May 28, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
When Corbyn was elected in September 2015 nobody could have known how much Brexit would matter. Corbyn’s indifference to it is hurting his party’s hopes.
I say this with genuine sincerity – the best chapter in ‘How to Lose a Referendum‘ is ‘Agent Corbyn’, written by Jason. I still remember reading it when he sent it to me (it was one of the first he wrote) and thinking that I might not be able to match that sharpness of analysis and quality of writing. Our Editor agreed!
The reason it was so good was because Jason had gone into assessing Corbyn’s role in the 2016 Referendum with open eyes. The idea was to see if it were true that, as many disappointed Remainers claimed, Corbyn had ‘lost’ the Referendum. The answer is instructive even today as the ashes of Labour’s terrible EU election campaign are raked over.
‘Agent Corbyn’ was a nickname some in the Leave campaign gave him. They saw him mumbling incoherently at press conferences, giving the EU seven out of ten on a late night TV show, and refusing to work with other party leaders. It was almost like he was ‘one of theirs’.
This was also levelled by Remainers, who argued that Corbyn was simply a Brexiter. So he wanted Leave to win and went about helping them do so.
Jason looked into this, and noted his consistent voting record against being in the EEC (1975) and any further integration (1987,1993,1999,2002,2008). He also noted various speeches Corbyn had made on the topic of Europe during his career, all of which varied on the theme of it being a ‘capitalist club’.
But, Jason notes, there was one place these speeches were absent. In Parliament. Corbyn never spoke in any debates on the EU in Parliament. On Iraq and Afghanistan, he spoke. On Palestine, he spoke. On Thatcher’s economics, he spoke. On European integration, nothing.
What does this tell us? It tells us that Jeremy Corbyn is indifferent to Europe. It tells us that whilst he has his views on it, it’s all a bit ‘meh’ to him. He can see some benefits, and he can see some costs of EU membership for Britain, and whilst he probably comes down in favour of the costs being heavier, it is not even important enough to be a secondary issue for him.
Why does this matter? It matters because right now Brexit is everything in UK politics, and the leader of the opposition has nothing to say about it, and is certainly not prepared to put it above issues of more importance to him.
This meant that during the Referendum campaign this most authentic of politicians couldn’t find the language nor muster the enthusiasm to campaign properly. The campaign-hardened veteran rabble-rouser just couldn’t manage to show he cared either way, but particularly for the side he accidentally found himself on. Unlike on Palestine, Iraq and socialist economics, he had made so few speeches on Europe that he had little he could rehash.
Bringing us up-to-date – witness the constant attempts during the EU elections to say that it isn’t Remain vs Leave that matters, but the many vs the few. Sorry, but that is simply not the case right now.
Sara Binzer Hobolt of the LSE is working on a concept called ‘affective polarisation’. It describes how the country is now divided on Remain Leave lives more than it has been divided on anything before. It is not just affecting votes either. It is affecting choice of lodger, choice of date, choice of friend. Labour’s policy of constructive ambiguity may have run its course.
The problem is that – and this is nothing against Jeremy Corbyn’s economic and social policies, which are an interesting and radical approach to the inequality and injustice he sees in the world – the Labour Party will not win a General Election unless it picks ONE side of this polarisation, and sticks with it.
Given that side would have to be Remain, as they can’t out-Brexit the Tories or the Brexit Party, they need someone who can clearly communicate the benefits of being the EU if they want to win a General Election as a party of Remain.
Corbyn simply can’t do that. He also can’t clearly communicate the benefits of NOT being in the EU, by the way.
Which is why I fear Jeremy Corbyn might be the right person for the Labour Party, but at the wrong time.