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Labour needs a Brexit strategy, not just ideology

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Labour could still shock Theresa May at the ballot box. But Corbyn needs to up his game on Brexit

In the immediate aftermath of Theresa May’s election bombshell there was confusion in Westminster.

No-one saw it coming and only a small inner circle of cohorts were privy to the Prime Minister’s plan. There were no leaks and few clues.

But as May spoke to the nation and the news sunk in, party war machines were already shunting into gear – this is what opposition parties plan long and hard for, to be ready when the time comes.

By the time she had finished and was making her way back to Number 10, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron had already urged the electorate to vote for his party saying it was Britain’s chance to avoid a ‘disastrous Hard Brexit’. His comments were quickly followed by the Green Party’s co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley who said Britain was at a ‘crossroads’.

But as the minutes ticked by the question ‘where is Jeremy?’ began to be asked first in media circles and then on social media. Once again the Labour leader had seemingly gone missing.

Finally, 40 minutes after the news broke Jeremy Corbyn released a statement: ‘I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.’

Hardly worth the wait.

This is symptomatic of Corbyn’s Labour. There are apparently always playing catch up – behind in the polls, unable to capture the mood on Brexit and often reluctant to talk specifics on policy. But this is not purely incompetence – in fact it may well be by design.

If nothing else, Corbyn and his cadre – attack dog Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and consigliere Seumas Milne – are politicians of conviction. All have long-held, left-wing views that are utterly unshakeable.

Corbyn’s life work has been to redefine the political landscape – and shift it firmly left. When Labour’s left was seemingly dead and buried, as Tony Blair not only rose to power but obliterated the Tories time and again, he battled on.

No three-line whip or New Labour heavy could scare Corbyn away from socialism. In fact in the period between 2005 and him becoming leader he voted against his party on more than 500 occasions, that is an astonishing 25% of the time.

When, after all those years of struggle, the leadership fell miraculously in his lap the aim remained the same – to give left-wing ideals a platform and return Labour to ‘true’ socialism. It is this cause that Corbyn holds most dear, there is no sentimentality to the red rose of Labour.

One North London activist – who refused to be named because ‘Jeremy is really nice and I wouldn’t want him to be upset that I’d spoken to a journalist’ – told The New European that even if Labour is wiped out at the election Corbyn may well try and carry on.

‘What I don’t think a lot of people understand with Jeremy is that he is driven to change the whole debate, to make things fairer long term for everyone,’ she said. ‘And that is not something that many of us believe will necessarily happen at this election or even at the ballot box. This fight is about more than just winning votes.

‘He promised a different kind of politics and he has delivered on that – but because he does not play the games the mainstream media want they think he is failing. It is not the case.

‘The fact we have a truly left-wing leader is a victory. Hopefully when Jeremy does step down he will hand it over to someone else from the left of the party.

‘I don’t necessarily think he will stand down if we don’t win – it is just one part of a long fight that might take decades to achieve.

‘Did he vote Leave? I wouldn’t be shocked – but if he did it was for clear and sensible ideological reasons.’

So perhaps there is no chaos, there are no heads in hands at the end of another media mauling and the Corbyn strategy is actually on track?

Parliament may not have been dissolved yet but this election is very much under way – and Labour still don’t appear to have any agreed lines, any slogans, and there have even been serious questions raised about funding. But does any of that matter if the party is driven by an ideology rather than a desire to govern?

Inside Number 10 Theresa May and her team certainly are concerned with power and being the party of government. And they’ve lost interest in Labour. One Whitehall source said: ‘No-one ever talks about Labour. Number 10 never mentions them, in departments you don’t mention them. We have never been put under any pressure from the shadow team. There is more concern about the Liberal Democrats.’

Much of the despondency from voters towards Corbyn originated with the referendum. A myth has been spun that the party can’t win on Brexit as it is stuck between its working class, northern voters (who wanted to leave) and metropolitan ‘citizen of nowhere’. But that is simply untrue.

Studies by political scientist John Curtice show that ‘no more than two in five of Labour voters in the north and the Midlands actually voted for Leave’ and ‘they were certainly far less likely to have voted that way than Conservative supporters in the North and the Midlands’.

Labour were apparently too busy worrying about losing votes to UKIP to recognise that 48% of the country felt ignored by a Hard Brexit Government – and still do.

Labour should have come out against Brexit early and with vigour and then spent all their time and effort explaining to those two in five voters who did vote Leave why they had been lied to and the detrimental impact leaving the EU would have on their communities.

If they had taken this route – one that Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has hinted at although he remains hamstrung by his leader – Corbyn might be looking at grabbing some seats back from the Tories rather than nose-diving to historic lows.

But his hard-core support – suspicious of what they often perceive to be an ‘imperialist Europe’ – would no doubt welcome the purge of ‘Blairites’ or so-called ‘red Tories’.

What now for Labour? Corbyn will probably spend the next six weeks saying very little and moaning about his lack of positive media coverage. June 9 will most likely be the biggest day of his political career: can he hang on to promote his political theory with a flagging Labour Party as the vessel?

June 9 is, therefore, likely to be the biggest day in Labour’s recent history as well – can the sensible wing oust Corbyn and co and start the long walk back to Downing Street?

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