CORBYN AND BREXIT: BETTER OFF STAYING QUIET?

by James Anthony

Having initially been amused at Labour’s new policy on Brexit being described as ‘Evolution not Revolution’ – a line straight out of the first episode of I’m Alan Partridge – I found it interesting that many news sites and papers were suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn will use a speech on Monday to bring a little more clarity over his party’s position on Brexit. Much like Alan, Corbyn will want to be seen to ‘evolve not revolve’, but one thing has been increasingly clear over the past year or so –  Labour’s lines of attack on the government have certainly not ‘revolved’ around Brexit.

Many have accused Labour of being unclear or rather ambivalent about their stance on the UK leaving the European Union. However, electorally at least, this has worked very well for the Labour party and I believe it would be a mistake for them to deviate from this stance.

Voting for Remain or for Leave did to some extent transcend traditional support of political parties and many would have stayed with their favoured party regardless of their vote in the referendum. There were however clearly some individuals unhappy with Labour largely backing Remain following the initial referendum in June 2016, and another handful who deserted the party in early 2017 over most of their MPs seemingly siding with the government and voting in favour of triggering Article 50. Anecdotally, I didn’t find a huge amount of either of these groups on the doorstep during the last General Election. When I did, it appeared to be that those who had switched their votes over Brexit had changed their minds long ago, and switching allegiances over Brexit either way had largely finished by the time Article 50 was triggered.

Labour’s lines of attack on the government have certainly not ‘revolved’ around Brexit

My own city of Norwich – especially the result in the constituency of Norwich South – was one of the best examples of this. Admittedly, Clive Lewis was clearly more pro-EU than the rest of his party, but the national Labour campaign hardly mentioned Brexit and this was predicted to hurt them in seats with a big Remain majority. The expected beneficiaries of this, the decidedly pro-Remain Greens and Lib Dems, only received 8.4% of the total vote in Norwich South. Far from costing them, the stepping back from Brexit by Labour allowed their MPs to have an individual stance on Brexit and meant the party could benefit from a Brexit policy that could cater to both Remainers and Leavers.

(Banksy does Brexit (detail) via Duncan Hall / Flickr. Creative Commons License)

This was a pattern that repeated across the country, and the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP struggled at the ballot box despite having a very clear Brexit policy. At the other end of the spectrum, both the explicitly pro-Leave Conservatives and UKIP lost ground in terms of seats and failed to capitalise on being on the ‘winning side’ of the referendum a year earlier. The party the gained the most at the 2017 General Election? The Labour Party. A group with a wishy-washy, deliberately downplayed stance on Brexit.

In my view, they would be far better off sitting back and letting the Tories deal with the seemingly impossible puzzle of leaving the European Union. The Conservative party are not only divided over Brexit, but are seriously struggling to deal with the negotiation process and their perception amongst voters because of it. Day after day we see an increasing number of headlines branding them incompetent, ill-prepared and unreasonable. The issue of Brexit is generating constant bad press for the Tories and with public confidence in the government over Brexit looking particularly low recently – Corbyn would benefit simply from stepping back and letting the Conservatives destroy their own reputation.

Corbyn would benefit simply from stepping back and letting the Conservatives destroy their own reputation

I’m not convinced that in setting out “the principles [Labour] would want to achieve in the negotiation” Jeremy Corbyn can say anything about Brexit that will gain them any new supporters. Unless (in the incredibly unlikely event) Labour come out and pledge to reverse the Brexit process most hardcore Remainers will be sticking with the Lib Dems and the Greens, and Leavers would be even less inclined to back the Labour Party if they come out in favour of keeping within some sort of single market as the press indicate they may well do on Monday. Labour’s Brexit stance up until this point has clearly been working, and I’m certain that a change, however ‘evolutionary’ it may be, will not be the differential that shifts them consistently above the Tories in the incredibly tight polls of recent weeks.

It comes back to the old saying of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ – and Labour’s campaign strategy is anything but ‘broke’, as we saw in the General Election of the summer. Staying quieter about leaving the European Union has served them very well in the past and I believe that this coming Monday, for their continued success – Corbyn should have a rethink about opening his mouth on Brexit policy.

Featured image: Pictured – Jeremy Corbyn. Via Sleeves Rolled Up / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

 


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