• Off The Fence – In The Right Direction

    Jeremy Corbyn, we are told, is being advised – not least by his deputy (as well as by some of his would-be successors) – that he must come “off the fence” on the Brexit issue if he wants to bolster Labour’s chances in a general election.

    Those offering this advice clearly have in mind that he should declare himself and the Labour party as supporting the Remain option – positioning themselves, in other words, amongst those who would defy the decision taken by the British people in a democratic vote on this centrally important issue.

    How sensible and well-founded is this advice? The first point to make is that such a step would represent for Corbyn, even if the advice were both well-intentioned and well-founded, a reversal of his own personal convictions and, as such, would signal his willingness to put electoral considerations above principle – hardly an approach that would commend itself to large numbers of his own supporters and voters who rightly expect more from someone who presents himself as a conviction politician.

    That in itself would lead him, one hopes, to reject such advice. But, of equal significance, it is highly doubtful that the recommended course of action would produce the electoral benefits claimed for it.

    Jeremy Corbyn, more than any of those tendering such advice, understands very well why so many Labour voters voted Leave. They had had enough of being ignored, of no one listening to their catalogue of complaints about EU membership, of their day-by-day experience of lost jobs and pressure on their housing, on health and other public services, of their sense of having ceded the power of self-government to a foreign entity.

    He understands how mistaken is the vision peddled by Remainers of the EU as a socialist nirvana, how incompatible is this idealised version of the EU with the reality of one dominated by unelected bankers and bureaucrats, and committed to serving the interests of multinational corporations and neo-liberal doctrines.

    He knows that this perception on the part of so many voters (and especially so many potential and actual Labour voters) that the EU serves the interests of the few could only be magnified by any proposal that the referendum result should be over-ridden.

    Yes, there is an argument from the viewpoint of seeking electoral advantage for coming off the fence – but the direction of the dismounting should surely be towards a greater and more clear-cut commitment to giving effect to the Leave vote.

    It is surely the case that Labour’s (and Corbyn’s) ambivalence on the issue has handed huge gains to Labour’s competitors from all parts of the Brexit spectrum. Labour voters – both actual and potential – who value democracy and self-government and who agree with or at least respect the referendum decision have been tempted by the certainty of the Brexit party’s position, while those of the Remain persuasion, who would like to see Labour taking a more pro-EU stance have not been convinced by Corbyn’s shilly-shallying but have transferred their allegiance to the Liberals and Greens.

    The net result of Corbyn’s stance so far is to have re-shaped the political landscape – and against Labour’s interests. It has handed the Tories the opportunity to replace an unpopular and ineffectual leader with someone of much greater popular appeal and to provide him with a ready-made campaigning issue – support for democracy and standing up for Britain’s interests – which will be hard to counter in a forthcoming general election campaign.

    Jeremy Corbyn should, in other words, ignore the siren voices which offer a mistaken vision of electoral success if only he would reverse direction by committing Labour to the Remain cause and proclaiming that the referendum majority got it wrong.

    Such a course of action could only compound Labour’s problems. The best course would be to stay true to Labour’s basic values of democracy and self-government, and to give priority to the many not the few.

    Bryan Gould
    4 July 2019