What makes democracies flourish is scrutiny. Opposition to government brings out the best of the governing parties through scrutiny and compromise with government. The Brexit referendum broke this trend in a peculiar way. Neither of the two main parties in the UK are ardently pro-EU, and Labour’s ambiguity in their stance towards Brexit makes easier the job of the Conservatives – who face less opposition from Labour in regard to the withdrawal from the EU than they ought to. The fundamental reason for this is down to the fear of alienating large swaths of supporters.
Since the General Election in June, Labour has maintained a narrow lead over the Conservatives in the polls, despite the divisions in the Tory party on the manner of the EU withdrawal, while failing to consolidate a strong lead over them.
Labour’s relative success in this election was founded on a mixture of former UKIP, Liberal Democrat and Green voters. This varied coalition has brought Labour into a strong political position in parliament and aided the collapse of the Conservative majority. The Labour party has long awaited success in the polls, and it appears that they are (on face value) succeeding in that regard. This however, makes Labour’s newly established popularity fragile, if one is to assume that Brexit is a major electoral issue. The support is delicate due to Labour’s mixed messages on Brexit – Corbyn made a career of being a left-wing Eurosceptic; Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson not ruling out a second referendum; and Corbyn resisting calls from Labour members to remain in the Single Market. The Brexit ambiguity that is projected by Labour therefore fails to alienate its pro-remain (students, and former Green and Lib Dem) voters, while keeping Britain’s ‘working-class leavers’ happy (estimated to be around 15 percent of the population).
A radical deviation to either ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’ politics would certainly risk Labour’s lead in the polls. This may explain the silence from the strongly pro-EU Labour MPs such as Owen Smith (now in the shadow cabinet), which begs the question: is Labour prioritising its party interests over what many of its MPs believe will damage the UK with Brexit?
Either way, Labour will eventually have to come out of its shell and show a firmer stance in this regard. This will not necessarily harm the party – a plurality of people believe that Brexit will damage the economy, and life more generally. If the damages of leaving the EU become as clear as they were described during the Referendum, then surely a vote on the final deal obtained by the government would not be an unpopular move.