As soon as the scale of Labour’s election defeat last week became clear – at 10.00 pm on 12th December 2019 – the party’s Brexit divisions were mobilised once again as ‘explanations’ for the failure of the party under Jeremy Corbyn to win power against a ramshackle bunch of lying chancers in their 9th year of office.
And these explanations are bogus. Labour got Brexit wrong from the start, and how and why it was so mistaken reveals the conservatism at the heart of the Corbyn project.
A referendum on EU membership was in the 2015 Tory Manifesto, so Labour knew that it was on the cards throughout the leadership campaign that followed the resignation of Ed Miliband. The party also knew that the previous year’s Scottish independence referendum had ignited political debate on all sorts of issues way beyond the constitutional question, and ought to have anticipated that a referendum across the UK might have the same propensity to be about something, many things, not on the ballot paper. For whoever was to win the Labour leadership in 2015, the referendum was an opportunity to road test the new leader’s approach.
Corbyn won, and his approach to the referendum was essentially to ignore it. Paying lip service to party democracy, a key element of his leadership platform, Labour remained formally supportive of continued membership of the EU, but in practice the Labour Party under Corbyn opted out of the campaign.
Why they were so lukewarm, to put it mildly, was partly obvious, partly a mystery. The obvious bit was that Corbyn was, and remains, an unreconstructed Bennite. The EU was a ‘capitalist club’, a block on ‘socialism in one country’, went the view behind the scenes. It’s easy to pick holes in that threadbare Stalinist perspective, not least that the world in 2016 was very different to that in 1973. But is it true that unshakeable faith in the old Bennite religion was the primary driver of Corbyn’s inertia in 2016?
Look instead to the clique around Corbyn. The influence of Len McCluskey and his plants in the leader’s office. Perhaps they used the language of the 20th Century British left to justify their position (though they were always too cowardly to make the case publicly, hiding behind the language of ‘party democracy’), but one suspects that other factors were in play.
The first, and this is the weakness at the heart of Corbynism from the start, is a leaden footed inability to respond nimbly to new, unforeseen challenges. Their political playbook envisions a war between top hatted, cigar smoking, factory owners, and heroic male workers in ragged coats and flat caps. Perhaps it can also be clad in the garb of the National Coal Board Vs the miners, but the vision is much the same. ‘Class war’ is, like Premier League football, a game for men (though unlike soccer, a game for white men).
Race and gender don’t figure much in the Corbyn world view, even if both are now deeply entrenched in contemporary politics as much as in the wider world. His supporters made much of his ‘anti-racist’ credentials (and tried to use them as a defence against accusations of anti-Semitism), but the photographs of Corbyn on Anti-Apartheid demonstrations rather made the opposite point. He belongs to a ‘left’ that is more comfortable with the notion of anti-colonial struggles far away, rather than the complications of race and class at home. Other politicians of his vintage, like Peter Hain, managed to be both major figures in the Anti-Apartheid struggle, and in the Anti-Nazi League which took up the battle against the far-right on British streets in the 1970s. I’m not aware that Corbyn was ever a major figure in that movement.
So as the 2016 referendum campaign took off, noisily and nastily, Corbyn and therefore Labour, was ill-equipped to respond. Individual MPs were essentially on their own, ditto party members. There was a major political event unfolding, and the leadership was AWOL. Even the assassination of Jo Cox was treated by Corbyn as a shocking and unexpected event, rather than a consequence of the virtual civil war taking place on the streets and across social media. Why didn’t Corbyn at that point demand that the whole campaign be called off? It had all gone too far, dangerous political currents were being unleashed. Even if legally there was little that could have been done to halt the vote, some proper outrage, and, dare I say it, some statesmanship was needed, but none ever came.
All that has unfolded since goes back to that time. It doesn’t appear to matter to Corbyn’s uncritical supporters that most Labour voters, even in Brexit voting constituencies, were Remainers. Brexit was framed as an authentic (white) working class position, whereas the cities where the most loyal Labour heartlands are, were dismissed as somehow inauthentic, too Gina Yashere, not enough Bernard Manning. That’s not a ‘class analysis’, comrades. It’s something else entirely.
Having decided on their perspective on Brexit, they used it as an explanatory tool to understand everything else. Crucially the 2017 general election.
Labour got a huge 40% of the vote in June 2017. The Tories got 42%. But let’s look at the local elections the month before. The Tories then got a respectable 38%, Labour a derisory 27%. What changed?
Corbyn’s supporters say he had a popular manifesto and ran a good campaign. There is some truth in both, plus there was a fair wind from the media, in that as no one thought Labour had a cat in hell’s chance of victory, they didn’t bother with a serious attack strategy against the party.
For the truth is that Labour’s lack of a clear strategy on Brexit was not a brilliant triangulation to hold together Leave and Remain voters. Remainers, including many tactical voters backed the party as a means of trying to stop May in her tracks. It wasn’t an unambiguously pro-Corbyn vote, it was anti-Tory. It was gained despite, not because of Labour’s position.
And so to the big failure of 2019. Follow it back to the beginning. Labour opted out of the only big political battle that mattered in the period 2016-19. It was absent from the biggest political movement on the streets, its banners missing from marches of a million people. Yet nor was it making the case for Brexit, if that is what the leader believed. It was a party making no meaningful offer to either side, and its late position of trying to ‘bring together’ both sides was a nice try, just either far too late, or far too early, but certainly, painfully mistimed.
For Labour to recover from the election defeat it needs to look long and hard at Brexit. Don’t try to fudge it again, don’t try to pretend that it’s all over now, nothing to see, move on. A proper post-mortem is necessary.
The next Labour leader needs to tell the party that Brexit remains a dangerous project of the hard-right which is not over, not done, nor will it be for a decade or more. The future, whether it’s around trade, the economy more broadly, or the key questions of security and the climate emergency, will require cooperation across borders, indeed the very notion of borders will become increasingly untenable.
Brexit sank Labour because it is useful only to the right. That’s the truth.