It’s clear that Cor­byn wants a hard Brexit

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Rafael Behr,

Jeremy Cor­byn does not have a bet­ter plan for Brexit than Theresa May but, so far, he hasn’t needed one. Af­ter the ref­er­en­dum, the prime min­is­ter and the Labour leader em­barked on par­al­lel jour­neys, each car­ry­ing prom­ises of pain­less, cost-free re­lease from EU mem­ber­ship. May’s path was harder. Her pledges were snagged on gov­ern­ing re­al­ity, skew­ered by Brus­sels, hung up on par­lia­men­tary arith­metic. Op­po­si­tion has pro­tected Cor­byn from those jagged edges, but he can­not avoid them for ever. Re­bel­lion in the House of Lords has brought them un­com­fort­ably close.

The up­per cham­ber has rewrit­ten the EU with­drawal bill so it urges the gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate a much softer Brexit. More than 80 Labour peers de­fied their whips to support mem­ber­ship of the Eu­ro­pean Eco­nomic Area, thereby pre­serv­ing Bri­tish in­te­gra­tion in the sin­gle mar­ket. There are MPs from all par­ties who will want to en­dorse that amend­ment when it comes back to the Com­mons. They see the EEA as the least-dam­ag­ing Brexit model: a safety net for jobs and in­vest­ment.

At a fac­tory in Es­sex yes­ter­day, three po­lit­i­cal grandees gath­ered to make that ar­gu­ment: David Miliband, for­mer Labour for­eign sec­re­tary; Nick Clegg, for­mer Lib­eral Demo­crat leader; and Nicky Mor­gan, Tory chair of the Trea­sury se­lect com­mit­tee. The in­tended sym­bol­ism of the trip­tych was that avert­ing a hard Brexit is a mis­sion that tran­scends party bound­aries.

That mes­sage might res­onate with some non­aligned vot­ers, but it is hard to imag­ine a col­lec­tion of mes­sen­gers less likely to shift opin­ion in Cor­byn’s camp. The of­fi­cial Labour view is that sin­gle mar­ket mem­ber­ship is in­com­pat­i­ble with the ref­er­en­dum re­sult. That is a fac­sim­ile of May’s ar­gu­ment. It is also un­true. The bal­lot pa­per had no sub­sidiary ques­tions on post-EU ar­range­ments. So why is Labour pump­ing up the tyres on May’s hard Brexit bus?

Three rea­sons stand out. First: a fear of be­ing cast as Europhile sabo­teurs. In le­gal terms, the EEA is not the Eu­ro­pean Union, but in cul­tural terms the ac­cu­sa­tion of a sell­out res­onates with many leave vot­ers. Labour is not polling well enough in ar­eas that voted for Brexit to risk let­ting off a re­main-themed fire­work in par­lia­ment.

Sec­ond: squeamish­ness about im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy – EEA mem­ber­ship would pre­serve free labour move­ment. That doesn’t have to mean to­tally un­reg­u­lated bor­ders: there are mech­a­nisms such as work per­mits for man­ag­ing mi­gra­tion. But to ad­ver­tise them, Labour would have to take the ini­tia­tive on a sub­ject that is fraught with risk. Per­ceived soft­ness on im­mi­gra­tion costs the party votes, while any hard­en­ing of rhetoric would jar with Cor­byn’s car­ing brand. By re­ject­ing the sin­gle mar­ket he can be strict on bor­ders with­out sound­ing mean to for­eign­ers.

Third: there is ide­o­log­i­cal hos­til­ity to sin­gle mar­ket rules pro­hibit­ing cer­tain forms of in­dus­trial sub­sidy. Those re­stric­tions, it is ar­gued, would ob­struct a rad­i­cal-left eco­nomic pro­gramme. Whether that is true de­pends on how rad­i­cal and how left you want to go. Ev­ery­thing in Cor­byn’s 2017 man­i­festo could have been im­ple­mented within ex­ist­ing EU rules. The leader’s of­fice might be fizzing with more dras­tic anti-cap­i­tal­ist plans, but no one says what they are.

The ar­gu­ments over Labour’s Brexit po­si­tion are a tan­gle of dogma, ide­al­ism and prag­ma­tism. They don’t map neatly on to the out­dated scheme of a Cor­bynite move­ment in con­flict with a Blairite re­ac­tion. There are Mo­men­tum ac­tivists who burn with the spirit of re­main. There are Labour MPs who would bury Cor­bynism but also bow to the Eu­roscep­tic will of their con­stituents.

The more fun­da­men­tal dis­tinc­tion is be­tween those who be­lieve any Labour gov­ern­ment is al­ways bet­ter than any al­ter­na­tive, and those who don’t. For tribal loy­al­ists, Brexit strat­egy is sub­or­di­nate to the goal of beat­ing the Tories. That is the lens the lead­er­ship ap­plies and it would be bizarre if it didn’t. Then there is the ethos ex­pressed by Miliband, Clegg and Mor­gan yes­ter­day, that get­ting Brexit right is in the na­tional in­ter­est, big­ger than any party. There are Labour back­benchers who have no af­fec­tion for the cur­rent lead­er­ship but can­not imag­ine cam­paign­ing in a rosette that isn’t red. But oth­ers have crossed that psy­cho­log­i­cal Ru­bi­con. Their al­le­giance is more re­main than Labour. They will vote ac­cord­ingly.

Be­yond par­lia­ment, many of Cor­byn’s en­thu­si­as­tic younger fans are also ea­ger re­main­ers. The lead­er­ship strat­egy seems to be to per­suade them that leav­ing the EU is only a dis­as­ter be­cause it is be­ing or­gan­ised by Tories. It is true Cor­byn com­mands phe­nom­e­nal amounts of trust. But many of his sup­port­ers also want to stop Brexit, or at least to vote on it again.

Cor­byn’s ea­ger ac­cep­tance of the ref­er­en­dum re­sult could, at first, be lauded as ful­fill­ing his duty as a demo­crat. The same could just about be said when he voted for ar­ti­cle 50 and again when he ran on a proBrexit man­i­festo. When he sacked a shadow cabi­net min­is­ter who called for an­other ref­er­en­dum, it was a ques­tion of loy­alty and dis­ci­pline … But then, why doesn’t Cor­byn want a pub­lic vote on the fi­nal deal? Why would he whip MPs to ab­stain in a vote to make Brexit softer? Why take the af­ter­noon off to make a Tory prime min­is­ter’s job eas­ier?

At some point even the most in­dul­gent au­di­ence will see these as the choices of a leader who not only likes Brexit, but likes it hard. Then the ques­tion is whether Labour re­main­ers trust Cor­byn more than they hate leav­ing the EU. How far can he test their pa­tience? He seems de­ter­mined to find out.

Miliband, Clegg and Mor­gan: it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a group of mes­sen­gers less likely to shift opin­ion in his camp

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MATT CARDY/GETTY IMAGES

Jeremy Cor­byn at a Labour party rally in 2016

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