Don’t box Corbyn in over Brexit

Encouraging Labour to block Brexit is tantamount to writing off the opportunity of a Corbyn-led socialist government. No wonder the Blairites are so keen, writes Michael Calderbank

June 22, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Éric Spiridigliozzi

It’s no surprise that anti-Corbynite liberals and Labour party “centrists” are furious with Corbyn.   They’d be furious with Corbyn over something in any event, but currently their obsession is alleging “betrayal” over Brexit.   AC Grayling, Alistair Campbell and Lord Adonis are posing as our saviours, heroically saving the future for young people. How many young people actually believe their views are well represented by this motley crew is another thing entirely.  

Five or six young people were rounded-up from somewhere to hold up a banner at LabourLive proclaiming “Stop Backing Brexit”. Far from being angrily man-handled from the venue, mobile phone footage saw them widely ignored, their protest barely having even registered for most people there. But for the awaiting liberal media, this minor stunt was elevated to a historic moment in the nation’s destiny. Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie no doubt enjoyed reading their papers over breakfast the next day.   

The reality is that the Brexit vote was, from many quarters, a protest from communities who felt ignored by the political elite and felt they had no alternative on offer.  This is especially true of the former industrial working class heartlands of the North, Midlands and South Wales. To uncritically oppose Brexit would be to double down on this sense of alienation – to be seen as part of a Westminster conspiracy to defraud the people of their referendum verdict, and thereby invite electoral collapse in these areas. Labour’s internal polling figures make this abundantly clear. In other words, encouraging Labour to block Brexit is tantamount to writing off the opportunity of a Corbyn-led socialist government. No wonder the Blairites are so keen.

In an ironic twist, they now want to sacrifice electability on the altar of party democracy, the very opposite of what they used to argue under the Blair years – demanding that party members be given an open vote on the Labour’s stance on Brexit. Under the shadowy aegis of Peter Mandelson from the mid-eighties onwards, Labour Conference was turned from an open policy making body into a staged rally in support of the party Leadership. Party activists, we were told, are in no way representative of the wider electorate. What pleases party activists might help them feel better about themselves, but it won’t help to bring into power a Labour government on which the poor and vulnerable are relying. What we need to do is listen to what floating voters in the Middle England marginals are saying, and use “focus groups” to better tailor our message to this electorally critical audience.

Fast forward to 2018, and the Blairites are posing as the champion of the rights of members, saying it’s absolutely vital that members determine party policy on the EU. Yet the demographics of the Labour membership – the Corybn surge notwithstanding – remain far from typical of the wider electorate. So why the change of heart from Progress? The truth is that Progress-supporters and their liberal allies would rather have a Tory government moderated by European legislation, than a radical Corbyn-led Labour government in any case.    

The manoeuvring of the self-titled moderates is at least transparent and explicable. Yet they are joined in their effort to force a vote on the leadership by a minority within Momentum and the student left – together with the leadership of the TSSA union and external forces like the Green Party. To be sure the argument for doing so is different, namely that there is a Left campaign encouraging Corbyn to block Brexit. Presumably the latter don’t accept the premise that backing a second referendum would be massively unpopular amongst Leave voting communities. But how can they be sure that such a stance wouldn’t be fatally damaging in places like Walsall and Mansfield, key General Election targets? Without this, their stance risks the danger of falling into a trap laid by Progress, hanging a giant electoral albatross around Corbyn’s neck.

Incidentally, it is a myth (peddled by the Guardian and other centrist commentators) that Brexit was “kept off the agenda” by party managers at the last Conference. Views and perspectives on Brexit came up in a whole host of different contexts in relation the National Policy Forum reports, debates on the Economy, and other areas of debate. No “Contemporary Motion” was debated, for the good reason that members chose to prioritise motions on other topic areas. Brexit won around seventy thousand votes from CLP delegates compared to well over twice as many for areas such as the NHS and Housing. This didn’t mean Brexit was kept off the agenda, but rather that members chose not to put a specific motion on Brexit to the vote.

Conference is entitled to debate the issues at stake against this year, but if we’re serious about a Labour government we should leave Jeremy and his team a sufficient degree of flexibility to exercise their judgement about how best to respond to an unfolding situation.  It’s not democratic to impose a vote if there’s no demand for it, and the consequence could be fatal damage to the chances of getting a radical Labour government.

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