Cracks in the Corbyn edifice

PUBLISHED: 12:00 16 August 2018

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

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The first signs of Labour's erosion under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership might just be appearing, says JAMES BALL

The country, the polls suggest, may finally be starting to seriously change its mind on Brexit. For the first months – and then the first year – after the UK voted to leave, polls stubbornly bounced around within the margin of error from 52/48. That is increasingly not the case.

Public opinion might not have moved as much as it needs to reverse Brexit – yet – but a series of polls, plus the recent analysis in the Observer, all suggest that there is a real shift of around four points towards Remain. This is accompanied by ever-better numbers for a second referendum on any exit deal.

Leave’s moral authority was always shaky: even if the margin is more than a million votes, a 52/48 split of the nation is hardly a decisive one for such a huge shift from the status quo. And when it is based on a fundamentally dishonest campaign – predicated on the false idea that Turkey was set to join the EU and that leaving would create £350 million a week for the NHS – that authority gets weaker. When you’re then also found to have broken rules on election spending limits, it becomes shakier still. And now the final ‘will of the people’ trump card is becoming unplayable. The case for trying to reverse the referendum is clearly a legitimate one, and one growing in strength.

The changing arithmetic should be changing what’s happening in parliament, too. Theresa May is clearly stuck: her party’s voters back Brexit, her party members absolutely back Brexit, and the majority of her MPs back Brexit. She is struggling to find a compromise between sanity and what her party wants. She would find it all but impossible to soften her already fatally flawed Chequers plan, let alone try to stay in the single market or remain altogether. May thinks she is stuck, and she is right.

The same is not true of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. He has had – but chosen not to take – an outstanding opportunity. The people who voted for the party in 2017 backed Remain by close to two-to-one. The party’s members are overwhelmingly pro-European. The party’s MPs are overwhelmingly pro-Europe. And the unions which make up a large part of the Labour movement are pro-Europe.

Labour’s key excuse for going along with a hard Brexit – it still dances on the head of pins over ‘a customs union’ and refuses to back the single market or a second referendum – has always been the fear that it would lose seats in its northern heartlands, many of which backed Leave.

That electoral maths is shifting fast: quite a few of the marginal seats Labour is defending, and those it would wish to take to form the next government, now lean towards Remain. And the momentum is, at the moment, heading in that direction.

Either pursuing the softest of Brexits, or leaving the door open to reversing Brexit entirely, is now good policy for low- and middle-income people in Britain, is what the Labour movement wants, and is smart politics.

So why is Labour still nowhere on Brexit? The real answer, as opposed to the excuses, is Jeremy Corbyn and the people around him. Whatever Corbyn’s zealous fanbase might suggest, Corbyn has been a lifelong and open eurosceptic, and is famous in large part for never changing his mind on anything. And at the time when it matters most in a generation that a pro-EU party has a pro-EU leader, it has the exact opposite.

Corbyn has been part of a strand of anti-EU opinion on the left for decades and has made no secret of it. He is not the only one: John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, has been a public eurosceptic, as has his powerful communications director Seumas Milne, who once referred to the EU as “corporate-controlled” and “shorn of social protections”. They were joined in their scepticism by Diane Abbott – though party rumours suggest she has shifted to a more pro-EU position, on the pragmatic grounds that sometimes you can tell who benefits from a decision by who is cheering it on.

Given the pace of politics it is too easy to forget that Jeremy Corbyn was ostensibly a figurehead of the Remain campaign, and yet shifted into invisibility during it. After the results came in, Corbyn was accused of undermining the campaign from within, his staff dodging calls, and Milne of removing pro-EU references from Corbyn speeches.

The morning of June 24, 2016 – just hours after the result was clear – Corbyn stood in front of cameras and said Article 50 should be triggered immediately. The frustrations of the referendum, and that decision in its aftermath, prompted another doomed rebellion against Corbyn. The EU has thus become a toxic issue in the Labour party – just seen as another way for so-called ‘moderates’ or ‘Blairites’ (i.e. anyone who disagrees with ‘Jeremy’ on any issue) to attack the leader.

The result, two years on, has been a frantic battle to try to change the mind of Jeremy Corbyn, a man who seemingly has never publicly changed his mind on anything. The eurosceptics of his inner circle convinced him that he couldn’t deliver his 2017 manifesto from within the EU or single market – despite many EU countries having far higher taxes and more nationalised industries than the UK – and those less close to him have been trying to reverse that view and convince him he could.

Let’s be realistic: the odds are that they will fail, as they have failed before. Corbyn has spent a lifetime dealing with irritation or even disdain from people in his party for his views and his associations, whether with the Iranian state, accepting money from its national broadcaster; with Russia via Russia Today; and with Irish republicans during the Troubles.

He has not changed as leader. He has spent five months, since his own MPs and party members protested in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in the party he leads, taking no action; he ignored the unified call of 68 rabbis, three very different Jewish media outlets, and the near-unanimous urging of his own MPs to adopt the official International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism; he did nothing to prevent an idiotic disciplinary inquiry into Margaret Hodge, until the party’s general secretary arrived to call it off.

And he has just days dodging accusations – backed with clear reporting and photographic evidence – that he attended a service commemorating individuals in a terror group linked to the Munich Olympics attack, which left 11 Israeli athletes murdered. When official responses did come, they represented a ‘doubling down’ rather than a retreat. First Labour claimed the relatives of the Munich victims were being “misled” by the media, only to be contradicted by Corbyn saying he was there but “didn’t think” he’d been “involved” – before ending up in a war of words with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

For most of these decisions, it is impossibly difficult to see a principle at stake: you can admit it is an error to take money from Iran’s Press TV – a state which executes gay men, and a channel which aired a tortured confession from a journalist – without changing your foreign policy position on Iran. You can admit grave errors in tackling anti-Semitism in the party you lead without lessening your criticism of Israel’s actions one iota.

On these issues, Corbyn is not being principled: he is being both arrogant, inflexible, and, frankly, petulant. The great (but humble) leader can do no wrong. He can never have done wrong. Shored up by a fanatical base, and the support of online outriders like Owen Jones, the attacks from critics – and more sympathetic pleadings for a change of direction – are all repelled.

None of this bodes well for anyone hoping for Corbyn to change his mind on Brexit. Yes, it might be the right thing to do for the country, it might be good politics, and the trade unions might want it – but what does that matter?

It is perfectly reasonable for Theresa May to be an obstacle to a soft Brexit – or to reversing Brexit. She was elected on a mandate of delivering Brexit, leads a party which supports it, and has said so.

It is a completely bizarre feature of post-2016 politics that there is no primary opposition figure or party to vote for in order to oppose the government’s main, disastrous, policy decision. The Liberal Democrats will not form the next government, and have catastrophically failed to leverage Brexit into a revival for their fortunes. There is no other mainstream alternative for anyone to go to.

There is hope yet, but it’s relatively distant. Part of that hope lies in Corbyn’s history as a man who opposes everything – as a lifelong backbencher he’s never needed to get anything done, or be accountable for a compromise. That could work in Remainers’ favour: it would be doable to get Corbyn to oppose any deal that May would propose – Labour doesn’t want to be saddled with an unpopular deal – and such a move could easily provoke an emergency election if May failed to get the votes to pass it.

But what happens then? In any sensible world, Corbyn would be required to set out clearly what he would do instead, especially as the UK would be just months from a disastrous cliff-edge Brexit. In practice, the danger is that his supporters see in him whatever they wish to see, and ignore anything to the contrary – meaning that whenever he can, he just remains gnomic.

The tide of public opinion is turning. There is no realistic Brexit deal in place. The UK’s most disastrous decision in decades can be reversed. But we have to recognise that one of the biggest obstacles to getting it done could be Jeremy Corbyn – a man too stubborn to change, and apparently too entrenched to remove.

After the events of recent days, though, the hope for many may be that – as has eventually happened with backing for Brexit – the dial could finally be shifting on his support. Just as Theresa May and the Conservatives have become increasingly paralysed by the contradictory forces being exerted on them, so has Corbyn – and Corbynism more generally – shown signs that he too, is incapable of breaking out of the current stasis of British politics.

Labour under Corbyn seems incapable of moving beyond its intractable anti-Semitism crisis, which has dogged the party since his elevation to the leadership.

With that realisation, the first signs of erosion under the Corbyn edifice might just be appearing.

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