On Sunday morning, Labour’s Rachel Reeves went on the Andrew Marr Show and argued we need to get Brexit done. This is the same MP who almost exactly a year ago told a rally in Leeds that there should be a second referendum “with Remain on the ballot”, adding she would campaign thereafter for Britain to remain in the EU “for jobs, investment and our NHS”.
As with many Labour MPs on a range of issues, it’s unclear what Reeves really thinks. If she still believes that Brexit is so injurious to things she deeply cares about, then why give a relatively free pass to perhaps its hardest iteration? Why the appeal to a slogan which, at the last election, she would have opposed as simplistic?
Such questions can be extended to MPs across Labour’s front bench, whose default position now – of accepting the referendum result – was until recently derided by various pundits as disaster socialism, doing the Kremlin’s bidding, or simply meaning they were secret Brexiteers. Is this the case now for Keir Starmer? Or Rachel Reeves? Will we proceed to hear allegations that they secretly voted Leave four years ago for merely accepting a result which prevailed with a majority of more than a million?
After all, this is precisely what happened to Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of that fateful ballot. Back then Labour MP Chris Bryant imputed that the Labour leader had voted Leave, which was then was ‘confirmed’ (or rather, it wasn’t) when the New Statesman’s George Eaton said, in a now deleted tweet, that he was “near certain that Corbyn voted Leave” and “the papers have more tomorrow”. Like the vast majority of conspiracy theories relating to the former Labour leader, Corbyn secretly backing Brexit didn’t start from an anonymous Twitter account, but was actively pushed by credible journalists and Labour MPs. The story percolated through to a broader ‘common sense’ in the media, one example being when Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis described Labour’s position, of simply accepting the result, as showing the party to be “ideologically wedded to Brexit”. One suspects such flagrant editorialising won’t happen with Corbyn’s successor. The question is: why not?
Even Michael Savage at the Observer – that parish noticeboard for Remain-ultras whose front pages in recent years have consisted of millionaire-funded push-polls rather than anything actually newsworthy – is praising the wisdom of Starmer’s position, despite it being exactly the same as Corbyn’s after 2017. People with spider emojis in their Twitter bios delight at the strategic genius the Labour leader is exhibiting by pursuing exactly the same line which, this time last year, they would often equate with enabling fascism.
In June 2019, the party’s then deputy leader Tom Watson opined how “the core values of the EU are: internationalism, solidarity, freedom. They are British, Labour values. Our future doesn’t need to be Brexit.” At the time I found such an intervention astonishing; after all, Watson’s seat of West Bromwich East – where Labour had actually seen its vote increase by almost 8% in the 2017 election – overwhelmingly voted Leave in 2016, with Ukip almost overtaking the Tories in the previous year’s election. Had Watson gotten his wish, he would have undoubtedly lost his seat at the next time of asking. Watson clearly knew this himself, which is why he chose to exit politics just months ahead of the 2019 election – after which the Tories picked up his constituency for the first time since it was formed in 1974. The only reasonable explanation for such a sequence of events is that Watson was so intent on removing a party leader he disliked that he committed the political equivalent of hara-kiri.
The sad truth is that such views were widely held by Labour MPs at the time, and that these same MPs have since changed their tune on Brexit for the simple reason that Corbyn is no longer their leader. I say this not to relitigate past battles – these are over and the Tories have prevailed in the post 2008 conjuncture – but to highlight a deep-seated mendacity at odds with any hope of re-energising a mass, socialist politics in this country. While that possibility might seem distinctly unlikely right now, it is not implausible. Avoiding similar mistakes in the future will be critical to its achievement.
The electorate aren’t stupid. Yes, people might not be on top of every policy debate, but they can’t stand hypocrisy. This is true for both parties, which explains why the Dominic Cummings debacle was the moment Labour made the most ground in opinion polls this year. Such brazen duplicity and double standards register more with the electorate than the dashing repartee of Prime Minister’s Questions, no matter how ‘forensic’.
Corbyn’s weakness is that he is not a politician in the conventional sense – in other words, he is bad at deception and dissimulation. For obvious reasons this was also, at various points, his strength. Alas, this was entirely lost with the party’s embrace of a second referendum – something which, ultimately, the former leader must take full responsibility for.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last three years it is this: whatever the predictive modelling and the large data sets say, whatever the smart pundits claim or computer science whizz kids predict, it’s generally a bad idea for politicians to openly break promises and lie. That’s what Labour ended up doing on Brexit late last year when an anti-establishment politician increasingly looked, and acted like, the establishment.
The 2016 referendum was the largest democratic exercise in this country’s history, and the opposition were punished for acting as if that meant nothing at all. Little else could have solidified the caricature the right seeks to paint of the left and centre-left: fearful of popular sovereignty, insulated from the public, and prone to conflating those with whom they already agree for a more general consensus. I suspect many Labour MPs knew this, but for them it was a win-win situation of stopping Brexit or defenestrating a leadership they despised. They may have got the latter, but that doesn’t mean the issue of Britain’s departure from the EU is over. Why would the Tories want it over and done with when Labour have behaved so dreadfully on the matter these last few years?
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.