Corbyn opts for cake-and-eat-it approach to Brexit

PUBLISHED: 16:11 27 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:11 27 September 2017

Jeremy Corbyn waves to the crowd after delivering his speech in Brighton today

Jeremy Corbyn waves to the crowd after delivering his speech in Brighton today

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Former Labour minister DENIS MACSHANE gives his snap verdict on the speech Jeremy Corbyn gave today

Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote conference speech was carefully calibrated to stay on not-quite diverging tramlines with Theresa May but he at least dropped Labour language that the EU was responsible for driving down wages in Britain because of freedom of movement and he pointedly ignored the views of his shadow Trade Secretary that Britain should leave the Customs Union.

Corbyn said “Britain should stay within the basic terms of the single market and a customs union for a limited transition period” after the formal withdrawal from the Treaty in April 2019.

Brexitologist can pour over these lines but it is striking that there was no set number of years attached to the phrase “limited transition period” unlike the insistence of Tory Brexiters that either there should be no transition or it cannot be longer than two years.

Earlier in Brighton where the conference was held different Labour leaders like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, or Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot used language that EU workers helped drive down wages, or that the EU stopped nationalisation or state aid.

The latter point now looks silly as the row of Bombardier has exploded precisely because Britain has provided state aid to help the plane-maker’s Belfast factory and done so with the approval of Brussels.

Corbyn repudiated those Labour MPs, like John McDonnel, who repeated UKIP lines that the presence of EU citizens working in Britain drives down wages declaring “We will never follow the Tories into the gutter of blaming migrants for the ills of society. It isn’t migrants who drive down wages and conditions but the worst bosses.”

But on the other hand Corbyn reverted to 1970s socialism-in-one-country ideas associated with the late Tony Benn who argued that Britain had lost power to Brussels to control the UK economy. Corbyn referred to “A Brexit that uses powers returned from Brussels to support a new industrial strategy to upgrade our economy in every region and nation.”

This just show the lack of knowledge of Europe in the Labour leadership. There are innumerable example of different industrial strategies based on full or part state ownership, regional government share-holding in key companies, compulsory training or regional development policies which are common on the continent but such is the atrophy of EU core knowledge in the Corbyn team he is allowed to say that Brexit is needed to allow Britain to adopt policies which exist all over the EU already.

That is a problem for next year’s speech or indeed for Labour to work on between now and October 2018 when the Article 50 negotiations come to an end.

But compared with where Labour was at its conference in 2016 when pro-EU MPs were putting forward their pet schemes for immigration control and refusing to criticise the Brexit result, the days in Brighton were healthier.

Corbyn skated over Brexit because he is not interested or knowledgeable about the EU. But every fringe meeting on Brexit including those organised by the left-wing Momentum group were packed with young delegates demanding a more robust attacks on the Brexit ideology as expressed by ministers like David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.

There was also an increasing number of calls for a new consultation, possibly a second referendum, which was once the Brexit policy that dared not speak its name. Now it is backed in specific or general terms by key Labour figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the Scottish Labour leaders, Kezia Dugdale, some trade union leaders and a growing number of pro-European Labour MPs who have recovered their voice and confidence after the initial shock of the plebiscite result.

Pro-European Labour groups are committed to visiting very constituency to make the case not only for a transition period in which like Norway the UK stays de facto in the EU but for a complete reversal of the isolationist ideology of Brexit.

Corbyn dare not allow the young voters of the June 2017 election who voted against Theresa May principally - according to the British Election Survey of 30,000 voters - to oppose her hard Brexit line to become disillusioned with Labour.

There is now much more space to make a stronger case against Brexit. Whether there are enough Labour MPs and enough organisational drive and money to really stop Brexit remains an open question. Labour leaves Brighton still trying to walk both side of the Brexit street but there is now a determination to open up clearer red water with the Tory Brexit line than has existed so far since June 2016.

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