Once upon a time, words had meanings. Take “merge”, for example – to “blend gradually into something else so as to become indistinguishable from it”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Apparently it means something else to the Liberal Democrats. How else to explain Jo Swinson’s inexplicable claim this week that Labour and the Tories “merge into one” on Brexit? Are Labour and the Tories indistinguishable on the subject?
Labour promises a second referendum with remain on the ballot. The Tories do not. Labour is promising to negotiate a relatively soft Brexit deal as the other option in the referendum vote. The Tories are pledging a hard Brexit. The one constant in Labour’s shifting Brexit stance since 2016 has been opposition to no deal. The Tories are leaving no deal firmly on the table, keeping alive the possibility of an EU crash-out at the end of 2020.
Swinson is not a disengaged voter, or a hyperbolic keyboard warrior. She is a party leader. She knows Labour and the Tories are not the same. When she says they “merge into one” on Brexit, she is lying.
She won’t be the only one, of course, during what is already shaping up to be a wretchedly mendacious election. But what particularly rankles about Swinson’s dishonesty is that Labour has more or less adopted the Lib Dems’ own policy from 2017. Two years ago, her party’s manifesto stated: “When the terms of our future relationship with the EU have been negotiated (over the next two years on the government’s timetable), we will put that deal to a vote of the British people in a referendum, with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper.”
The only difference between that and Labour’s policy now is that Tim Farron’s manifesto was explicit that there was no Brexit deal as good as remaining. Labour remains ambiguous, with Jeremy Corbyn refusing to say whether he’d back leave or remain once a new “Labour Brexit” deal has been negotiated. Labour is neither pro- nor anti-Brexit in that sense, though its MPs are mostly pro-remain.
Does this ambiguity matter? Arguably not. Labour’s uncertainty relates to its stance in a referendum, not on a referendum. How many people in 2020 are going to decide their vote on Brexit based on what Corbyn thinks? David Cameron had far more support among Tory voters in 2016 than Corbyn did, yet most Tory voters backed leave.
It’s clear that Labour has nobody to blame but itself for continuity remainers’ lack of trust in it. Corbyn called for article 50 to be invoked the day after the referendum. After successfully facing both ways on Brexit during the 2017 election, the party hierarchy got drunk on its own hubris in the following years, convinced it had found the winning formula to keep its electoral coalition on board.
But as remainers coalesced around demands for a people’s vote, especially before the 2019 European elections, Labour found itself disastrously behind the curve, allowing the Lib Dems to rise from the dead. Labour took remain voters for granted as if they had nowhere else to go. They went.
Yet though Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed to delivering Brexit, its 2019 manifesto will not. Labour will offer people’s vote campaigners what they asked for. The idea that this is the behaviour of a pro-Brexit party will be news to actual Brexiters.
There are plenty of logical reasons not to vote Labour at this election – antisemitism, national security, the leadership’s tendency to respond to any problem by seeking more control for itself. But the Lib Dems, in their desperation to cast Labour as a pro-Brexit party, have created a fake news factory. Labour may be unfit for office – but it is not the same as the Tories on Brexit.
• Chaminda Jayanetti is a journalist who covers politics and public services
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