Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 3 May 2019

Labour Remainers can no longer trust Corbyn not to do a deal with May

I have argued in an earlier post that it is highly unlikely that Labour could get Brexit through parliament after winning an election, because the Tories will unite to oppose it, and they together with Labour Remain MPs would defeat it. The NEC recently agreed they want a People’s Vote on any Brexit that the Labour leadership disagree with. So the only way that Labour’s current policy might allow Brexit without a People’s Vote is if the Labour leadership come to some accord with Theresa May and her government.

The general expectation has been that a deal between May and the Labour leadership on Brexit is pretty unlikely. With many senior ministers focused on who will succeed May as Prime Minister, any deal with Labour is likely to see May’s cabinet collapse. The same should apply to the Labour side. The Tories are suffering because they are totally split and take the blame for not delivering Brexit. Why would Labour want to take joint ownership of this toxic project? Even if May and Corbyn could agree, the chances of any deal getting through parliament without a People’s Vote also attached are slim.

But May has nothing to lose, and unfortunately the reality as a result of Tuesday’s NEC decision is that Labour Remainers cannot trust Corbyn over Brexit. The argument before the 2017 election that Corbyn’s stance was just triangulation, or an attempt to shift the debate on to ground where Labour have an advantage, no longer holds because opinion has shifted to Remain, and a recent UCL study shows the switchers are predominantly Labour voters. The same study shows that for Labour, at least a fifth of their voters in every region say they are going to vote for a different party – and in every region defecting voters are overwhelming plumping for parties holding a definite Remain position. As Peter Kellner points out “Labour voters in Leave areas now back Remain by a margin of more than three to one.”

The excuses for Labour’s equivocation have therefore melted away. It looks more and more that Corbyn wants to avoid an unqualified commitment to a People’s Vote because he wants the path clear to do a Brexit deal with the government. That is obviously not in the interests of Remain voters. It is also a huge hit to his brand: the leader of principle who will give power back to Labour members. Remain voters' obvious response is to vote for one of the clear Remain parties. This is what seems to have happened in the local election today, and it will happen again in the elections for the European parliament.

There are two objections to Labour voters doing this. The first, and more powerful, is that seats in the European Parliament matter, and the more left leaning MEPs there are the better. If Corbyn is unsuccessful in doing a deal with the government, or if that agreement collapses, then this is a real cost. The second argument is that not voting Labour makes it more likely Farage will win the election. But as I have argued elsewhere, its votes not seats that matter in that election. Labour voters are going to keep forsaking their party as long as their commitment to People’s Vote is less than 100%.


  1. I just don't trust Corbyn

  2. This is getting very confusing. Your MEPs prediction: Labour remain voters will vote for remain candidates. Your objecton 1: this will lead to a decline in left-leaning MEPs. Your objection 2: Brexit Party will win the MEP election. Yet it is Corbyn who is betraying the majority? "Seats in the EU Parliament matter"..."it's votes not seats that matter in that [MEP] election"??? If uniting the country and not merely the Party is a worthy objective for a politician, Corbyn's policy (which is also NEC policy, which was also debated voted on and adopted by the plenary AGM) looks quite statesman-like, reasoned and principled.

  3. Corbyn and his team will keep their commitment to BREXIT, so long as he is Leader then Labour is de facto a Leave party.

    I am genuinely puzzled that so many people have tried for so long to read into team JC actions a hidden remain message.

    Corbyn and his team want BREXIT, they tell us this all the time (the European manifesto, Rebecca Long-B said deal on cards to get out at weekend with no vote, John McD tweeted hints of this today as has Lavery).

    I do wonder even if JC goes onto the Mall and shouts at a stranger in the face (in full view of media on live TV) "I hate the EU and I want out now" whether I would not read someone saying "Look JC is just respecting the vote, he is working to move the debate, he cant move too far ahead of the public he is shifting the argument and by the way listen to nice Tom Watson. Vote Labour remainers, it will be fine."

    There is a perfectly reasonable case, which is BREXIT is a minor issue, that I buy into all the rest of JC and will vote on balance for it. Fair enough, but if so I'd dial down the rhetoric that BREXIT is a disaster. Rather I'd say, vote JCs Labour and accept that BREXIT is the price I will pay.

    If people do really believe BREXIT is the defining issue for the country, I would suggest that continuing to vote for and advocate for JC's Labour is to some extent intellectually dishonest. Vote and advocate for Green, TIG or Lib Dem, saying "I prefer Labour policies on these issues, but BREXIT is the issue of our age for me and the price is worth paying"

  4. I wouldn't be so gung-ho about a People's Vote. A lot of brexit supporters have been called stupid and worse. There is very likely a large bias in surveys with remainers being loud and leavers being secretive about their actual position.

  5. It's not often I disagree with your blogs, and I had a panicky moment or two when I read this one, but on reflection, a “Corbyn/May deal" seems deeply improbable.

    Corbyn would be a very poor politician if he failed to realise it would be the end of his leadership - and possibly the end of the Labour Party as a serious political force. Remain supporting Labour members would never forgive him, and quite possibly the party, the overwhelming majority of our MP's oppose Brexit, and Corbyn's personal credibility relies strongly on his commitment to party democracy, for him, ignoring a conference vote is almost unthinkable.

    I suspect we are seeing another “perfect storm” generated by the same toxic mix of disinformation, social media hysteria and a deeply complicit media that created Brexit in the first place. Labour's equivocation was used as a powerful weapon in the local elections, especially by Lib Dems. The "only lib dems can stop brexit" message, has generated an almost hysterical hostility to Labour and Corbyn in particular, it looks like the main source of the “Corbyn and May being close to a deal" story is Conservative mischief making and we all know about the media.

    Labour's policy of lukewarm "respect for the referendum" has always been about more than something as mechanistic as triangulation. When the Parliamentary action to implement Brexit began with the article 50 debate, we were briefed by our MP. Two of the justifications for the “Labour Brexit position” were democratic legitimacy and the fear outright opposition to the referendum result would drive significant numbers of working class Labour supporters into the arms of the far right, possibly permanently.

    Both these issues still hold good. On democratic legitimacy opinions are shifting - but as the local election results demonstrated, Labour suffered most in the strong labour leave areas. Would wholesale support for a PV right now create a backlash, even reverse the softening of of leaver mood? It’s very delicate. Many working class voters teeter on the brink: "do I stick with Labour or to I express my rage with a vote for Farage". These are often Labour supporters who vote with hearts more than minds. Once they fall out of love they may well never come back.

    In a rational political world there’s no reason to change policy right now - it’s not referendum time - it’s euro election time. “Labour betrayal” has become an almost hysterical cry from remainers and the misguided campaign to use the euro elections as an informal referendum on Brexit already almost guarantees Farage a morale boosting victory (and will inflict a bunch of far right thugs on the European Parliament for the next 5 years). A Labour switch on PV right now serves no rational political purpose other than appeasing remainer demons and risks handing Farage even more seats - and I suspect it was the reason the NEC took the course it did.

    I’ve written a few blogs offering gut reactions to Labour policy on Brexit - and I’ve been wrong every time - I hope this is one of yours!

  6. Corbyn's support for Brexit makes no electoral or political sense. I can only assume that, like many Brexiters, he has an irrational prejudice towards the EU and seeks to back it up with insufficient arguments. In his case, it's the old "will of the people" chestnut.

    I strongly suspect that the Tory-Labour Brexit talks will break down this week, with each side blaming the other for the failure. I have no idea what will happen next - more indicative votes or another push for a meaningful vote, perhaps?

    Even if Labour does come out clearly for a second referendum on May's Brexit or on any Brexit, a lot of reputational damage has been done. I think committed leavers and remainers both view Corbyn's Labour with a great deal of mistrust now. The constructive ambiguity tactic only worked for a while and it must surely be considered a failure now. The party is losing life-long voters, and once they have committed the psychological taboo of voting for another party, it will be easier to do it again. Many of them won't be back. The failure to capitalise on May's disastrous reign has been astounding.


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