Alastair Campbell: Corbyn's Labour is in limbo land over Brexit
PUBLISHED: 17:40 13 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:40 13 January 2017
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Jeremy Corbyn thinks we overdid the control freakery, says Labour's spin doctor, but he must realise - after that flawed relaunch - that voters need to know exactly what you stand for
I am confused. Given the mini-avalanche of tweets, emails and generally exasperated messages from like-minded friends and colleagues that flowed from Jeremy Corbyn’s so-called reboot, it is clear I am not alone. The problem, however, is that among the confused we must clearly include the Labour leader himself.
First, a word in his defence. For both government and opposition, Brexit is about as difficult, fraught and complicated as it gets. Of the government, we have seen over the past six months just how hard they are finding it to do the basic things you need in the face of a complex negotiation or multifaceted political problem – have a strong team united around core objectives, above all a clear and coherent strategy which allows people internally and externally to understand your basic position but leave you with sufficient room for flexibility should circumstances change or the need arise.
Alas, as we saw once more with Theresa May’s speech this week, and doubtless shall again in the coming days, when we are promised the next steps in the Brexit process, they have yet to get achieve any of the above. Well, OK, they have the flexibility part, but that is born of lack of clear objectives – as confirmed by departing EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers – lack of strategy and lack of unity. As for the Johnson-Davis-Fox team – it isn’t one. Liam Fox is excluded, Boris Johnson is semi-detached and neither acts nor is taken seriously in the debate, and David Davis is increasingly looking to Chancellor Philip Hammond for a bit of grown up support in what he is slowly realising is a mammothly difficult task.
The opposition is under less day to day pressure, self evidently, as they are not in charge. But the more the penny drops with the public that the government doesn’t know what it is doing, and may be leading the country towards the edge of a cliff, the more people look to see if there is an alternative out there that could do any better. Now, in a long since forgotten ‘other referendum’ – on proportional representation – we saw little of the EU debate passion, much of the usual apathy and so like it or not we are stuck with the system we have. That means Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is the first port of call.
So, Labour has to step up to be seen as the alternative government. And that means they too must have those same elements in play – a strong team, agreed core objectives for the negotiation once Article 50 is triggered, clear and coherent strategy, unity of the party – or at the very least it’s top table of shadow Cabinet and most of the Parliamentary Labour Party – and flexibility should the need arise. Again they have the flexibility – as Corbyn showed on Monday with a seeming switch away from the position his own spokesman on the issue, Keir Starmer, has been trying to map out. But without coherence of overall strategy, any move of tactical flexibility merely serves to confuse people further.
That was certainly the case when we awoke to headlines proclaiming that Labour now believed Britain could be better off outside the EU, we are not wedded to freedom of movement and we might even be able to get some of that NHS money we were promised.
By the time Corbyn got to the breakfast television and radio studios as part of the reboot, he seemed to be backtracking – according to some reports after an angry phone call from shadow home secretary Diane Abbott – and was back on his message that the real problem was nasty, greedy bosses using migrant labour to undercut hard-working British workers’ wages. Then when he – rightly – said without migrants the NHS would collapse; and no, we do not accept overall immigration numbers are too high; but yes, we are not wedded to freedom of movement; though yes, we are pretty well wedded to the single market; so yes, if access to the single market depends on freedom of movement, we might have to stay wedded to both... the confusion if anything got deeper.
In any event, by the end of the day, the focus had shifted to his chatter about a maximum wage, something which, as was clear from the reaction of his shadow cabinet colleagues, came as a surprise to MPs already reeling from the overnight Brexit briefing.
Now here is where I sympathise with Corbyn. The politics of Brexit are tough. In traditional working class seats that for years were assumed to be Labour, Leave won convincingly and so MPs fear that unless they can show they get the message of the referendum, especially on immigration, then UKIP and the Tory right, not to mention our old pal ‘can’t be arsed’ are all waiting to clean up. Meanwhile in London and parts of the south, where Remain did better, where most Labour members live and where many seats that have to be won back are located, MPs and candidates worry that a UKIP-lite position will drive people off to the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile up in Scotland .... you see, it is not easy.
But the key to leadership lies in the first four and six letters of the word. Leaders must lead. Yet when, on Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan read out some of the different approaches being put by several Labour figures – including Starmer who one assumes is operating from an agreed shadow cabinet position – Corbyn reacted as though these were all discussion points, part of a never ending debate. Leadership is not just about listening to other people having conversations, which is how the shadow cabinet meetings these days appear to operate. It is about leading those debates, and deciding. So if we get all these different positions, and the leader signals all opinions are of more or less equal worth, we are confused. Just as we are confused when Starmer appears to be contradicted by shadow chancellor John McDonnell on the single market and customs union, or Diane Abbott and deputy leader Tom Watson send diametrically opposed messages on immigration.
I know Corbyn and his team think that we overdid the control freakery during the Blair years but he is surely beginning to see that the public have to have a clear sense of what the party is about. He talks endlessly about all the different ‘conversations’ they have on policy. Whatever issue is put, the solution seems to be that people will ‘sit down’ and have ‘conversations.’ Fine. But in the end decisions have to be made, positions struck, agreed, campaigned for with a view to the public having a vague idea what they are. For that to happen there has to be clarity as to what they are. Every time a politician has to go on TV, or on the doorstep, and say ‘No, that is not what I meant … no, that is not quite right, what I meant was …’ you know the clarity is not there.
I was no clearer about Labour’s strategy on Brexit at the end of Operation Reboot Day than I was at the start. Kicking off a day with the government on the ropes over the NHS, the media talking up a major Brexit speech by Corbyn, and ending it with a great hoo-ha on the idea of a pay cap certainly confirms message discipline is not a priority.
Then, on Wednesday, when, to be fair to Corbyn, he had one of his best PMQs, really getting at May over her ‘in denial’ stance on the NHS, within minutes they were into another muddle born of lack of clarity and lack of competence, this time on the part of the posh boy revolutionaries in his team who have a Trumpian romanticism about Russia and Putin. On the issue of UK troops being part of a NATO operation to deter Russian aggression in the Baltics, his spokesman put a much more pro-Russia position on relations with NATO than defence spokeswoman Nia Griffith wants, or believes the party policy to be.
And so again, on this as on so many issues, most significantly Brexit, Labour MPs and candidates are left in a kind of limbo land. They have their own views and their own political problems in their own areas to contend with; but the lack of clarity and the lack of decision-making adds to them. Added to which they pick up varying degrees of negativity about the leader, which had one MP in a safe-ish Labour seat telling me his general approach on the doorstep was ‘you can vote for me to be MP knowing he won’t be PM because we are not going to get a majority.’ That is not healthy.
Even if the Corbyn team doesn’t want to learn lessons from the Blair years, can they not learn the lessons from their own successful leadership campaigns – that a bit of message discipline can go a long way in a campaign? And might they not find it within themselves to put in as much effort to winning over the public to Labour’s cause as they did to winning over the party members to ensure Corbyn stays put?
On Europe, like David Cameron before them, neither May nor Corbyn appear to be deciding their positions according to the national interest or even according to what they really believe. Both of their interventions appeared tactical, his, initially at least, to shore up against UKIP, hers - in making a rather vague and woolly speech about mental health with a few Brexit reheat lines wrapped around it - designed to say there is more to her government than the nightmare of Europe. (And by the way one of the many disasters of Brexit is that the government do not have the bandwidth to deal with all the bread and butter stuff like schools and hospitals, crime and transport, because the whole machine is fixated on how the hell we get out of the EU without wrecking the country.)
But just as Cameron found that he could not turn around several decades of his party’s euroscepticism in a few heated weeks of a referendum campaign, so Corbyn will find Labour can - and should - never out-UKIP UKIP, and May will find she will only make sense of Brexit if she settles the big strategic questions and the core objectives quickly. They both need big, bold, clear, principled positions. They were not on show from either of them this week.
Yet, at a time a dangerous, narcissistic personality is taking over in Washington DC as so-called ‘leader of the Western world,’ the need for strong and clear leadership in the other great capitals has never been greater. In Britain, however, if the early salvoes for the New Year are to go by, we seem to have both government and opposition led by people who, whether judged on vision, breadth, imagination, expertise or just competence, appear to be out of their depth.