Those who argue that a Corbyn led Labour party can never win a general election need to remember the days after the 2017 election, when Labour were ahead in the polls. Contrast Corbyn’s and May’s reactions to the Grenfell fire, and don’t imagine Johnson would be much better than May. Grenfell itself was a consequence of a ‘let’s end red tape, private sector knows best’ culture that is still rife in the Conservative party, and will not change if a Conservative is Prime Minister after the next election, whether that is a majority or minority government.
In those days Brexit was still relatively new, its impact on the economy had only been partially felt, and frankly it’s stupidity not fully realised. The implications for Ireland were not yet widely understood. Brexit seemed inevitable, and the Remain movement was very young. Labour were successfully triangulating over Brexit, and so the leadership’s position on the issue was compatible with the membership. But I could see back in 2016 that this was the position Corbyn himself was too comfortable with: respecting the referendum result by enacting some sort of soft Brexit. For whatever reason (his own previous views, genuine belief that the referendum has to be implemented, influential people around him) he would be very reluctant to move from that position.
As it became clearer that May was determined to implement a hard Brexit, and that parliament was unlikely to pass it because members of the ERG were determined to go for No Deal, and as the Remain movement grew, attitudes within the Labour membership began to change. As time went on it became clearer that the Leave campaign had lied about almost everything, and especially about the deal we could get from the EU. As people changed their minds and it became clear there were many different Brexits and the referendum was not a mandate for any particular one, the need for a second referendum became clearer.
The argument that Labour had to support Brexit to win any general election, that was plausible in 2017, became less and less relevant as Remain opinions hardened. Evidence began to accumulate about the flaws in that position. While most constituencies Labour needed to win might have had in 2016 a majority that voted to Leave, most Labour voters in those constituencies voted Remain. Furthermore, as many poorer Leave voters began to change their minds about Brexit, the number of marginals that were Remain came to equal those that were Leave.
The implicit belief among many was that Remainers had nowhere to go beside Labour. But this was never true. When I wrote this in December 2018 I did not anticipate the exact form in which Labour voters who were Remain would stop voting Labour, but it was clear from polls it would happen. But too many in Labour dismissed the Remain movement as a centrist plot, a continuation of the battle for power within Labour. Of course anti-Corbyn people would use any means to attack him, but the fact was Remain was a mass movement that contained many Labour members that had elected Corbyn, and voters who had chosen Labour in 2017, all of whom Labour were in danger of ignoring.
The rest, as they say, is history. An additional fatal mistake was for Labour to spend too much time in negotiations with May in a futile attempt to find a Brexit they could agree on. This spooked Labour Remain voters, and they turned to the Liberal Democrats and Greens at the European elections. The polls from December became actual votes, and turned out to underestimate the extent voters would abandon Labour. Both Labour and the Conservatives had to respond to those elections. The Conservatives did so by becoming the Brexit party, and gained back much of their losses from the European elections. Labour moved an inch, and did not gain enough.
The Labour leadership, by refusing to move with Labour members on Brexit, have single-handedly revived the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. In a straight fight between Johnson and Corbyn, Corbyn would win. But with the LibDems attracting vital votes in Labour/Conservative marginals, the result is unclear. That already means that Corbyn's stubbornness over the summer on Brexit has put the election at risk. Without additional tactical voting, the current polls suggest the Conservatives would get an overall majority, and No Deal or the hardest of Brexits is bound to follow. This is Johnson’s and Cummings' central plan.
The move to guarantee a People’s Vote is important and should be retained. But although some voters are prepared to vote tactically to get it, others like voting for a party that reflects their view. The image of Corbyn holding out for Brexit is now well and truly planted in many people’s minds. Yet it was never too late for Labour to declare itself a Remain party. The shadow Chancellor, the shadow Foreign Secretary and even the shadow Brexit minister understand that, and have been open about campaigning for Remain in any referendum. If Corbyn had changed his position before the party conference he could have persuaded enough trade unions to back a policy where Labour always campaigns for Remain in any referendum for it to be carried on the conference floor. A show of unity around that position at conference would have sent a powerful message. It is a message that the LibDems and Conservatives feared.
Instead we have the party going into an election promising a People’s Vote, but telling voters that who they will support will be announced later. A party that overwhelmingly campaigned for Remain in 2016 is now sitting on the fence. I listened to the Brexit debate, and for the most part it was as if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, and the european elections had not happened. The main argument those rejecting the Remain motion had was that conference needed to support Jeremy Corbyn. They may have sung Oh Jeremy Corbyn in the hall but the parties that will be really rejoicing at this result are the LibDems and the Conservative party.
So Labour will go into the next election saying vote for us and on the crucial issue of the day, the issue that has dominated the last three years, and we will let you know what our policy is around 3 months after we win. They are hoping what happened in 2017 will happen again because Remainers in marginal Lab/Con seats understand that they gain nothing by not voting Labour. But as I've tried to point out, many things have changed in the last two and a half years. Corbyn's strategy is a huge risk, an immense risk, and one that has been taken because of one man alone, and for an overwhelmingly Remain party a needless risk.
It is needless and pointless because a Corbyn government can never enact Brexit. Corbyn may be able to carry the conference hall, but even if he wins an election with an outright majority he will never carry enough MPs to back whatever soft Brexit deal he comes up with. The Conservatives are bound to vote against, as will LibDems, the SNP and at least half Labour MPs. If it gets to a referendum he will fail because Remainers will back Remain and most Leavers will fail to vote for a policy the Brexit press will brand as making the UK a vassal state. Brexit will die under a Labour government, but we may not get a Labour government because Corbyn refuses to admit it.