What position would you have advised Labour to take that would have balanced urban remainers and small-town leavers just a year and a half after Brexit?
With the benefit of hindsight the solution is quite obvious (I don't pretend I had it at the time, but Emily Thornberry did). After the vote but before the 2017 election, Labour says we accept the referendum result, but recognise the knife-edge nature of the thing - so our policy is that the UK leaves we don't go far. Our solution is EFTA / Norway / Soft Brexit. We keep FOM/SM/CU and lose our MEPs.
The ERG would try to spin that as 'BRINO' or Brexit In Name Only. We counter by saying it's what Nigel Farage / Daniel Hannan / et al were suggesting before the vote so how can it be. We position ourselves as being on the side of business, and of the Good Friday Agreement, and British ex pats freedom of movement to retire to Spain. We strenuously resist any and all attempts to rebrand soft Brexit as BRINO and hard brexit as No Deal Brexit. We emphasise how your dream of retiring abroad to a cheap little place in the sun is at stake.
Don't get me wrong, that would be a bumpy ride coming into the 2017 election and it may have resulted in Labour finishing down on where we finished (instead of being 60 seats down we may have ended up 70 seats down) - I recognise that any time we took a position, we lost votes. But the key point is that it would've been a bit of short term pain which was ABSOLUTELY worth it longer term:
- it shows May's throwing of red meat to her ERG allies with ending FOM/SM as the unnecessary nonsense it was
- it shows Labour as the party of pragmatism and has a policy which would unite its urban and rural bases - which stops us having to flip flop in 2019
- it completely castrates the nascent People's Vote movement before they even get started
- throughout May's chaos of 2018/9 (which is the period we're talking about here) Labour would be sitting in the corner like the smug cat in that meme like 'hey lads you could always soft Brexit'. that is a real start for a potential government - when the opposition looks in control and the govt is in chaos
Our agreement to get rid of Freedom of Movement and Single Market Membership in the 2017 manifesto (while winking at Remainers that we didn't really mean it) did make sense in that election, but strategically it stymied us longer term. It meant we could not go back on losing FOM/SM access, which effectively meant we did not have a proper version of Brexit to offer up - at least, not one any less damaging to business and the GFA than whatever the Tories were offering. At least you could say the Tories meant it!