An excellent Twitter thread by Alistair King caught my attention yesterday, critiquing Keir Starmer’s supposed new slogan “make Brexit work”.
Meanwhile Andrew Adonis summed it up visually with this:
“Make Brexit Work” pic.twitter.com/ExqjoKThal
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) November 7, 2021
Aside from the snarky tweet, there is a nugget of something serious in this, namely how the Labour Party – as the only real parliamentary opposition there is in the UK just now – needs to get its messaging right.
Labour faces a conundrum: how does it manage to win back ex-Labour voters, many of them who voted Leave in 2016 and voted for Johnson’s Tories in 2019? While at the same time not haemorrhaging voters in urban areas to either the Lib Dems and Greens, many of whom were Remainers and are aghast at the UK’s current direction?
The crux, I think, is to not talk about Brexit – I mean to not use the word.
At the start Brexit meant simply the process of the UK leaving the EU, but as King’s thread rightly points out, the term has grown to mean much more than that – Brexit is the variant of leaving the European Union that Johnson and the Tories have pursued. You are never going to make that Brexit work, for intrinsic within it is too much antagonism towards the EU and too many practical headaches to be overcome.
If you doubt this, think of the current fight over the Northern Ireland Protocol – this Brexit essentially puts a customs border in the Irish Sea, and however you spin it or implement it, that is going to result in some political pain in Northern Ireland. Labour has to either accept this pain (probably not clever), or begin to propose an alternative UK-EU relationship that would relieve the problem at its root – namely to push for a closer economic relationship for the whole of the UK with the EU, that would be in the benefit of all of the UK, not just Northern Ireland.
If – as many suspect – it is only a matter of time before the UK Government triggers Article 16, what has Labour got in response? “We would not have been so rash” is not adequate without any sort of actual alternative, some different vision of what UK-EU relations ought to look like in the medium term.
That is why “make Brexit work” is no good as a slogan. It implies this Brexit, this Hard Brexit to use the old term, is only not working because the Tories did it badly. It acknowledges that, largely, this is the only Brexit that was available. And it basically says OK, the Tories were broadly right, and in communications terms Labour still fights on their turf.
Labour instead needs to take a step back. The UK’s exit from the EU is a legal reality. Labour is not favour of the UK rejoining the EU, and I understand and respect that. Hell, on the other side, the EU does not even want the UK back in just now! So the line from Brexiter-extremists that Labour just wants to Rejoin holds no water whatsoever, and should be flatly ignored. Labour is not in favour of the UK rejoining the EU. Period.
So what is Labour in favour of?
A new relationship with the EU. That the UK and the EU – as close neighbours and trade partners – need to collaborate when it makes mutual sense. That a permanent and sustainable solution for Northern Ireland needs to be found, perhaps through a SPS Agreement first and foremost, something that would also aid food exporters in the rest of the UK who have been struggling. And end to Frost’s threats and bombast. The UK, in other words, needs to become a better neighbour – because that is in everyone’s interests.
Britain is out of the EU. That’s done. It’s beyond question.
Brexit has become a loaded term – when it is said it means the Tories’ Brexit, an exit from the EU that is not just badly carried out but inherently unbalanced.
So accept the first (Britain is out of the EU) and refuse the terminology of the second (Brexit cannot be separated from this Brexit), and henceforth argue for a new relationship with the EU (from outside).