Why doesn’t Keir Starmer go all in on Brexit?

The UK is in all kinds of chaos. As many as 90% of petrol stations are out of fuel following a spate of panic-buying by the public. Key workers, such as nurses and care staff, cannot get to work for a lack of fuel. All of this is the result of a 100,000 shortage of lorry drivers, at least part of which (the UK Road Haulage Association estimates around 20,000) is due to Brexit and the loss of EU drivers who have returned home or gone elsewhere in the EU. 

Problems have been piling up for several months. Goods have been disappearing from supermarket shelves, businesses have complained of a lack of supplies and the NHS has even had to ration blood tests due to a lack of test tubes. In the run up to Christmas, retailers have been warning shoppers to buy early for a fear that many goods, such as toys, simply won’t be available. Supply chain issues has become a euphemism to explain anything and everything that no longer works as it used to. 

After months of warnings, the government has finally relented on its policy that visa rules would not be relaxed for foreign drivers. Now, 5,000 temporary visas will be available for overseas drivers (not just EU) in the run-up to Christmas (they will expire on Christmas Eve, 24 December). 

With all of this chaos, why does Labour still appear reluctant to talk about the elephant in the room: Brexit?

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The most important reason is that Labour needs to win back many voters who supported leaving the EU if it is to have any chance of winning the next election. As research by the Labour-affiliated thinktank the Fabian Society showed this week, the 150 seats that Labour needs to win to gain a majority tend to be Leave-supporting. Coming out strongly against Brexit would put Labour once again on the wrong side of these voters. The electoral challenge for Labour is a complex one (it is not simply a case of winning Leave voters and forgetting the rest) but these voters are a key part of any winning electoral coalition. 

And Brexit still frames the public debate in the UK. A recent poll showed that 65% of Remain voters blamed recent disruption on Brexit, whereas just 21% of Leavers did. By contrast, a plurality of Leavers (37%) blamed the pandemic, compared to just 18% of Remain voters. As so much in British politics post-referendum, any question that includes the word “Brexit” is a shortcut for asking “which side are you on?” Labour wants to avoid such framing like the plague. 

Almost two years on from the 2019 general election, Labour is still scarred by the Brexit experience. It wants to find safer political territory in which it unites its voter base rather than divides it. As research by the thinktank the UK in a Changing Europe has highlighted, Conservative voters are actually more closely aligned with Labour on economic issues than with the Conservative Party. As a result, Labour wants to focus on economic issues both to attract back these voters and also to cause divisions in the Conservative Party. 

Then there is the fact that Brexit is a much less important issue now for the public as a whole. According to the latest YouGov survey in mid-September, just 25% of the British public said Brexit was the most important issue facing the country, down from 62% at the time of the last election. It now comes fifth behind health, the economy, immigration and the environment. Therefore, to talk to the issues of most concern to the public, there are much more pressing topics for Labour to take on.

Within the party, too, there are relatively few pressures on Starmer to go strong on Brexit. Most Labour members are strongly pro-EU, but even they prize health and the economy above Brexit, according to a recent poll. Some within the party would undoubtedly like to take a harder line, but the truth is that (aside from a few pet foreign policy issues). Labour members are overwhelmingly concerned with domestic issues, especially the NHS, schools and public services in general. 

Finally, despite all this, Labour is, in fact, talking more and more about Brexit. In her recent speech to Labour Party Conference, one of Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ pledges was “cleaning up the Tories’ Brexit mess”. In her conference speech, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy pledged a closer relationship with the EU on foreign policy. Meanwhile, Starmer said in his recent essay on the future of Labour that the party “would fix the holes in the shoddy Brexit deal”. Labour does want to improve the Brexit deal, but not radically change it

So expect Labour to talk more about Brexit as disruption continues. But don’t expect them to become evangelists for rejoining. Their central focus is winning power and to do that they need the support of both sides of the Brexit divide. That may frustrate pro-Europeans, but it is winning elections, not demonstrating the folly of Brexit, that drives the party’s strategy.

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