Corbyn’s getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not clearly coming out in favour of a second referendum, and for ‘Remain’. The relatively left-wing Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of respectability? I have to say, a part of me is disappointed too. I’d have liked Labour to have taken more of a pro-European lead on this matter. But then I think again.
There are three reasons, I think, for at least suspending judgment on Corbyn until this whole sorry affair has worked itself out. The first is that he is at least being consistent in his career-long Euroscepticism, which is more than you can say for Theresa May: pro-Europe one day, leading the anti-Europe charge the next. What would the press have made of a similar volte-face by the famously principled Corbyn?
Secondly, he has always been a Eurosceptic, not an anti-European; and for totally different reasons from the Right-wing Antis – because he sees the EU as having been taken over by global capitalism and so an obstacle to the democratic socialism he wishes to see reinstated in Britain. That’s why he must be against a form of Brexit that releases Britain from the hands of Brussels only to send her into the claws of Trump, and of America’s lower product and labour standards generally, which would be likely if Britain found she had to compensate for her European trade losses by sucking up to Washington. That’s why his emphasis in his speeches has always been on jobs and workers’ rights; which could either be secured within a reformed EU (there are plenty of Leftists there to help him), or by a ‘soft’ Brexit arrangement which would keep Britain within the European Common Market, thus involving free movement and common standards, at least. In the present chaotic situation it’s not clear which is the more likely. So Corbyn is – sensibly and intelligently – holding his fire. Of course the Manichaean tabloids are too thick to see this; or else assume their readers are.
The third reason for giving Corbyn the benefit of the doubt is that he has got his Northern working-class voters to think of. They largely voted Brexit for all the wrong reasons – see my June 2016 posts – but don’t like being told this, especially by ‘elitists’ and ‘experts’, and so are building powerful and expert-resistant barricades – ‘you lost, accept it’, ‘what part of democracy don’t you understand?’, ‘we’re not idiots, we knew what we were voting for’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – against any suspicion that they might be about to be ‘betrayed’ by the ‘Establishment’. At the very least Corbyn can’t come out as a Remainer until the practical flaws in the Brexit enterprise have been clearly revealed to everyone. Who better to do this, than our Jeremy, once he’s Prime Minister and has tried everything to reach his own, worker-friendly settlement with the rest of the EU, which might reconcile those northerners to going back there; or, alternatively, might suggest a softer Brexit option which would persuade them that he hadn’t betrayed them, but had honoured the ‘people’s vote’ while safeguarding their interests too?
The working-class Brexit vote was a blind expression of anger, and a desperate cry for help. (Only the elitist leaders of the movement cared much for Europe, or for ‘making Britain Great again’.) Any solution to the present problem that doesn’t address this, or even exacerbates it, could intensify the dangerous divisions that the debate opened up in Britain, and produce a situation close to civil war. (Far-fetched, perhaps; but May has already put the military on stand-by.) This is an important consideration, which only Corbyn’s more subtle approach – if I read it correctly – takes proper account of.
My money’s on an eventual Norway-style settlement – the single market with free movement, and the freedom to (for example) nationalise things. But don’t hold me to this. In the present situation nothing can be predicted. Just try to see the problem from Corbyn’s – and Labour’s – point of view. The latter’s priority just now is to radically reform Britain’s economy. Her relationship to Europe is secondary to this. A social democratic Britain can be reconciled with both membership of a changed Europe, and with the softest of all Brexits. It’s not compatible with any Tory policy towards Europe. So: an election must come first.
And that could undo some of the harm done by this wretched contest, by smoothing out the present political divisions between Brexiteers and Remainers, and enabling us Brits to live moderately happily together again. In this sense, it could be seen as the ‘patriotic’ way.
Or am I crediting Corbyn with too much good sense? I hope not.
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…..or I was going to say some form of new relationship with the EU. Until 2022, when the next election will probably take place, Labour should can focus on pinning responsibility for Brexit and its consequences where it belongs – with the Tory Party and those elements in it who misled the people with the right wing press.
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In Corbyn’s defence there is also the view that the the Tories should allowed to keep ownership of the Brexit disaster for which they are responsible, and to pay any electoral consequences. There seems little chance of a re-negotiation, and May’s ‘deal’ may get carried. Labour can then go into the next with the promise either to re-negotiate an EU return.
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There’s a version of this on the LRB blog: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2018/12/31/bernard-porter/what-is-corbyn-thinking/. With some pretty strong comments. Go see.
Corbyn enjoys some sympathy for his lukewarm attitude to the EU on the European left, as primarily a neo-liberal economic project with liberal humanitarianism a long way behind, although the original Founding Fathers (Monnet etc) thought economic integration would lead the way to a united Europe and make break-aways extremely difficult if not impossible. Although the Labour left has always been sceptical, there has also been a Euro-socialist element who have not been, and in the 1950’s many Labour right wingers were also antagonistic such as Gaitskell (the first UK application to join in 1962) and his acolytes tried but never wholly succeeded in persuading him otherwise.
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Imposing a three-line whip on his party to give a minority right-wing conservative government authority to send an Article 50 letter to quit the EU without a UK plan of action for events beyond March 2019 has been shown to be foolhardy statecraft. Corbyn’s support for Brexit has also damaged the electoral chances of the Labour Party according to recent polling. Just as second referendum campaigners are still asking in vain for Leavers to produce a single economic advantage from Brexit, so the once-loyal Labour party waits in vain for Corbyn to produce a rational explanation for helping a Tory government to leave the Europe of Willy Brandt, Jacques Delors and Yanis Varoufakis. Only a hypocrite or a weirdly deluded exponent of Bismarckian cynicism could support Brexit while telling the Party of European Socialists in Lisbon in December that, “As socialists and trade unionists, we will work together to help build a real social Europe, a people’s European socialist Europe, that will strengthen solidarity across borders, resist the race to the bottom in rights and protections and work together to extend them for all workers, consumers and our environment.” It’s either hypocrisy or fantasy, two commodities in surplus at Westminster these days.
Thanks Bernard. There’s a stray apostrophe and a stray s alongside the name of the luckless Ledru-Rollin.
Rather than credit Corbyn with too much good sense, I think you have wrongly associated the working class with the Brexit vote. Lorenza Antonucci, Laszlo Horvath, and André Krouwel in an LSE blog claim to have established that the most important section of Brexit voters were “individuals from an intermediate class, whose financial position has been declining.”
Income quartile and class identification research appears to have shown that “the Leave vote was not more popular among the low skilled, but rather among individuals with intermediate levels of education (A-Levels and GSCE high grades), especially when their socio-economic position was perceived to be declining and/or to be stagnant. These findings point to an alternative narrative to that of the left behind.”
The research conclusion that it was extra numbers of people in the “squeezed middle” who had voted Leave rather than extra numbers of lower class regular Labour voters, makes, to my mind, the unexpected Leave victory more like the transient political success achieved Pierre Poujade, when post-war France was floundering.
That makes Andy Burnham’s bizarre claim to Sky News in 2016 that the people of Greater Manchester had “clearly voted for a change in the current freedom of movement rules” all the more reprehensible. Burnham sounded at the time just like the notorious French politician Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin’s who is alleged to have said: “There go the people, I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
We now know that 65% of Labour voters and around 80% of Labour party members voted to Remain. That fact must undermine any moral, or even tactical, justification for Corbyn imposing that three-line whip in support of Theresa May’s ill-timed Article 50 letter to Brussels.
Corbyn campaigned for Remain. His party and his people want to Remain. Since we now know that the marginal referendum result was at least marginally distorted by unlawful Facebook interference from Russia and America, Corbyn’s current position seems indefensible and ludicrous.
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Thank you Andrew. I’ll ponder. Did Corbyn know of these demographics, I wonder, and if so when? He may have been more influenced – as it’s possible I have been – by the tabloids’ narrative; which may be more effective than the real figures. I’ll come back to this. In the meantime I’ve sent this post to the LRB blog; if they use it I’ll amend it before it’s published. I agree – and have written elsewhere – about the blatant corruption of the referendum process. Happy New Year (in the EU, I still hope)! I presently live there.