Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is there a best time to take a position if you know that doing so will cost you support?

The Labour frontbench’s decision not to support a Liberal Democrat amendment which would hold open membership of the Single Market was an interesting one. If, as is reported, it was simply an attempt to keep the option on the table, then one might reasonably argue that, by allowing it to be defeated, Labour reduced their own wriggle room in the eventuality that they become the Government.

And they’re entitled to do that, if they see that it is to their political advantage.

But, as a political party seeking to gain the support of those voters who wish to remain in the European Union, it might be a risky strategy. Yes, the options available to Remain voters are quite limited in many ways - the Conservatives and UKIP are obviously ruled out, the Greens and Liberal Democrats are too far back to be credible alternatives in many places just now - but that might not last.

Which brings me to my original question. Labour can, for now, get away with not really taking a clear view on Britain’s future inside or outside the European Union. With the Government displaying quite astonishing levels of incompetence and unreliability, merely not being them makes Labour look better than they might otherwise do. But, at some point, if they get into power (and it shouldn’t be ruled out as the implications finally dawn on the Conservatives that Brexit is not going to be easy, cheap or painless, or even what any of them want), they’re going to have to take a stance.

Less than three weeks ago, I was at a conference of the Save Romania Union, a new political party, who have gone through some teething pains. Having formed as an anti-corruption, pro-reform, pro-European Party, as they have formed a set of working principles, they have lost some of their initial supporters, who don’t want to adhere to those principles, or at least, some of those principles. As policy decisions are taken, you lose people who don’t like that particular choice.

And Labour have the same problem. Take a clear stance on membership of the Single Market, and you risk losing either the support of left-wing Eurosceptics, or of young, pro-Remain, voters. Similarly with the Customs Union, or freedom of movement. But, if you don’t have a clear stance going into Government, you’re not likely to make a good fist of negotiating with the European Union, who do know what it is they are trying to defend.

There’s a possible election to be fought and won,  preferably with the aid of an army of young, committed activists, who may not be quite so committed if they think that Labour are a pro-Brexit party at heart.

So, Labour are in a bind. They need to gain and retain as much support as they can to get elected, but risk early disenchantment of those supporters at the very time they will need loyalists most. What is a political party to do?...

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