The Labour leader’s stubborn refusal to take sides on the biggest question of the day is absurd and unsustainableby Rachel Sylvester / September 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Liberal Democrats were criticised by some at their party conference for going all out to stop Brexit, promising to revoke Article 50 without another referendum. But Jo Swinson’s position does at least have clarity—unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s.
The truth is that the Lib Dems’ pledge is a theoretical one—the chances of them ending up running a majority government are pretty much non-existent—and yet their stance has an internal logic to it. If Swinson did end up as prime minister what would she put to the country in a referendum? She couldn’t offer up “no deal”versus Remain, when she has compared the first option to burning the house down. Nor could she credibly negotiate a new Brexit deal that everybody knew she opposed then urge the public to reject it.
With their eye-catching announcement, the Lib Dems have shored up their position as the party of Remain. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are both unequivocally in favour of Brexit. The problem for Labour is that their leader is still uncertain what side he is on in a debate that has polarised the country into Leave and Remain tribes.
Labour’s policy of constructive ambiguity on Brexit has been through many manifestations in the three and a half years since the EU referendum. After months of wrangling, Corbyn has finally committed to supporting another referendum but he still won’t declare how he would vote in it. Instead of nailing his colours to the mast he has come up with a policy that is like nailing jelly to a wall. It is absurd and ultimately unsustainable. One Labour MP says the Labour leader has gone from being “seven out of ten” in favour of Europe (as he described his position in 2016) to 50/50. “It’s just weird,” he said. “It looks stupid and indecisive, lacking character and leadership. It makes it even more important to have a referendum before an election.”
The former home secretary Alan Johnson spoke for many MPs when he warned that the leader’s latest position would fall apart during an election campaign. “I think we’ll get slaughtered, in the sense that you’d have to have a very large foot in the door to keep people on the doorstep long enough to explain it,” he told the BBC. Another senior figure says that Corbyn is trying to play politics with a question of national importance in a way that will backfire. “I understand his dilemma but it’s the sort of cute solution that’s dead on delivery,” he told me. “It is a cartoonists’ and satirists’ dream.”
Labour will almost certainly end up shifting again before the country goes to the polls. It’s worth remembering that only a year ago, in the run up to the party conference, the internal debate was all about whether to support a second referendum at all. Some senior figures such as Len McCluskey, the Eurosceptic Unite general secretary, suggested that even if another vote did take place there should be no Remain option on the ballot paper.
Since then, frontbenchers including Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and Tom Watson, the deputy leader, have nudged the leader slowly but surely into a more pro-European position. Crucially they have recently been joined by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who understands the damage that is being done to Labour’s electoral chances by the party’s confusion on Brexit. In the end they have always succeeded because they are going with the grain of grassroots opinion.
More than 90 constituency Labour parties have submitted motions to this year’s conference with most calling for Labour to commit to campaigning for Remain in a referendum, whatever the result of any further negotiations with Brussels. The party’s MPs and members are overwhelmingly in favour of Remaining in the EU so it is hard to see the leader’s supposed neutrality surviving an election campaign. “Labour’s voters, Labour’s members and Labour’s values are Remain, it’s bloody obvious which side Labour is going to be on,” one insider says.
The damage is already being done to Corbyn and his party, however. One poll this week showed Labour being pushed into third place behind the Liberal Democrats. Corbyn’s party also fell behind Swinson’s at the European elections. At a moment of national crisis when clarity is required, the Opposition leader is offering only ambiguity.
Ironically, a man who prides himself on putting principle before politics is triangulating in an attempt to square his own Eurosceptic instincts with his party’s overwhelmingly pro-European views. He has missed the point that Brexit is no longer just about Brexit. It’s about values—what side are you on in the new political divide between liberal, “open” attitudes and authoritarian “closed” ones? You can’t split the difference on a question that is about identity rather than ideology.
Rachel Sylvester is a columnist for the Times