Richard Corbett - Relentless trend in public opinion should encourage us to speak out

Former Labour Leader in the European Parliament, Richard Corbett's article on how public opinion on the consequences of Brexit is shifting and why this is providing the space to speak out on the issues it has raised 

Relentless trend in public opinion should encourage us to speak out

Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, have raised their heads above the parapet when it comes to pointing out the negative consequences of Brexit, yet many Labour MPs at Westminsterseem reluctant to do so.

The general public, however, is noticing these consequences - and concluding that Brexit was a mistake.  Some 56 percent now say so, while only 32 percent still think it was a good thing. 

The most significant thing about this is not the absolute number, but the fact that this is the latest figure in steady and continuous trend. While opinion polls on many political subjects are volatile and swing around from one month to the next, the trend on this question has been slow but relentlessly steady. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. When Brexit does get in the news, it is invariably bad news: extra costs, travel hassle, supply chain disruptions, red tape for businesses, staff shortages, lost exports, exclusion from European research programmes, lorry queues at Dover, and much else. Above all, the OBR estimates that Britain’s economy is between 4 and 5 percent smaller than it would have been without Brexit, is dramatic. The corresponding fall in tax revenue that this has caused would have been enough to avoid entirely recent budgetary cuts, and fund many Labour priorities without raising tax.

The growing realisation that Brexit bears no resemblance to what Johnson, Farage, Rees Mogg and their fellow Leave campaigners had promised, has made many previous supporters of Brexit conclude that they were lied to. They are entitled to say that this is not what they voted for. 

There is every reason to suppose that the trend in public opinion will continue. So for Labour, any strategy of placating a diminishing number of voters who still think Brexit was a good thing, would risk alienating a larger and growing number of voters who are critical of Brexit. 

We must anyway face the fact that Britain’s dire economic situation cannot be turned around without addressing the problems that Brexit has created or exacerbated, not least the barriers it erected to our main export market and our main suppliers. To be credible, Labour must spell out proposals to rectify the damage caused by Brexit. These should at the very least include looking at such things as negotiating a customs union with the EU, maintaining our alignment with single market standards and rules (that we helped shape over many years), participating in the “Horizon” joint research programmes and Erasmus student exchanges, facilitating short term work visas, and negotiating the security partnership that had actually been provided for in the Brexit deal but which Johnson subsequently reneged on. The LME has recently submitted to the National Policy Forum an excellent set of detailed proposals along these lines. 

Such measures would attenuate the Brexit disaster, but they would not actually “make Brexit work”.  They would reduce the negative economic consequences of Brexit, but at the price of Britain having to follow EU standards and rules without having a say on any future changes to those rules.  The only way to rectify that is to re-join the EU, regain in full the economic and political advantages, and restore our position of having a say on rules and policies that will anyway affect us. But for that to happen, opinion would need to evolve further (considering Brexit to have been a mistake is not the same as supporting re-joining the EU) and a solid political majority for it would need to be built.

Richard Corbett CBE

Former Labour Leader in the European Parliament


*The opinions of this article our the authors own