Theresa May is going to lose the vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday, and the Tories’ lack of a majority and failure to gain the support of enough of their own MPs mean it matters what Labour, as the official opposition, does next. It will have a massive impact on the future of country, London included. What are the dynamics at play?
It’s worth spelling out just how London-centric Labour’s top table is. The key shadow cabinet positions are all held by London MPs: Jeremy Corbyn represents Islington North, Emily Thornberry Islington South & Finsbury, Keir Starmer Holborn & St Pancras, John McDonnell Hayes & Harlington, Barry Gardiner Brent North and Diane Abbott Hackney North & Stoke Newington.
Add to this the fact that the majority of Labour’s massive membership is London-based and, on the surface, the potential seems there for the party to help a Remain-supporting capital to either stop Brexit altogether or at least to secure a Brexit that includes a very close future relationship with Europe. But closer inspection reveals a very different picture – one in which no deal far is more likely than no Brexit and a London-centric Labour Party fails to take an approach in line with what most Londoners want.
Labour’s official position – wanting a general election – is for the birds. I have no doubt they sincerely want one, it’s just that they do not have (and have never had) any meaningful mechanism for getting one unless Tory MPs decide to commit political suicide and vote to bring down their own Prime Minister. That is not impossible, but it is not in Labour’s gift to make it happen. Labour also says it has kept “all options on the table” and that no deal will be disastrous for the country. So, what will they do next?
Those pinning their hopes on Labour coming out swinging for a so called “people’s vote” by the end of the week shouldn’t hold their breath. Many people point to the overwhelming support for both another referendum and for remaining in the EU among Labour’s members. But this fails take into account the interplay – or lack of it – between support for the EU and support for Corbyn.
People rarely vote on a single issue. That’s as true inside the Labour Party as it is for a general election. Support for Corbyn among the Labour membership is not linked to his position on any particular issue. As with any candidate in any kind of election, it is about what he represents to the electorate. There is a reason why pollsters ask questions like “shares my values” or “cares about people like me”. It is because voters usually can’t pin down their exact reasons for supporting someone. It’s more a feeling they have about someone, the same as when buying a house or choosing a spouse. It is less rational than emotional.
Corbyn shares the values of the majority of Labour members, and he cares about what they care about. He talks their language. Many ardent EU-supporting Corbyn fans share his critique of it. There is no will among the Labour membership at large to threaten Corbyn’s position as leader because of his views on Europe. For his supporters, retaining Corbyn as leader of Labour is more important that retaining our membership of the EU.
So, if the members aren’t inclined to exert pressure, then we need to look at what the key players in the high command might do after Tuesday’s vote. The signs there are not any better for those of us who want to find a way to reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum.
Corbyn is a life-long eurosceptic. So is McDonnell. They are not in any way committed to finding a way to stay in the EU. McDonnell’s most recent speech and media appearances illustrate how many of the key players regard Brexit as a distraction from what they see as the real business of stopping austerity. There are some at that top table who are Remainers. But Abbott, like the membership, is too committed to the Corbyn project to upset the applecart. And Thornberry and Starmer are unlikely to act, even if minded to, when the membership would likely punish them for it. Remember that these MPs’ constituencies have thousands of members who hold their futures in their hands as reselection looms.
On top of this, many of the people around Corbyn, and perhaps the man himself, see the chaos that no deal could cause as creating the sort of revolutionary opportunity they have yearned for all their lives. For them, a break from the EU is a potential rejection of the old order and a chance to sweep away a political and economic system they regard as failing. Parliamentary democracy is a painstakingly slow way to create change – and it’s hard work. Brexit threatens a massive economic shock to the system and, therefore, in the logic of the revolutionary position, an opportunity.
In cold electoral terms, the political incentives don’t suggest a change in the Labour leadership’s attitude to a second referendum. They have carefully, diligently and very effectively sought to avoid all blame for Brexit so far. Leadership support for any position that alters that is going to be very hard to come by.
I think the best that Labour (and other) Remainers can hope for after Tuesday is that Corbyn doesn’t whip his cabinet to a line. It would mean the Starmers and Thornberrys of this world could back another EU vote without losing their jobs. In the absence of any other plan, that might help create enough momentum for another referendum. Failing that, we need to hope that a big enough cohort of parliamentarians can come together across party lines to force the government to put the brakes on no deal. And nothing that’s happened since June 2016 suggests that is going to happen.
London’s future will be shaped by London politicians. But it’s very unlikely that will end up being what Londoners voted for in 2016 – or anything like it.
Sarah Hayward is a former leader of Camden Council.