Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the nation has been divided over the question of how to handle this difficult task. British society has been consumed by discussions of deals, backstops and articles. Previously obscure figures on both sides of the Channel have been vaulted into stardom, and personalities thought to belong to bygone eras have returned to the limelight. In the wake of Theresa May’s failure to secure support for her Brexit deal and her subsequent resignation, it appears now that the next Prime Minister will be faced with a binary choice – crash out of the European Union in October with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.
The Conservative Party has hopelessly failed in its handling of Brexit. For three years Prime Minister May treated this constitutional crisis as merely an internal party dispute. Her efforts were focused solely on winning over the hard-line European Research Group (ERG) rather than uniting Parliament and the country. In normal political times, an election would have been called many months ago and this disunified mob would have been thrown out of office. The British people could then trust the opposition to take over and deliver a degree of stability. Unfortunately, Britain’s opposition is just as shambolic as the government. The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is itself hopelessly divided on the Brexit question, primarily because of Mr Corbyn’s long history of hostility towards the European project.
Before exploring this history further, it’s important to determine what Labour’s stance on Brexit actually is. A simple enough question, but one without a simple answer. Labour’s 2017 General Election platform accepted the result of the referendum and committed the party to supporting withdrawal from the EU, while rejecting a ‘damaging Tory’ no-deal version of Brexit that would undermine worker and environmental protections in the UK. So, Labour is opposed to both Theresa May’s 2018 agreement with the European Union and the ERG’s favoured no deal option. But what is their own alternative proposal?
It appears not to exist outside half formed thought bubbles offered up by Corbyn and the few miserable frontbenchers that still back him. One of the more interesting Corbynista ideas holds that the United Kingdom should continue to have access to the Common Market while not being part of it and rejecting freedom of movement. This is, of course, despite the fact that the European Union has repeatedly made it very clear that the price for access to the Common Market is accepting freedom of movement. This kind of agreement would almost certainly be rejected by European Union negotiators.
In mid-March Labour sought to clarify their position on Brexit somewhat. They made it official party policy to advocate for a public vote on any Brexit agreement passed by the House of Commons. Critically however, Corbyn did not, and has not, clarified whether one of the options on the ballot sheet will be Remain. The waters were further muddied when Corbyn made it clear that holding a public vote was a second option, his main preference being to attempt to force a general election at all costs. Again, it is unclear exactly how Corbyn plans to bring this about. A no confidence motion against the Government already failed several months ago, and there is no indication whatsoever that any Tory MPs have changed their minds and are now prepared to vote themselves out of government in order to hand the keys to Downing Street to a Marxist they loathe to the core. Given this, one could almost be forgiven for thinking the promise to hold a public vote was just a cynical attempt to win over remain voters without having to actually commit to anything!
This platform of strategic ambiguity has thoroughly confused Labour’s membership, which rightfully deserted the party en masse in the recent European elections to vote for the unambiguously pro-remain Greens and Liberal Democrats. Despite the abandonment of Labour by remain voters, they have maintained a narrow poll lead over the Conservatives by virtue of the even greater split among Leavers. However, with the coming likely ascent of the hardline pro-Brexit Boris Johnson to the Prime Ministership, it seems all but inevitable that the Tories will win back ardent Leavers from the nascent Brexit Party. This leaves Labour in a very dangerous electoral position indeed. That is, unless they can find a way to end the divisions on their own side of the political spectrum.
You can feel some sympathy for Labour’s position when you realise that while the vast majority of their membership and voters wished to remain in the EU, the majority of their constituencies (primarily in the north) voted to leave. It was right of the party to initially commit to respecting the referendum result, a commitment which arguably helped them greatly in leave voting areas in the 2017 General Election. As the years have passed, however, it has become clear that Brexit cannot be delivered in any form that won’t damage and hurt the Labour voters, and that the best deal is to revoke Article 50. Labour by now should have committed to holding a second referendum with remain as an option wherein they would vigorously campaign to revoke Article 50. The reason they have not done so lies solely at the feet of Mr Corbyn.
Prior to seizing the leadership in 2015, Corbyn spent decades as a backbencher fiercely opposed to European integration. In 1975, when a referendum was held to determine Britain’s membership status within the European Economic Community, the economic precursor to the EU, Corbyn voted no, reflecting the old-school Labour left’s opposition to free trade and open markets. In 1993, Corbyn opposed the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the EU. In 2008, he opposed the Lisbon Treaty, an update to this essential constitutional building bloc. In 2011, he voted for a backbench Conservative MP’s motion to hold a referendum on EU membership. In 1993 Corbyn was quoted spouting Eurosceptic talking points: ”We have a European bureaucracy totally unaccountable to anybody, powers have gone from national parliaments, they haven’t gone to the European Parliament, they’ve gone to the (European) Commission … these are quite serious matters.” You would be forgiven for mistaking such a statement for something uttered by such poisonous figures as Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Video of Corbyn campaigning in Ireland against the Lisbon Treaty has him likening the European Union to an ”empire” subservient to NATO’s ”military Frankenstein.” Suddenly, upon being elected leader of the party in September 2015, Corbyn performed an about-face on his nearly 40 years of opposition to the EU. In a rare capitulation to majority sentiment in his party, Corbyn pretended to support Britain’s continued membership in the European Union and promised to campaign to remain in the 2016 referendum.
Corbyn, whatever his ideological faults, has proven himself to be an extraordinary political campaigner. Launching himself from utter obscurity as a backbencher to Labour leader in 2015 with zero institutional support and little name recognition was an extraordinary achievement. Even more impressive was Labour’s performance in the 2017 General Election. The campaign started with predictions that the Tories would win 400 seats, and ended in a hung parliament with Theresa May’s authority fundamentally shattered. So it is indeed curious reflecting upon Corbyn’s lifeless performance in the course of the 2016 referendum campaign. Phil Wilson, the Labour MP for Sedgefield and chair of the Labour In For Britain group, observed that “Corbyn was only ever partially interested in keeping Britain in the EU … he decided to go on holiday in the middle of the campaign.” Wilson noted Corbyn’s failure to visit Labour heartlands in the north-east and his bewildering insistence on raising esoteric issues such as the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) when campaigning. Corbyn sent mixed messages in the course of his campaign appearances. In June 2016 he made a campaign appearance wherein he stated that “We, the Labour Party, are overwhelmingly for staying in, because we believe the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment.” However, he spent just as much of the speech criticising EU trade policy, particularly the aforementioned TTIP. While such criticisms of EU trade policy are not necessarily invalid, it is baffling why any campaigner would undercut their own message with criticism of the very thing they support mere weeks out from a referendum. He also criticised economic warnings of the potential effects of Brexit, echoing the Leave campaign’s slogan of “Project Fear” by opining that there had been too much “myth-making and doom” in the course of the campaign. Corbyn’s lackadaisical approach to the campaign was best symbolized by his appearance on Adam Hill’s show The Last Leg where he said he was not a “huge fan” of the EU. When asked how important Britain’s continued membership within the European Union was on a ten point scale, he answered: “7 or 7 and a half out of 10.” Hardly inspiring or convincing stuff.
Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has been evident in the years since the referendum. On June 24, the day after the referendum result, Corbyn was already calling for Article 50 to be formally invoked, an act of complete madness. With no mind for the enormously complex task of negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from a political and economic union it had been intimately tied to for decades, and with no consideration of the time limit the EU imposes on withdrawal negotiations, Corbyn called for negotiations to begin right away. Corbyn also suggested that membership of the single market could prove a hindrance to his ambitious social democratic domestic agenda, as State Aid to specific industries can only go ahead with the approval of the European Commission. This is despite the fact that any agreement between Britain and the EU on their future trading relationship would undoubtedly include provisions limiting state aid anyhow, as is consistent with World Trade Organization rules. Furthermore, in the EU, Britain is one of the lowest ranking members in terms of percentage of GDP given to state aid at 0.38%, below fellow economic leaders France (0.76%) and Germany (1.31%), suggesting it is other global and domestic economic and political factors limiting state aid in the UK, not Europe. Corbyn has either deliberately misrepresented the situation to present a rosier picture of British industry after Brexit, or has done it out of ignorance, hardly a more comforting prospect.
There is no doubt that Mr Corbyn’s opposition to the EU, like all his political beliefs, comes from a place of deep principle. What is remarkably unprincipled about his behavior over the course of the past three years however, is his attempt to disguise his true wishes. He is not a hard-line Brexiter in the mould of Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage, but he clearly would rather be out of the European Union than in it. Corbyn’s equivocation cannot continue for long. Before long he will have to hold his nose and commit Labour to supporting a second referendum. If he does not, he must be prepared for the Membership to replace him with someone who will.