There’s been a lot of debate recently about what Labour’s Brexit policy actually is – that is to say, what are the generative principles underlying the Labour leadership’s Brexit policy announcements and parliamentary tactics. One popular narrative is that Labour’s Brexit policy amounts to de facto support of ‘hard Brexit’, and that the Labour leadership’s strategy is to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ while pulling the wool over the eyes of its core Remain support. Another narrative is that Labour’s strategy is to gradually shift its position towards a strongly pro-EU stance, while trying to minimise the electoral support it loses among Leave voters in doing so. A third narrative is that Labour doesn’t really have a Brexit position at all – that it is simply trying to hold its electoral coalition together by any means necessary. And there are of course a large number of more complicated and nuanced alternative narratives out there too.

In this post I’ll aim to lay out my own interpretation of the ‘generative principles’ underlying Labour’s Brexit policy. Obviously my goal here is explanatory, rather than normative. My own preferences (“open borders Bennism”) are briefly outlined towards the end of the post, fwiw – but the main goal here is just to sketch the political terrain.

Ok then. To understand Labour’s Brexit policy, one needs in my opinion to understand that the Parliamentary Labour Party has four major interests or constituencies in relation to Brexit.

  • Don’t blow up the economy. This position enjoys more or less complete consensus in the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Moreover, there is considerable consensus as to what this means in practice: don’t damage UK-EU trade too much. Unlike the Tory party, which has a significant number of MPs who believe that reduced trade with the EU can be more than compensated for with a bonfire of regulations and a series of alternative international trade deals, Labour MPs are in general of the opinion that the final Brexit deal should disrupt UK-EU trade as little as possible. This position is captured by the 2017 manifesto commitment to “prioritise jobs and living standards”.

In addition to this broad consensus position there are then three distinct factions:

  • ‘Continuity Remain’ – this position advocates for as close ongoing participation in EU institutions as possible. Ideally this would take the form of a second referendum that would enable parliament to reverse Brexit, but in terms of Brexit negotiations it means ongoing full participation in the single market. This wing of the party is most vocally represented by liberal or Blairite MPs like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie.
  • Bennites. This is the old socialist Euroscepticism, which sees the EU as a capitalist club enforcing constraints on economic policymaking at the national level, to the benefit of capital. There are three major areas of contemporary Bennite objection to EU rules: constraints on state aid policy, public procurement policy, and nationalisation – Bennites want to break European Court of Justice jurisdiction over these areas of economic policymaking. There aren’t all that many Bennites in the party, but the position occupies the leader’s office (Corbyn) and shadow Treasury (McDonnell), and is therefore very influential.
  • ‘Very Real Concerns’ border control advocates. These MPs see the Brexit vote as driven in significant part by ‘concerns about immigration’, and believe those concerns need to be addressed in the Brexit negotiations – or be seen as being addressed – by a Brexit outcome that reduces – or is seen as reducing – immigration. Yvette Cooper and John Mann are (quite different) representative figures for this tendency within the PLP.

Clearly these categories are not as sharply drawn in real life as this schematisation suggests. There are different strengths of feeling and variant positions within each group; moreover there is considerable overlap between some of the positions. There are plenty of liberal pro-EU advocates who nevertheless believe that greater border controls can and should be a feature of the final Brexit outcome – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are both representatives of this opinion, as is Stephen Kinnock. At the same time, there are liberals who advocate a ‘full liberalism’ ideological package which sees freedom of movement as one of the major benefits of the EU. There is also plenty of overlap between Bennite and ‘border controls’ Euroscepticism, grounded both in an economic argument that free movement of labour undercuts the rights of domestic labour, and in a ‘Blue Corbynism’ effort to tie Bennite economic policymaking to a nationalist or communitarian ideological package. At the same time, there are socialists for whom open borders (for some value of ‘open borders’) is a core component of their socialism (Diane Abbott is the most influential advocate of this position within Labour). In addition to these ideological overlaps, there are also factional alliances of convenience, on which more in a moment.

In parliamentary tactical terms, the Labour leadership has two goals: to inflict damage on the government, and to maintain a Brexit line that will be satisfactory enough to enough of the parliamentary party to minimise major rebellions. In electoral terms, the leadership has a single goal: to adopt a Brexit policy that can sustain its electoral coalition, which is majority Remain but includes a large minority of Leave voters, including in a large number of electorally fragile current Labour seats. Finally, in substantive terms, the goals of the leadership are to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism, with different bits of the party obviously contributing additional, different substantive goals, as enumerated above.

How do these different goals play out in practice in the determination of Labour’s Brexit policy? The overriding goal of the leadership has been to sustain its parliamentary and electoral coalitions. That has meant, in the first instance, a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, which has been able to sustain the possibility of an outcome compatible with as many different Brexit goals as feasible. Under pressure of a series of parliamentary votes, however, this strategic ambiguity has slowly been clarified – and the nature of this clarification is informed by the substantive balance of forces within the party.

As I wrote above, the leadership’s major substantive goal is in my view to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism. Bennite Euroscepticism does not enjoy much support within the parliamentary party – if this were the only form of Euroscepticism in the party, the leadership would be in a very weak position indeed. Fortunately for the leadership (and, one could argue, unfortunately for the broader public discourse), there is a much larger block within the PLP of ‘Very Real Concerners’. The Bennite leadership has therefore made an alliance of convenience with the ‘Very Real Concern’ border controllers, to form a (moderately) Eurosceptic block within the parliamentary party. (Moderate because both factions still believe in the underlying “don’t blow up the economy” position, and take this to require keeping disruption to UK-EU trade as low as is feasible given their other policy goals).

This moderately Eurosceptic block is then opposed by the liberal/Blairite wing of the party, who want a stronger commitment to ongoing participation in EU institutions. This conflict (between the Bennite and Real Concerner alliance on the one hand, and liberals on the other) can plausibly be presented by the liberal wing as a disagreement about ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politics (free movement of goods and people on the one hand; closed borders, nationalism and a tendency towards autarky on the other). It can equally plausibly be presented by the Bennite wing as a disagreement about socialist versus neoliberal approaches to economic governance (state intervention in the economy on the one hand versus neoliberal regulatory constraints on state action, on the other). One of the complexities of the ideological terrain around left and liberal Brexit debate is that, because of the way the various factions and institutions align, both of these ‘framings’ are true.

To make this factional conflict still more weighted, it has also become a major site of the proxy war within Labour between Corbynite and Corbynsceptic members and MPs. After the 2017 general election result made Corbyn (temporarily) unchallengeable within the party, many Corbynsceptics shifted their activities from overt criticism of Corbyn’s leadership, to specific policy and ideological battles. These proxy battles typically serve, from many Corbynsceptics’ perspective, a double function – aiming both to advance policies that Corbynsceptics support, and to weaken Corbyn within the party. Corbynsceptic pro-Europeans thus aim both to shift Labour’s Brexit policy in a more pro-EU direction and to expose Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, thereby reducing Corbyn’s popularity with the majority-Remain Labour membership. These goals stand in some tension – pro-European liberals within Labour have made a series of pro-EU parliamentary amendments to Brexit bills that have been extremely ineffective in gathering parliamentary support, in part because one of their tacit goals (I would argue) has specifically been to expose the party leadership’s unwillingness to endorse these stances.

Nevertheless, these parliamentary tactics – alongside the more central need for Labour to challenge the government in parliament – have slowly required the Labour leadership to reduce the ambiguity of its ‘strategic ambiguity’ approach. The position that Labour has shifted towards is, as I say, determined by the balance of parliamentary and electoral forces. On the one hand, the leadership wants to retain as strong EU ties are as feasible given its other policy commitments. On the other hand, it has two sets of exemptions from EU governance rules that it wants, in principle, to achieve. First: the Bennite leadership wants an institutional arrangement that enables exemptions from state aid, public procurement and nationalisation policies. Second: the Very Real Concerners on whom the Bennite leadership is reliant want exemptions from single market free movement rules.

The current Labour Brexit preferred initial negotiating position has therefore resolved to something like this: a customs union with the EU, and significant participation in the single market, via the establishment of an alternative EFTA-style institutional framework which gives the UK the ability to negotiate exemptions from some elements of single market rules, while still being bound by the great majority of those rules, in a manner that maximises single market participation.

This is a moderate Eurosceptic position (and as it happens corresponds to the most popular outcome in the electorate as a whole, per recent Opinium polling). However, it remains ‘strategically ambiguous’ in two key respects.

On the one hand, Labour’s position is deliberately ambiguous as to which single market rules the UK intends to prioritise gaining exemptions from, in a hypothetical situation in which Labour is negotiating with the EU. This strategic ambiguity is necessary in order to maintain the opportunistic big tent alliance between Bennites and Very Real Concerners within the PLP. In a situation in which Labour is actually negotiating Brexit, this ambiguity will have to be clarified, and considerable tensions within the PLP will come to the fore.

At the same time, Labour’s current position remains compatible with much fuller participation in EU institutions than either of the two Eurosceptic positions would wish. This is one of the key reasons why Labour’s ‘clarifications’ of its Brexit position can be interpreted as motivated by either ‘pro-Leave’ or ‘pro-Remain’ impulses. What is this latter ‘strategic ambiguity’ about?

In my view, this second category of ongoing strategic ambiguity serves three distinct functions.

First, lack of clarity about how much overlap with existing EU institutions Labour aspires to achieve serves the traditional goal of strategic ambiguity: keeping both Leavers and Remainers within the electoral and parliamentary big tent.

Second, lack of clarity about the exact institutional outcomes Labour aspires to achieve enables Labour the freedom to oppose Tory negotiating tactics on the basis of Starmer’s six tests, on the premise that Labour’s approach would achieve better outcomes than the Tories’, more or less irrespective of what the Tories actually do.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Labour’s Brexit policy is, if Labour were to find itself in government, the first volley in a negotiation with the EU. It is unclear what outcome Labour would actually be able to achieve in that negotiation. It seems extremely likely, however, that the EU27 would be unwilling to grant many of the exemptions from EU governance principles that Labour aspires to negotiate. It is therefore extremely prudent for Labour to give itself the ability to back down from its best-case Brexit outcome, to a series of second-, third-, fourth- etc. best case outcomes. The ambiguity over the extent to which the Labour negotiating position overlaps with the liberal ‘full EU alignment’ position strongly suggests to me that Labour intends this liberal / Blairite position to be its negotiating fallback, if the leadership’s preferred outcomes cannot be achieved.  More strongly, here is some reason to speculate that something in the space of this liberal fallback position is the preferred outcome of Keir Starmer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, whose six tests, vague as they are, certainly seem to imply a very ‘soft’ Brexit.  One does not need to attribute any specific individual strategy to Starmer, however, to conclude that Labour is preparing the ground for something like this EU-aligned outcome, should it find itself leading negotiations in office.

This preparation for a liberal ‘fallback’ Brexit is in my view the most important way in which Labour’s negotiating position differs from the Conservatives’. The Conservative position on Brexit began with a series of red lines (on ECJ jurisdiction, the customs union, etc.). Labour’s negotiating position began from Starmer’s six tests, which articulate the benchmark of “the exact same benefits” as current EU membership. It is therefore extremely easy for Labour to fall back, in negotiations, on a high degree of alignment with EU institutions, whereas it is very difficult for the Conservatives to do so (though of course they may well end up doing so in practice). It is this latter point that seems to me to give rational warrant to Remainers’ confidence that Labour’s negotiating position is on a Remainward trajectory.

To sum up – I started with three simple rival ‘narratives’ of Labour’s underlying position on Brexit. I’ve articulated my own interpretation of Labour’s position, which implies that all of these narratives have something to them. In my view, Labour’s preferred Brexit outcome involves significant breaks with existing EU governance rules. The leadership wants those breaks to be in the area of neoliberal constraints on socialist policy-making; much of the PLP wants those breaks to be in the area of freedom of movement. In a scenario where Labour is in government without the Brexit deal having been concluded, those two categories of negotiating priority will be in tension. Nevertheless, the tension between those two categories of negotiating priority is (I would argue) not as fundamental as the tension between some of the Conservatives’ commitments. Moreover, unlike the Conservatives, Labour have been quite careful not to articulate any commitments that cannot be backed down from towards greater compatibility with existing EU rules. Thus in a scenario in which Labour were negotiating with the EU, I would expect Labour to make an effort to achieve a set of concessions around EU rules, and if those concessions could not be achieved, to capitulate in the direction of a more liberal existing-EU-institutions-aligned position.

In other words, Labour’s Brexit policy is – contra many pundits – coherent and in my view quite strategically sound.

Is it a good policy? That obviously depends on your own political preferences. My own political preference, as I outlined in this earlier post, is a position that I would characterise as something close to “open borders socialism”. I think the Bennites are right that EU rules are egregiously constraining on democratic socialist policymaking, and I think an optimal Brexit outcome would break with these dimensions of the EU as an institution, while also maintaining sufficiently close regulatory alignment with the EU to reduce the negative political-economic impacts of Brexit on the UK economy. (This post follows the traditional mainstream UK pundit approach of just ignoring Northern Ireland, but obviously a high degree of ongoing UK-EU integration is desirable w/r/t the border.) At the same time, increasing free movement of people is a political good, and the ‘Very Real Concerners’ desire to reduce free movement – as well as the Labour leadership’s opportunistic alliance with this position – should in my view be opposed from the left. If this post is right about the logic of the party’s Brexit position, in a scenario in which Labour actually gets a go at negotiating Brexit, the balance of negotiating priorities between Bennites and Real Concerners will be a crucial factional and ideological conflict within the party. As I see it, this element of Labour’s negotiating strategy remains somewhat open (though it also seems to be that the groundwork has been laid for the rebranding of existing freedom of movement rules as a departure from the status quo).

If one were negotiating Brexit ‘from the left’, then, clearly one ideally wouldn’t start from here. Still, there’s room for left pressure to have impact even within the existing parameters of Labour Party politics, I think.  Not, of course, that we need to operate within that framework of Labour Party factional politics in our political advocacy.  Nevertheless, it helps to understand what’s going on with Labour’s Brexit policy in order to understand what’s going on with Brexit in general. There’s a lot more than can be said than I have here, and I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve got wrong, but this post is more or less my current take, fwiw.