Last week, Labour was toying with the idea of a second referendum on Brexit, once the terms are agreed. By the start of this week that option had apparently been closed off by the party. Then Sir Keir Starmer, on some interpretations, restored it by (as the phrase goes) refusing to rule it out, which is to say he didn’t propose to say anything about it when the text of his speech was pre-released.
Then he did say something – and he ruled it out. Twice. The policy, such as it is, could gyrate some more during the course of the next six weeks.
So, we know where we are with Labour: it is confused about a second referendum (or, alternatively, a “meaningful” parliamentary vote) but is clear and united in wishing to have a generally nicer, softer Brexit than the Government proposes, whether or not the tantalising prospect of remaining in the EU via a second referendum ever does come to pass.
In concrete terms, Labour is in favour – rightly – of a unilateral guarantee to EU citizens who have made homes and are bringing up families in Britain; of retaining the EU’s charter of fundamental rights; of prioritising the health of the economy over migration. Those are not trivial details. Labour is plainly more pro-European than the Conservatives because that is where the instincts of the bulk of its members and MPs lie, just as the instincts of the Tories are to cut taxes even if they are sometimes forced to increase them. By long acquaintance, voters are familiar with these behavioural biases.
Keir Starmer: Theresa May must ‘face down’ the Brexiteers in her Government
Importantly, Sir Keir says that he does not share Theresa May’s judgement that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. This is on the entirely reasonable and logical grounds that “no deal” – the default to World Trade Organisation rules – is by its own definition the minimum degree of free trade and economic freedom that is possible between any WTO member states or organisations. Anything else in the way of a Starmer-negotiated UK-EU deal, even if it only extended to rules about bananas, would be an improvement.
All of which leaves Remain supporters in something of a quandary. If, as Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and Open Britain believe, Brexit is the transcendent issue in the 2017 general election, then voters should ascertain the views of the candidates standing in their constituency, weigh their chances of defeating the more Eurosceptic of the mainstream runners and vote accordingly.
Leaving aside the “prisoner’s dilemma” aspects of such calculations – that different voters will form a different view of the necessary tactics and cancel each other out – that is asking a great deal from people who think about politics, even in today’s febrile climate, comparatively little.
Mr Blair’s call for tactical voting does open the possibility of this former Labour leader – and the last to win a general election a sobering 12 years ago…