Mitch Benn: Has the penny finally dropped for Jeremy?

PUBLISHED: 11:35 06 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:35 06 September 2017

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

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Ok, this is intriguing...

Keir Starmer has turned up in the Observer declaring what certainly LOOKS like a shift and/or backtrack in Labour’s Brexit strategy, specifically that the UK should remain within the single market and customs union for a “transitional period”, whatever that means.

Speculation has already begun to percolate through the various social networks that this is just the first step in what may turn out to be Labour’s gradual process of turning away from Brexit altogether; to reduce the degree of actual change to something so minor that we either don’t much notice it or indeed decide it’s not worth bothering with.

I think this is – as yet – blithely optimistic, or, of course, pessimistic, if you’re Nigel Farage. He’s been fulminating away about Labour’s “betrayal”. While driving Nigel Farage nuts is not, in itself, sufficient reason to approve of a policy (that way lies the madness of American conservatives, who these days would eagerly saw their own feet off if they thought it would make liberals angry), it’s always nice to see that toad face crease in huffing indignation. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Starmer’s going back on his previous position on this issue enrages Farage so much he unresigns as UKIP leader for the third (or is it fourth?) time.

The reason I think it’s premature to celebrate Labour’s possible coming to its collective senses over Brexit is that its position heretofore wasn’t born either of electoral calculations or of grudging respect for the referendum result, whatever pro-Labour voters want to believe; rather it’s an accurate representation of Jeremy Corbyn and (especially) John McDonnell’s feelings on the matter. They’re not faking this anti-EU thing, kids. They’ve got form.

Corbyn himself has a career-long record of voting against British involvement in Europe, from voting against both the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, to asking for David Cameron to invoke Article 50 the day after the referendum, to using three-line whips to stop his own MPs from opposing the Article 50 bill or calling for the UK to stay in the single market. It’s not an act, it’s not a fudge, it’s not “the long game”, he REALLY doesn’t like the EU. Starmer and others may try to introduce some practicality – some REALITY – into the process, but that won’t do anything to overcome that great weight of antipathy towards the European project at the top of the party.

The general wisdom is that while right-wing antipathy to Europe tends to be jingostic and fuelled by imperial nostalgia, left-wing anti-Europeanism is all about the perception of the EU as a capitalist cartel and, as such, an impediment to the socialist utopia of collectivisation and public ownership. I can see how this works as a principle, but as with many political principles, the facts don’t bear it out. It’s hard to sell the idea of Europe as this anti-socialist bulwark when it’s our friends on the continent who are still, by and large, riding on nationalised trains, availing themselves of entirely (not even sneakily) un-privatised state health care, sending their kids to well-funded state schools and, as often as not, uncomplainingly shelling out more of their money in taxes to pay for all this.

All of this notwithstanding, it is possible that it’s finally occurred to Corbyn – or at least someone in his inner circle – the extent to which he’s cutting his own throat here in terms of electoral prospects. While Labour’s performance in June’s farcical snap election astonished those on all sides of the political spectrum, the party will – if it has ANY grip on reality – be aware of two things.

Firstly, that they still LOST. Not as catastrophically as expected, but Labour did, in fact, LOSE the general election and the Conservatives are still – barely – in government. Secondly, that this not-victory was due at least as much to the obvious disarray and incompetence of the Conservative government as to any great electoral genius on Labour’s part, and that the most obvious manifestation of this incompetence is the three-course dog’s breakfast they’re making of the Brexit process. Indeed, those of us who were paying attention realised that the election was probably only called in order to minimise the damage to the Tory party when the true costs, both economic and social, of Brexit become horribly clear after 2019.

Now while I realise that Jeremy Who Is Called Corbyn would never stoop so low as to consider anything so tawdry as polling data, that He would never soil His hands on a focus group report, surely at some point even he is going to realise that you don’t capitalise on your opponents’ folly by promising to reproduce it. That you don’t offer an alternative by offering the same thing. That there’s no point being the opposition if you don’t, you know, OPPOSE.

Right now Brexit is the only game in town. And it’s a unique threat; over in the USA Trump may be defying parody as he descends ever further into cartoonish paranoid villainy, but after eight years at most he’s out (even if he succeeds in declaring himself King and crowning Ivanka on his way out – we all know that’s what he’d do if he could). Brexit, whether ushered in by idiots in blue ties or idiots in red ties, will do untold damage for GENERATIONS. And if Corbyn can’t perceive that, or regard it as something worth changing his mind for, then not only does he not deserve to govern, but the country doesn’t deserve to be governed by him.

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