Some of my friends and relations have got themselves into a state of confusion about Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, the European Union, and Brexit. They think it is me who is confused.
I think the format of FB discussions of making fairly short comments militates against rational and nuanced discussion, particularly when folk misread or misunderstand what each other are saying.
At any one time Jeremy Corbyn has a number of struggles going on. Given the horrendously complicated situation it would be unwise for Jeremy to give a running commentary as he goes along.
Jeremy’s position is that hard Brexit would be an utter disaster for the United Kingdom.
The remaining options are between some form of soft Brexit and withdrawing the Article 50 notification to cancel leaving the EU so we stay in unchanged.
Labour laid out our soft Brexit criteria on 27 March 2017.
The six tests for the Brexit deal are:
1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?
In June 2018 Labour put forward an amendment to the Brexit bill,
“It shall be a negotiating objective of Her Majesty's Government to ensure the United Kingdom has full access to the internal market of the European Union, underpinned by shared institutions and regulations, with no new impediments to trade and common rights, standards and protections as a minimum.”
At the moment the Tory negotiators are having huge difficulty in negotiating an agreement that the Tories can support. Nothing we have heard from the Tory negotiators suggests that they are anywhere near delivering a Brexit deal that Labour can support.
When the issue comes to the House of Commons Labour will follow its declared policies and vote against the Tory Brexit proposals.
But Labour will not be tied into the old Remainer versus Leave issues. Simply, this proposed deal is not good enough for Britain. Leavers can see that Labour is principled in upholding the original Leave majority. Many Leavers will agree that the Tory terms are damaging to Britain and that Labour is right to reject them. Remainers will be happy that Labour has opposed the Tory Brexit deal.
What happens then?
If the bill passes then May and the Tories get whatever Brexit they negotiated.
If the bill falls then in constitutional theory May and her team can go back for another negotiation. Unless they can negotiate something better quickly the Tories have to go for a hard Brexit or withdraw the Article 50 notice.
Or the Tories call a General Election, which Labour presumably would agree to.
Whether May stays or goes is largely irrelevant.
There are many permutations. A General Election to obtain the people’s support for the Tory terms? A Referendum on the actual deal struck? The Tories might decide to withdraw the Article 50 application.
Having set out the principles of what Labour are looking for, we stick to our principles.
Then we get into specific issues. Now that the “Tory rebels” are shown to be unicorns, most of the heated arguments that Corbyn should have done this or that begin to fall apart. The “Norway” agreement for instance does not cover agricultural products, a hugely important issue for Northern Ireland. The “Norway” proponents put the Good Friday Agreement at risk.
“Norway” would also mean that we are bound by rules that we are not able to influence.
Corbyn’s proposal of a customs union where we help to make the rules has merit. May does not seem to be trying for that.
Without a Parliamentary majority Labour cannot negotiate at all.
So how do we build a Parliamentary majority?
The majority of Labour supporters voted Remain. Many people who did not vote failed to vote because they were sure that Remain would win. So if we eventually oppose the inadequate Tory terms we consolidate our Remain supporters including those who previously failed to vote.
We cannot oppose the inadequate Tory terms until they are known. Until then we officially have an open mind subject to the six principles.
Many Labour target seats voted majority Leave. The Labour voters in those seats voted majority Remain. The people who need to be persuaded to support Labour in the target seats either did not vote or voted Leave. Offending them by being obviously anti Brexit is not wise. I think some of the more ardent Remainers either forget that or actually want it. (See my comments on ABC below).
A reasoned vote against the actual terms shows we respect the Brexit decision but on principles declared as far back as March 2017 we have to oppose the dreadful terms offered to us by the Tories.
Jeremy leads what is now the largest political party in Europe, most of whom joined after September 2015 when Jeremy became Party Leader.
Neither before nor since Owen Smith ran for Leader have I heard or read any suggestion that Owen Smith is a particularly gifted person on a par with past great individuals like Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey or John Smith. Yet in 2016 a third of the membership of the Labour Party preferred to vote for Owen Smith as the ABC candidate rather than for his personal qualities. “ABC” means “Anyone But Corbyn”.
Within our huge Labour Party membership there are significant numbers of people who voted ABC and who would vote ABC again.
Within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) there is a significant rump of unreconciled ABC supporters. These ABC comrades would like to bring Jeremy Corbyn down.
There is a spectrum within the ABCs. Some would use any trick and would vote any way to cause difficulty for Corbyn. Others are “principled”, and they hunt around for principles to which to adhere.
One unfortunate problem is that many of the most passionate anti Brexit MPs happen also to be passionate ABCs. Are they using Brexit to get at Corbyn, or do they regard Brexit as another example of Corbyn’s failures, or is it simply coincidence that they are aligned on both issues?
On antisemitism, it is astonishing how the crescendo of outraged antisemitism from the ABC MPs ended the day after the 2018 Council Elections. Even odder than that are the attempts to blacken Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic.
Some of the ABCs were prepared for Labour to lose seats at council elections and even hoped to lose seats in the 2017 General Election because that would contribute to their agenda of getting rid of Corbyn. They would happily have the Tories in government for another five years if it meant Labour would lose Corbyn and hopefully most of the Corbyn supporters.
The problem for me in approaching the “Jeremy and Brexit” issue is that it cannot be approached without understanding the context within which Jeremy Corbyn has to operate. An utterly biased Main Stream Media, drip fed by the ABC MPs on a daily basis, misrepresents everything that Jeremy Corbyn does or does not do. Often nothing is reported at all.
I have never met Jeremy Corbyn. I do not pretend to know what is in his mind.
So let us try to unpick this.
Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, and other Leftists have opposed the EU from the outset as a capitalist neo-liberal ramp designed in the interests of capital and not in the interests of working people. Corbyn was initially opposed to the European Union on these arguments. Corbyn opposed the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. One aspect of the Lisbon Treaty is that it brought in qualified majority voting in many important areas. Even a large population country like Britain could be outvoted.
In 2011 Jeremy Corbyn supported proposals for a Referendum on leaving the European Union.
In 2015 Jeremy criticised the European Union over its heartless treatment of the Greeks. This was during the Leadership Election campaign. Also during the Leadership Election in July 2015, Corbyn said that if Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated away workers' rights and environmental protection as part of his renegotiation of Britain's membership of the European Union (EU), Corbyn would not rule out advocating for a British exit in a proposed referendum on EU membership.
After his election as Leader in September 2015,
“Corbyn said that Labour would campaign for Britain to stay in the EU regardless of the result of Cameron's negotiations, and instead pledged "to reverse any changes" if Cameron reduced the rights of workers or citizens. He also believed that Britain should play a crucial role in Europe by making demands about working arrangements across the continent, the levels of corporation taxation and in forming an agreement on environmental regulation.” (Wikipedia)
Was this a change in Corbyn’s views? From threatening to support “Leave” in July 2015 to critical support of the EU in September 2015?
Having just been elected Party Leader Jeremy was not in a position to impose his will on the Labour Party.
Previous Labour leaders have usually been able to impose their views on the Labour Party because they operated within an agreed ideological framework and they had the support of the National Executive Committee. Reflecting Labour’s membership generally the 2015 Labour Conference was supportive of remaining in the EU but was open to reasoned criticisms. That was as far as Jeremy Corbyn could go at that time.
In the Scottish Referendum Labour was seen as allied with the Tories. In the 2015 General Election Labour lost over 17% of its vote and 40 of 41 Parliamentary seats in Scotland. Ed Miliband gained votes and gained seats in England and Wales but not enough to outweigh the damage done to Labour in Scotland.
During the Referendum campaign, once it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn would not share a platform with David Cameron, Jeremy was sidelined from the main “Remain” Campaign.
“Labour In” run by Alan Johnson made it clear that Jeremy’s input was not wanted.
The campaigning that Jeremy did was on the “stay in and improve the EU” line that the media virtually never reported. Corbyn confirmed to Owen Smith during their hustings that Corbyn had voted to Remain.
Once the Referendum result was out, what was Corbyn to do?
Labour voters had voted Remain but the Leave side had won. Had Labour immediately come out as Remain the Tories would have said that Labour was trying to ignore the will of the British people.
The six principles are clear, and fairly uncontroversial. They provide the anchor upon which Tory Brexit can be opposed without disrespecting the Leave voters.
Is Jeremy a secret Brexiter? I don’t know. I suspect Jeremy would like a Goldilocks Brexit (not too hard, not too soft, but just right). I doubt very much that the EU will agree because that is not in their interest.
If Jeremy cannot have that then if the alternatives are “hard Brexit” or “withdraw Article 50” the rational choice is to withdraw the Article 50 application.