Labour’s leader only lis­tens to the Leavers. Why?

The Observer - - In My View - Wil­liam Kee­gan  @williamkee­gan

‘So what,” the school­boy son of a friend asked, while be­ing forced to lis­ten to the To­day pro­gramme on the school run, “was pol­i­tics be­fore Brexit?” This brought back mem­o­ries of my own naive in­quiry of my fa­ther at the end of the sec­ond world war: “Will there be any more news, Daddy?” Not too en­light­ened for an em­bry­onic jour­nal­ist, but you can see the point.

Many peo­ple, not least your cor­re­spon­dent, are con­cerned about the way the threat of Brexit has been di­vert­ing at­ten­tion from a host of eco­nomic and so­cial prob­lems. Yet the fo­cus on Brexit is nec­es­sary, be­cause if it were al­lowed to go ahead, in any form, it would mag­nify those do­mes­tic prob­lems, and be al­most bound to have a dele­te­ri­ous im­pact on in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

As it is, I am lost in ad­mi­ra­tion for the way our Euro­pean part­ners have put up with our min­is­ters mak­ing ju­ve­nile com­plaints about them – for all the world as if the other 27 had made a re­quest to aban­don us, rather than the re­verse.

As one of my Brus­sels con­tacts wrote to me in a New Year mes­sage: “We are watch­ing with hard-tode­scribe feel­ings.”

Now, in com­mon, I imag­ine, with many oth­ers, I find my­self watch­ing the be­hav­iour of the leader of the Labour party with hardto-de­scribe feel­ings. My feel­ings to­wards some of his col­leagues are eas­ier to de­scribe. It is ob­vi­ous that Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, has been do­ing his level best to try to knock some sense into Cor­byn. The lat­ter’s re­cent rev­e­la­tion in the Guardian to my col­league Heather Ste­wart that, if elected prime min­is­ter he planned to go ahead with Brexit, was deeply of­fen­sive to the vast ma­jor­ity of Labour mem­bers, who are Re­main­ers.

Per­haps Cor­byn thinks he has been play­ing a clever game, keep­ing the Leave mi­nor­ity of Labour vot­ers on board. How­ever, this is at the ex­pense of alien­at­ing the vast ma­jor­ity.

Given the pop­u­lar view that the ref­er­en­dum re­sult was prin­ci­pally swayed by the dis­con­tent of the “left be­hind” and those with “noth­ing to lose”, I was in­ter­ested in the point Cor­byn made last week that the left-be­hind in Mans­field may have voted Leave but the left-be­hind in Tot­ten­ham elected to Re­main.

But what do you make of a so­called leader of the op­po­si­tion who “can­not wish away the votes of 17 mil­lion peo­ple who wanted to leave”? What this means, given the pre­pon­der­ance of Labour peo­ple who voted to re­main, is that a Labour leader af­fects to be swayed more by the Con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers whose gov­ern­ment he wishes to dis­lodge. It is as if, in the early 1980s, he would have opted for Thatcherism, or sado-mon­e­tarism, be­cause more Con­ser­va­tives voted for what the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of that era be­came.

Cor­byn is a walk­ing and talk­ing dis­as­ter. Just imag­ine how dif­fer­ent things would be now if the in­creas­ingly im­pres­sive Yvette Cooper had beaten him to the Labour lead­er­ship. She is right to back an ex­ten­sion to ar­ti­cle 50 – a move also cham­pi­oned by the es­timable Lord Kerr, who, when in the For­eign Of­fice, ac­tu­ally drafted ar­ti­cle 50.

Bad busi­ness, ref­er­en­dums, cre­at­ing the op­por­tu­nity for the sur­fac­ing of dis­con­tents that of­ten have noth­ing to do with the nom­i­nal is­sue at hand. And I keep hav­ing to re­mind peo­ple that a host of very pros­per­ous peo­ple voted Leave, for rea­sons best known to them­selves.

Nev­er­the­less, bad busi­ness though ref­er­en­dums may be, it seems to me that we are mov­ing to­wards the need for yet an­other – a ref­er­en­dum to end ref­er­en­dums.

Now, as Robert Shrim­s­ley ob­serves in the Fi­nan­cial Times, a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum re­quires Cor­byn’s sup­port, but “that sup­port is not forth­com­ing since he is not in­ter­ested in stop­ping Brexit, only in bring­ing down the gov­ern­ment”. But the truth that dare not speak its name is that, in the face of the worst Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment most peo­ple can re­mem­ber, Labour should be 20 or 30 points ahead in the polls. One has an aw­ful sus­pi­cion that Cor­byn is in­ca­pable of win­ning an elec­tion any­way.

Good luck to Starmer, Cooper, Hi­lary Benn and oth­ers in try­ing to bring their leader to his senses. He it was who de­creed that Labour party pol­icy should be de­ter­mined by the mem­bers. I don’t know Cor­byn’s taste in mu­sic, but my friend the im­pre­sario Lee Men­zies re­cently re­minded me of that Ira Gersh­win line: “Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Wil­liam Kee­gan’s new book, Nine Crises – Fifty Years of Cov­er­ing the Bri­tish Econ­omy From De­val­u­a­tion To Brexit, will be pub­lished by Bite­back on Thurs­day 24 Jan­uary

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