If the United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union – which, thanks to the Brexiteers who keep voting against Brexit in the House of Commons is no longer as certain as it once seemed – it can at least say that it went out with a crash, a bang, and one heck of a wallop. Britain’s elections to the European Parliament were never as entertaining as this. In that respect, for once the best was saved for last.
If the Tories had a thoroughly miserable night it was also a battering they deserved. The Conservatives decided to make themselves the party of Brexit and then failed to deliver Brexit. The Prime Minister must take her portion of blame for that but so must the backbenchers who voted against the withdrawal agreement she negotiated.
But as the party of government – or, at any rate, the party of notional government – the Tories could be expected to lose ground at an unusual, one-off, election such as this. It is rather more unusual for protest votes to be lodged against the main party of opposition too. Yet that was what happened to Labour last week. In one sense this merely confirmed what we already know: the public does not have confidence in Jeremy Corbyn or his party.
And yet it was also astonishing. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, opened the batting for Labour on the BBC’s election results programme. Far from doing what she could to see off the new ball – which would have involved leaving as many deliveries, or questions, unplayed as possible – she opted to attack. The object of her scorn, however, was not the government or even Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party but, rather, her own party’s leadership of which, notionally at least, she is a part.
Distilled, Thornberry’s argument was that Labour is led by an idiot. The party had no clear message. It failed to understand that its natural supporters are mainly Remain voters. The constructive ambiguity on Brexit favoured by the leadership was a disgrace and a betrayal of Labour’s voters and values. The party needs to come out in favour of a second, confirmatory, Brexit referendum as soon as possible. Everything Labour has done on Brexit until now has been a mistake. Labour is getting a kicking and Labour deserves it.
Ordinarily you might think this kind of defiance, this withering attack on her own party’s leadership, would require Thornberry to resign her position or, failing that, leave Jeremy Corbyn with little option but to sack her. These, plainly, are not ordinary times. Thornberry remains in post and Labour’s policy remains a shambles.
Corbyn made that clear himself. We need a general election or a second Brexit vote to clear the air, the decks, and everything else, he said. Quite clearly, however, Corbyn’s preference remains a general election. The party will hint at a second referendum without quite committing to it.
Viewed from the perspective of a pro-Brexit leadership this makes more sense than Remainers are wont to admit. It is true that you cannot be a Leave party in some places and a Remain party in others and it is also true that clarity was rewarded in these elections and “ambiguity” punished.
But Labour views Brexit as a distraction from other, more pressing, concerns. The leadership believes that these other concerns will come to the fore at a general election when the choice will be between a Tory government and a Labour one. At that moment, Labour’s lost voters will return home. Because when push comes to shove they know what the stakes will be at a general election and they will have little choice but to come back to grandpa Jeremy.
It is a theory, certainly. But if Labour lacks a clear message and a credible leader – as per Thornberry – then there seems little point agitating for a general election unless you do something about both problems. A general election on its own may not be enough.
It may be true that Labour, unusually, needs the votes of Leave voters and Remain voters to a much greater extent than the Conservatives do. But it may also be true that as Nigel Farage pulls the Tories towards any kind of Brexit, at any kind of cost, the natural reaction for Labour would be to throw its weight behind Remain or Revoke and it is the tension between these two positions that explains and illuminates Labour’s peculiar predicament at present.
But it is also the case that the party has learnt nothing from its experience in Scotland. Here, too, Labour needs the support of people who voted No in 2014 and people who voted Yes. The Tories and the SNP do not need this kind of crossover support but Labour, uniquely, does. And so it has generally preferred to talk about everything other than the national question in the hope that ignoring it might make it go away. It hasn’t.
Likewise with Brexit in England and Wales. You cannot have nothing sensible to say on the largest question of the moment and expect voters to understand and sympathise with your troubles. At some point you have to pick a side.
In that respect this is not a problem of personnel even if Labour’s problems of personnel are also a large part of their problem. It is a structural difficulty that cannot be wished away. Just as the Tory party is going to discover that getting rid of Theresa May is not the solution to their woes so Labour will find that removing Jeremy Corbyn – if that is even possible – is no solution either even if, like ditching May, it is also a necessary first step.