If you are unfortunate enough to be standing on a burning drilling platform in the North Sea, you face an unenviable choice. Stay on the platform and the blaze will kill you; leap into the sea and, if you are still alive after you hit the water, you risk a rapid death from exposure.
This dramatic image has become fashionable in the world of management theory, where it crystalises the obligation to take radical action in dreadful circumstances. Yesterday the chief inspector of England’s hospitals, Mike Richards, invoked it when he said that the National Health Service “stands on a burning platform”. The need for change is clear, he said, but finding the resources and energy to make the necessary changes without harming patients seems almost impossible.
Dithering on a burning platform as the flames rise is now the condition of the Labour party, especially since it is faced with the combined problems of Jeremy Corbyn’s failure and, even more destructively, of Brexit.
Party loyalists claim Wednesday’s government defeat in the Lords on the issue of EU citizens’ rights was a Labour victory. Not only is this untrue – Labour peers accounted for less than half of the 358 votes against the government – but it is also eclipsed by the importance of a much greater collapse by Labour at the start of this week, when the party voted against an amendment that would have encouraged a soft Brexit – not the hard version beloved by Theresa May.
Most fair-minded people accept that the referendum vote posed a hellish dilemma for Labour. The party, though not its leader, is pro-European. Labour was opposed to the referendum. It campaigned for remain. Its voters, never forget, voted by two to one to remain. But leave won the referendum. Inevitably, that put pressure on Labour to accept the result, not fight it. That was especially true in Labour constituencies where the majority of voters (though not necessarily the majority of Labour voters) opted for leave.
Gina Miller’s victory in the courts in January placed a weight on Labour MPs that they have struggled to bear. Labour voters and MPs are mostly remainers. Labour conference policy, endorsed at Liverpool after the Brexit vote, is to keep open the option of remaining in the EU if the final Brexit terms are unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, instead of standing up as much as possible for Britain’s post-Brexit place in Europe, Labour has increasingly kowtowed to the leavers’ mandate and to the noisy triumphalism of the anti-European press.
Fear of the effect in the Stoke and Copeland byelections played into this defeatism when the article 50 bill came before parliament. Since the referendum, Labour MPs have been transfixed by the belief that their vote in the north and the Midlands was now Ukip’s for the taking because of the issue of immigration. This is not true. As John Curtice put it here last week: “Labour seems to have forgotten (or not realised) that most of those who voted Labour in 2015 – including those living in Labour seats in the north and the Midlands – backed remain. The party is thus at greater risk of losing votes to the pro-remain Liberal Democrats than to pro-Brexit Ukip.”
Corbyn’s attempt to whip Labour MPs to support the bill was partly based on that mistaken fear. It triggered outright defiance by 47 Labour MPs on second reading and 52 on third reading. Yet the party gave the impression, even then, that it would fight to amend the bill to protect Labour priorities and tie May’s hands. Labour put forward dozens of detailed amendments. None of them succeeded.
On Monday, peers had the opportunity that the Commons was denied: to debate and vote on an amendment in support of the economic prosperity that comes from close ties to the single market. There is no reason why continued support for the single market need be inconsistent with acceptance of the referendum vote to leave. Many options exist for the UK to preserve the economic benefits. Labour peers, led by the former cabinet minister Peter Hain, duly put down such an amendment.
Yet between last autumn and now, Labour policy on Brexit has quietly moved in a much harder direction than many people realise. Under Keir Starmer, Labour’s view has solidified into something that, in many essentials, is indistinguishable from the prime minister’s hard Brexit.
May has chosen to interpret June’s vote as a vote against free movement. So too have Corbyn and Starmer. Both have abandoned earlier positions to do this; Corbyn once favoured free movement while Starmer wanted to protect single-market membership and access. Both now take a position that is a tacit acceptance of Nigel Farage’s boast this week that he had spent 10 years trying to ensure that the EU was synonymous with immigration.
So on Monday the party ordered its peers to vote against retaining UK membership of the single market. A small majority did so. A more principled minority, of 33, defied the whips and stuck by Hain’s amendment. Most Labour peers stayed away.
One peer who voted for the Hain amendment, Gordon Brown’s former adviser Spencer Livermore, wrote this week that he was “shocked and dismayed” by the leadership’s order to vote against something that was “fundamental to the jobs and living standards of the people our party was founded to represent”. To do that, he wrote, “would be betraying Labour’s values” and would put Labour on the wrong side of history. Yet that, in essence, is where Labour now finds itself.
John Major warned on Monday that Brexit could break up the UK and threaten Irish peace. He said there was little chance that the negotiations with the EU would produce an outcome “to match the advantages of the single market”.
Yet this, almost incredibly, is the hard, anti-immigrant Brexit that Labour’s leaders now appear willing to envisage and which they judge it expedient not to oppose. There is nothing socialist about this, nothing social democratic, nothing liberal, nothing progressive, nothing moral, nothing with any optimism or imagination. There appears little purpose to it beyond a wish to survive. It is beginning to look as if a failed leader now has a failed party, and that the platform on which they huddle has begun to burn.