By Jared Hally
From chants of “where’s Jeremy Corbyn” during anti-Brexit rallies to Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson openly calling Corbyn a “Brexiteer”, there’s been a lot of unwarranted and unjust criticism of Corbyn since the fateful referendum result in June 2016. Those ardent Remainers, both in Parliament and in the chattering classes of the commentariat, have been pleading that Corbyn come out and say loud and proud that he is anti-Brexit, pro-Remain and would support a second referendum. And yet, the ambiguity in which he winks towards both a position of ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ has been seen by op-ed writers and political pundits as evidence that he is a Brexiteer, enabling the Conservative Party’s right-wing agenda.
Corbyn, whatever his personal politics regarding the European Union, is excelling at party management.
This is simplistic and not at all the case. Corbyn, whatever his personal politics regarding the European Union, is excelling at party management – something that the commentariat criticise him over when they gossip in their newspaper columns. There is ample evidence that Corbyn is indeed a Brexiteer, coming from the tradition of the ‘old Labour Left’, a doctrine that views the European Union as a neoliberal club. However, that he campaigned for remain and has left people to project their own views onto him should not be seen as a failure of leadership, but rather as Corbyn expertly keeping the party in line, while at the same time offering some world-class media spin. By allowing both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ to see him as one of their own he has kept a fraught party together whilst the Conservative Parliamentary Party has been openly waging war with itself.
Corbyn’s approach to the Brexit issue is reminiscent of Harold Wilson, and for that he should be lauded, not castigated. When Wilson offered a referendum on membership of the EEC in 1975, he led a Labour Party and a Labour Cabinet that was far more divided than today’s Labour Party over the question of ‘Europe’. The political giants of Labour at the time would outshine almost all those of the contemporary Parliamentary Party. Wilson had to manage a party and cabinet with a future Prime Minister in Jim Callaghan (who was Pro-EU), a future Labour leader in Michael Foot (who was anti-EU), a future President of the European Commission in Roy Jenkins (who was, unsurprisingly, pro-EU), and veteran politicians like Tony Benn (anti-EU) and Shirley Williams (pro-EU). These figures were British political heavyweights. They loomed large over the British political scene in the 70s and 80s and are now in the mythos of British political culture.
Corbyn, like Wilson, is presenting himself as hesitant, because much of the country is hesitant as well. By coming out as either a full-throttled Brexiteer or, indeed, a “Euro-Fanatic” you risk alienating not only the ‘other side’ but vast swathes of the population who almost invariably do not feel as strongly about Leaving or Remaining. Most people accept that the EU has flaws and can accept the arguments for Leaving or Remaining without having to evangelize for either side- you could say that Corbyn is triangulating- as his nemesis Blair did.
Critics of Corbyn often point out that he didn’t share a platform with David Cameron or other prominent Conservatives during the EU referendum (unlike Ed Miliband in the Scottish Independence Referendum), but once again, this was to his credit. Wilson took a similar approach and refused to share a platform with the “Britain in Europe” campaign that was mainly run by pro-European Conservative politicians. By doing this he kept the more fervently anti-EU and anti-Conservative cabinet members, backbenchers and party activists on side – party management to a level that David Cameron and Theresa May could not hope to achieve.
Now, Corbyn has come out and said that the Labour Party will let the people decide, offering a referendum on a deal and staying within the European Union, with Labour then taking a neutral position. The Remaniac centre ground has denounced this position, as they move to embrace a full revocation of Article 50, but they are mistaken. This is, once again, Wilsonian party management by Corbyn – a second referendum in which he puts Labour at the forefront of either Leaving or Remaining will rip apart the Parliamentary Party and tear asunder the voter base that Labour needs. By pledging neutrality, Corbyn and Labour will not be stained by association with Leaving if Remain wins, or Remaining if Leave wins. This is what Wilson would do, and it is Wilson that Corbyn should continue to try to emulate. There is plenty of dirt for the chattering classes to fling at Corbyn, but his manoeuvring over the past three years with regards to Brexit won’t stain him. Instead, it will highlight how effective Corbyn has been as the Labour Party’s leader.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.