters.
The other two candidates, although both Remain voters in 2016, are less associated with that wing of the party. It is also not co-incidental that these are the two candidates who represent seats in the north of England. Rebecca Long-Bailey is the likeliest challenger to Starmer, and in this campaign has cemented her reputation as being on the Corbynite ‘left’ of the party, advocating policies such as replacing the House of Lords, and the reselection of MPs. Yet, with 56.8% of her constituents voting Leave, Long-Bailey’s boldness has not extended to Brexit. She did not publicly dissent from the second referendum policy at the time, but now argues that it would have been better if Labour had focused on “getting a good deal”.
Lisa Nandy’s leadership campaign is perhaps the most interesting. Beginning as a rank outsider, at the time of writing she now looks the likeliest candidate to challenge Starmer and Long-Bailey. Nandy is a longstanding critic of Labour’s second referendum Brexit policy, and was the only candidate to vote for a Brexit deal, in October 2019. Indeed, her pitch has been that Labour needs to “change or die”, and its attitude towards Brexit certainly appears to be one of the areas where Nandy is demanding change. However, one of the most high-profile moments of her campaign so far has seen Nandy passionately defend free movement, a clear sign that her willingness to compromise with Brexit voters has its limits.
Certainly none of the candidates has laid out in detail their plans for the future relationship between Britain and the EU, and most want to talk about Brexit as little as possible. This reluctance is understandable given the context of the Labour leadership election. As Starmer has recognised, its second referendum policy was rejected at the ballot box, and its continuation after Britain’s EU departure would appear to be electoral suicide. There is no feasible route back to Government for Labour unless it can win back a significant number of Leave seats. Yet a clear majority of the Labour members who decide the next leader are Remainers; 78% supported the second referendum policy. A majority of Labour voters are Remainers, so too are a clear majority of Labour MPs. Labour leadership contenders talking about Brexit thus resemble a tightrope walker, just one misstep away from plummeting into electoral oblivion. Caution, therefore, is everything.
Yet the 2019 election showed that Brexit is not going to go away if Labour don’t talk about it. Indeed, irrespective of who the new leader is, once elected they will need to seriously think about Brexit. Britain will leave the EU on 31 January 2019, however Brexit, and the future relationship with the EU, could still take many forms. Negotiating this is likely to take up much of Boris Johnson’s efforts over the next 5 years. The Opposition has a responsibility to hold the Government to account over this vital issue, which requires as a prequisite knowing what they think about it. Labour also needs to realise, and then articulate, that the Brexit vote was about far more than the EU itself. They need to ‘get’ the Brexit vote and realise that, for the most part, it was far more sympathetic to Labour values than many in the party have realised. It was a cry of protest against a domestic political elite and political system that voters saw as failing them, disempowering their communities and disdaining their values. They rejected a Conservative-led 2016 Remain campaign that offered very few positive arguments. After that, to see many Labour MPs using their votes to uphold this status quo meant that Labour, for left-leaning Leave voters, became seen as part of the system, and part of the problem. This can be seen in the experiences of Dan Jarvis, MP for a Leave seat in Barnsley, who described ‘countless conversations with people who expressed deep concern at a Labour Party that they thought no longer spoke for them’, including ‘an ex-miner who said Labour was no longer for the working class’.
After Britain leaves the EU, Labour should have more scope to address these broader issues underpinning the Brexit vote under a new leader. However, to do so this leader, whether it’s Starmer (staunch Remainer), Nandy (as close to a Brexiteer as possible in current frontline Labour politics) or neither, will need to be bold. The public needs to know what Labour thinks about Britain’s relationship with the EU and, crucially, why. Labour needs to make the positive case for accepting the decision to leave whilst upholding its internationalist values. Then its leader will possess the credibility to tackle the broader issues connected with Brexit, on which a Labour leader should feel more comfortable. This will open up a way to challenge Boris Johnson, who is far less popular than his 80-seat majority would suggest.
Yet doing so risks falling off the tightrope.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Joshua Hockley-Still is a Ph.D. Researcher in Modern Political History at the University of Exeter
 Jess Phillips, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, 5 January 2020.
 Sir Keir Starmer, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, 5 January 2020.
 Emily Thornberry, speaking on Politics Live, 22 January 2020.