Corbyn and Labour will soon have to get off the Brexit fence
A long, drawn-out sigh of pained relief echoed across the parliamentary estate. Many Labour MPs rejoiced when their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appeared to finally commit the party to supporting a second referendum on Brexit. “We will back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous no-deal outcome,” he proclaimed last week.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement still cannot command parliamentary support. It remains anathema to all parts of Labour. Parliament rejected Corbyn’s Brexit plan that included joining a customs union with the EU. His party platform meant he had to back a second referendum.
The Labour leadership promised to put down an amendment to the PM’s motion on her withdrawal agreement on March 12. Corbyn made this move after the House of Commons rejected Labour’s Brexit plan.
But cynics argue Labour Remainers should not get too excited. Corbyn may well have calculated that, even with the support of many Labour MPs, a motion for a referendum was unlikely to pass. Would the leadership impose a three-line whip in an attempt to force Labour MPs to back this? Many Labour MPs are Brexiteers or part of a bloc that believes Labour must respect the 2016 referendum outcome that Britain exits the EU.
Why did Corbyn do this? The pressure had intensified with the departure of eight Labour MPs, as they defected last month to form a new Independent Group. All these were trouble-makers for the Labour leadership. The fear for Corbyn was this would just be the first of a wave. Endless rumors envisaged 50 to 70 other MPs jumping too. The Independent Group’s polling figures were also impressive for such a new grouping.
With less than a month to go until Brexit, neither the government nor the Labour Party have a coherent position on what should happen.
Deputy Leader Tom Watson (not a Corbyn fan) is now a key focal point for dissent. Watson was hardly supportive when asked if Corbyn was fit to become prime minister. “He could easily be… But we could do without the anti-Semitism.”
Corbyn still faces an anti-Semitism crisis — it has engulfed Labour ever since he became leader. Many of those who left the party claimed the party was institutionally anti-Semitic. This is an issue that will not go away. Whilst there may be debates on how extensive an issue it is within the party, Corbyn has not led on the matter. He is permanently stuck on the back foot.
One of the features of the entire Brexit process has been the startling failure of the Labour Party to mount any discernible fight against the British government’s plans. The role of an opposition is not just to oppose but to scrutinize government policies and actions. As Britain teeters on the cusp of this extraordinary, self-inflicted political and economic disaster of a hard Brexit, the Labour Party remains marginalized. It is a sideshow to enduring civil war in the Conservative Party.
Britain has a prime minister who loses parliamentary votes for fun. Her Conservative MPs forced a vote of no confidence in her and she struggled to get a majority of her own party to back her. May has overseen jaw-droppingly inept negotiations with Brussels. This is a government that has just wasted £33 million ($43 million) of taxpayers’ money by mucking up ferry contracts.
Any half-decent opposition would be far ahead in the polls. If it was a road race, they would be lapping the government. Instead, Labour either lags behind or, at best, is on level pegging with the Tories. One YouGov poll in late February had the Tories leading by 11 points, 41 percent to 30, the largest gap since the 2017 election.
With less than a month to go until Brexit, neither the government nor the Labour Party have a coherent position on what should happen. Labour policy on the EU tries to appease all sides: The largely remain voters of London and the south, and the leave constituencies in the north.
Yet this is a fence not designed for sitting on. Labour Remainers know Corbyn is historically anti-EU and almost certainly a Brexiteer in private. Labour Leavers do not fully trust him, as he semi-campaigned to stay in the EU and the Parliamentary Labour Party is heavily pro-Europe in character. The election numbers also do not help. If Labour is going to win an election, it has to win 45 target seats — and 35 of these voted to leave the EU. Out of its 20 most vulnerable seats, 16 voted to leave. The Labour leadership focuses more than anything on a future election, even more than the Brexit outcome.
As March 29 approaches, the fence-sitting becomes even more painful as PM May runs down the clock. Corbyn probably still harbors the hope that the Conservatives will just crack on with leaving the EU, allowing him to avoid tough, divisive decisions. This is looking less and less likely. He will face difficult calls over the next month, and with a parliamentary party heading even further out of his control.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech