Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit in the run up to the 2019 party conference is far from neutral and endangers his entire project to transform British politics, explains Eunice Goes.
This year’s annual conference was supposed to be a launchpad from where Labour would show voters that the party is ready to govern the country. Jeremy Corbyn even announced his new position on Brexit shortly before delegates travelled to Brighton, in the hope to push the European question to the sidelines of the conference because, as he likes to say, ‘there is life beyond Brexit’.
But instead of the focus being on the new policies that will be part of Labour’s manifesto in the next general election – which is expected to take place this autumn – the conference has been dominated by stories about palatial coups to get rid of the deputy leader, Tom Watson, attempts to stifle debate under the cover of ‘party unity’, and by the damning resignation of Labour’s senior policy adviser (and author of its 2017 manifesto) Andrew Fisher. Strangely enough, divisions over Brexit have been the undercurrents that shaped these public rows.
Before travelling to Brighton, Corbyn thought he could bridge these tribal Brexit divisions. To that effect, he unveiled a three-pronged approach to Brexit. First, a Labour government will negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the European Union which will include membership of the customs union, a ‘close single market relationship’, and an alignment on workers’ rights and environmental protection. Second, a Labour government will hold, around June 2020, a referendum which will give voters the choice between Labour’s withdrawal agreement or the option to Remain in the EU. Third, Corbyn promised to be neutral during the referendum campaign and hoped that the official position of the party would be agreed three months after the general election.
With this new stance, Corbyn hoped to appear as the magnanimous and unifying leader who respects the will of the people (and of the party) and who wants to heal a bitterly divided country. By refusing to choose sides in the potential referendum campaign until after the election, he was also hoping to kick the Brexit can down the road for some more time.
The problem is that apart from Labour Leavers, few within the party support this approach. Many Labour activists question the motives of Corbyn and his team to start with. They doubt his commitment to party democracy, and last Friday’s attempts to remove Tom Watson by a simple motion at a meeting of Labour’s NEC must not have been reassuring to them. While Watson does not have many friends on the left of the party, many young activists still remember how Clive Lewis MP – a Corbyn supporter – was sidelined from the leader’s circle because he is a ‘Remainer’. In truth, Corbyn’s commitment to respect the will of the Labour Party sounded like weasel words to the thousands of activists who, over the last two years, saw their motions to the party conference being overturned by ‘a few men in suits’, as an activist put it to me, who lead the block-vote of the trade unions.
Above all, MPs and members who canvass regularly for the party know that Corbyn’s latest Brexit stance will not be easy to explain on the doorstep, especially when all the other parties have clear positions, and when the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats are doing a very good job at recruiting disappointed Labour voters. If Labour’s commitment to hold another referendum is seen as a welcome move, Corbyn’s commitment to neutrality seems to be specially crafted to antagonise Remain Labour voters and to anger the thousands of ‘wandering’ voters who are fed-up with Brexit and triangulating politicians.
There is also the suspicion that Corbyn’s alleged neutrality is nothing of the sort. Indeed, in his Sunday interview for the Andrew Marr Show, he hinted as much when he said that the UK could be better off outside the EU than within, if the right Brexit deal was available. Moreover, Corbyn’s ambiguous formulation about the withdrawal deal he would like to negotiate with the EU is supposed to signal a ‘softer’ Brexit than the one proposed by Theresa May. But in reality, this stance seems to rule out freedom of movement, which is the stance defended by many of the MPs who represent Leave constituencies and some of the big trade unions.
This stance is unacceptable by many members of the Shadow Cabinet, the PLP, and party members who want Labour to be an internationalist and pro-immigration force in British politics. That is why pro-Europeans in the party favour a clearer formulation of position, like the one suggested recently by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and which would require a modest negotiation with the EU. McDonnell has argued for a few ‘tweaks’ to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement though he also said that he supported a Remain stance. If Labour commits itself to negotiate just a few tweaks to May’s withdrawal agreement, it would be in the position of offering a credible choice to voters whilst campaigning for Remain.
For all these reasons, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry called on the party to clarify its Brexit stance before the next general election. In a similar vein, Labour’s spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer called for Labour to back Remain ‘whatever terms are agreed with the EU’. Both Thornberry and Starmer were echoing the views of a majority of Labour delegates.
So far, Corbyn has been unresponsive to these pressures. He seems to believe he can carry on as in the early days of ‘Corbynmania’ with some vague references to democracy and anti-austerity. But times have changed. Allowing his consigliere circle to get involved in toxic coups and stifling of party democracy, ignoring the voices of the majority of Labour MPs, members and voters, and refusing to accept that Brexit is not a sideshow, is endangering his entire project to transform British politics.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: IMG_3434-57 by steven.eason, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.