Jeremy Corbyn and Labour could potentially play a crucial role in determining how the UK’s Brexit process will develop in the runup to 29 March. But as Graham Room writes, having sat on the fence for so long, Corbyn must be feeling uncomfortable. Unless he moves swiftly to shift the impasse at Westminster he will be consigned to political irrelevance.

Why has Corbyn remained so ambivalent in this Brexit saga? He has a long history of Euroscepticism, rooted in the view that the EU is a neo-liberal project of global corporations. In addition, however, he wants, as Labour Prime Minister in waiting, to be free from EU regulations that might constrain him in rebuilding public institutions in this country, from the health and welfare services to local industrial strategies and community revitalisation.

The rhetoric of the Brexiteers contrasts ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom-loving Brits versus the rigid and punitive Europeans. Corbyn similarly risks contrasting the green and pleasant land, which his policies will foster, and the hostile neo-liberal environment from which Brexit will free them. He is also, of course, sensitive to the pleas of those Labour MPs who represent Leave constituencies and who are understandably wary of the accusation that Labour might ‘steal’ their referendum victory. In many ways, therefore, his position is as unenviable as that of Theresa May – a Remainer, but tasked with holding together a party torn between the hard Euroscepticism of its membership and the much softer Parliamentary party.

Jeremy Corbyn, Credit: Andy Miah (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There are three tasks that Corbyn faces, if he is to resolve this set of interlocking dilemmas, with advantage for his party, the communities they represent and the country – and indeed, for his own place in history.

He should first recognise that the EU cannot be reasonably described as a neo-liberal project of global corporations. Those corporations have indeed accumulated a position of considerable power, shaping the EU’s rule-based systems of economic governance, but this is a continuously contested terrain. The labour movement of the last 150 years developed precisely to engage in that contest, at national and international levels. To imagine that the sort of democratic socialism Corbyn espouses can be built in one country, even one separated from its neighbours by the sea, goes against all that experience.

Communities across the UK have suffered from the financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity that followed. Here lies much of the sentiment that was skilfully mobilised by the Leave campaign, as hostility to Brussels and the EU. Disempowered and with little hope, working-class communities across England’s traditional industrial heartland seized on the promise of ‘taking back control’ and resisting the influx of outsiders. This was not however unique to the UK. Across Europe, austerity produced similar sentiments of disenchantment and populist revolt. Now if ever, there is surely an opportunity to re-affirm the social democratic promise of social solidarity and economic justice. As yet, however, social democratic parties have found themselves on the defensive, nowhere more than in Germany, the heartland of the European project. The debates around immigration and refugees have swamped critical discussion of the destructive effects of austerity.

In the UK Corbyn did succeed, in the 2017 General Election, in generating a public debate around alternatives to austerity, sufficient to deny the Conservatives a majority. His second task is thus to frame a similar reform project that goes beyond these shores and offers hope to communities across Europe. It means articulating a vision for the reform of EU social and economic governance, which can enable the citizenry to ‘take back control‘. It means an alliance with other progressive parties who share that vision.

These reforms might involve four elements:

  • Rejuvenate the European economy, with public investment and a positive industrial strategy for all regions, revitalising local communities;
  • Promote security and creativity for all citizens, through strong welfare systems and investment in skills;
  • Re-think free movement, by reference to communities that are losing their population, because of economic desertification, and others facing large influxes of newcomers, without the infrastructures they need;
  • Empower local and national communities to work together across national boundaries, forging their own scenarios of development, with real political choices and trade-offs.

Corbyn’s third task is to take such a message to communities across the UK, particularly those that voted Leave in the referendum. He has been assiduous in countering their readiness to blame their woes on immigrants; he must be equally assiduous in confronting their hostility to the EU. Both of these scapegoats were skilfully demonised by the Brexiteers; both tactics must now be exposed as false.

So must the claim that even a no-deal Brexit would involve only minor and temporary difficulties, which resilient Brits will cope with, just as heroically as they did the Blitz. The disruption of any sort of Brexit will be substantial and will hit these Leave communities particularly hard.

Corbyn will need to show how the EU reform programme sketched above can benefit communities across the UK. Labour MPs from communities that voted Leave have been tempting Theresa May with offers of their support, in return for investment packages for their areas. Packages of this sort would be central to the EU-wide reforms suggested above – but as a system-wide transformation, not just a short-term political fix for a Prime Minister in need of a few votes.

In conclusion, therefore: Corbyn has been widely criticised and ridiculed for the stance he has taken in the Brexit process and the tragicomedy unfolding at Westminster. It is, however, arguable that he is the one person who might snatch a positive outcome from the present impasse – for the Labour Party and the country, but also indeed for the EU as a whole.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Maybe.

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Note: This article first appeared on our sister site, LSE Brexit. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Graham Room – University of Bath
Graham Room is Professor of European Social Policy at the Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath.

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