Reading this New Statesman piece about the deselection of MPs Graham Stringer, Frank Field, and Kate Hoey, it struck me that there is a much better way to understand most things about the Labour Party than you are usually offered.
Here goes. The most important thing Labour people are disagreeing about is which of two strategies to pursue. You might think of it as something like the WW2 debate about whether to concentrate on Germany or the Pacific, if you enjoy historical hyperbole. The first can be summed up as “Stop Brexit!” and the second as “Tories Out!” Handily, you can get them both on a placard.
The first strategy is predicated on the fact that Brexit is the top issue, and therefore the priority is to do something about it. The something ranges between reversing it entirely through a second referendum (or not) and steering it into a safe EEA-type relationship. Having successfully achieved this, the argument runs, Labour would be well placed to win a subsequent election. Also, it’s possible that losing control of the Brexit process would cause the fall of the government and bring the election about. It’s worth noting that a lot of politicians seem to think an election would follow close on the heels of an agreement.
The second strategy’s supporters hold that Brexit is a symptom of Tories, and not the only one, and therefore the priority is to topple the government. There is a range of opinion, again, from those who believe that Brexit is not even the worst symptom of Tories, through those who simply think you need to be in government to do anything useful about it, over to those who believe that bringing in a Labour government with a strong program would be enough in itself to address the demand for change that got us here, and therefore create the space needed to stay in Europe.
This last almost amounts to a third strategy, or rather a synthesis of the two. Zoe Williams makes a cogent case for this in Prospect. It’s worth noting that the European Commission side has occasionally suggested they would be more sympathetic to some other government than this one.
Sometimes, the two strategies conflict. At other times, they converge.
The essential conflict would arise in the event that the Government signed something that is broadly acceptable. The problem would now be getting it through the Commons past the Tory Brexiters. If you hold to the first strategy, you should seriously consider giving the Government a hand, at least to the extent of calling a free vote. If you hold to the second, though, the conclusion would be to send all the Labour MPs through the opposition lobby to kill it and hopefully bring about a general election.
Although I personally lean towards “Tories first” or rather “Stop Brexit via Tories first”, I do think the possibility of the UK being unable to sign or ratify an eventual agreement is a serious threat that needs more attention. It seems to have become an assumption that if the Government wins a division by relying on opposition votes, the prime minister must resign. Nobody wants to discuss this, but we are not being well served by this pseudo-American convention.
We’re not there yet, though, and in the meantime the convergence of the two strategies tends to dominate, because the government is still bringing things to the Commons that are unacceptable to Labour and to enough Tories that the votes are winnable. On the customs union vote, both strategies would give you the same tactical advice, as winning the vote would advance both aims.
The conclusion, then, is just that the floppy five need to be deselected because they have managed to let down both sides of the party. They have betrayed the hard-Remain centrists as much as they failed the Corbynites. There isn’t a Labour pool they haven’t shat in, and that’s why they need to go. If you can’t show up to vote against the Tories or against their most cherished and radical project, in what way are you even in Labour?