I’m not very good at predictions but one I made a couple of years ago has turned out to seem fairly prescient. Back in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn had just scraped onto the ballot for the Labour leadership, I noted that he was very strongly and consistently anti-EU and this in itself ought to give pause for thought even to eurosceptic Conservatives. For those who supported continuing EU membership at a time when David Cameron had won the first Conservative majority (what’s that?) in 23 years, having someone leading the Opposition, however scruffy and apparently unelectable, who firmly sided with Tony Benn in believing the EU to be an anti-democratic imposition of neoliberalism on the UK, should not have been seen as anything other than a huge threat. For those who supported Labour and its embrace of EU membership gained in the long struggle back to government after humiliation in 1983, it ought to have been reason enough to reject Corbyn.
But, as we know, nobody very much from any side of the political spectrum did notice or care very much about this, even if since the EU Referendum, Brexit is the biggest political issue we all face. Indeed, it isn’t so much that people didn’t notice, it’s more that they deliberately ignored the ample evidence of it as inconsistent with their broader perception of what Labour was offering on Brexit. Despite Corbyn having gone on TV the morning after the Referendum to say that Article 50 should be triggered immediately even now I hear his supporters say that that was either because he didn’t know the ramifications of doing so (which is an odd thing to call in support) or because he is a democrat and wanted to respect a result he did not want. Despite him having refused to share a platform with Cameron to campaign for Remain and been described by the leaders of the Labour In campaign to have barely participated in it, it is claimed that he worked tirelessly on the Remain side. Nipping off to Portugal for a holiday during the campaign is similarly dismissed as irrelevant, along with his expression of “7 out of 10” support for the EU on Channel 4’s Last Leg. Only last weekend, a Labour activist sincerely argued to me that in this year’s Labour Conference members will vote overwhelmingly for a second referendum and opposing Brexit, and that Corbyn will pursue that policy, despite having been re-elected as leader in a campaign where he denigrated Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum.
Detailed analysis of the 2017 General Election and attitudes of voters through the campaign from the British Election Study shows that not only was Brexit by a long margin the biggest issue informing who voters voted for but that Labour picked up a very big majority of the support of those who supported Remaining in the EU or having the “softest” Brexit possible and remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union . Individual Labour candidates did strongly pursue this line (including my local one who had criticised the LibDem MP he defeated for having sat on the fence by abstaining on the Article 50 Bill, proudly signed up to the Queens Speech amendment put forward by Chuka Umunna then promptly was persuaded to abstain, thereby avoiding censure in his first week on the job while other MPs lost their shadow ministerial posts over it). Overall, there was a perception that a Labour Brexit would somehow be softer and gentler than a Tory one, even though there was nothing in what Corbyn had ever said or his manifesto to support this.
Since then, Corbyn has railed against the “wholesale importation” of foreign workers and essentially moved to a position more strongly against free movement of workers than heard from anyone other than Nigel Farage. Farage approvingly described him for these comments as “almost a proper chap”. Given that Corbyn is unsurprisingly critical of the other fundamental freedoms of the EU there really isn’t any significant bit of the EU that he doesn’t have a basic problem with. If attempting to retain as many of the benefits of the Single Market as possible while no longer having free movement of workers is a difficult problem for David Davis, doing so while wishing to curtail free movement of goods, capital and freedom of establishment is an impossibility.
Where my 2015 warning went wrong was in expecting Corbyn to be open about his position on the EU and to have led the calls to leave. Instead, what has happened seems to be more subtle in that he did the least amount possible to support remaining in, which was just enough to prevent his largely pro-EU supporters and voters abandoning him, and then waited in hope that his ideal outcome of leaving the EU without any future relationship or agreement will transpire and for the Conservatives to take blame for something he could not have delivered on purpose. With no external check against subsidies or moving away from market economy principles coming from the EU, he would be free to pursue the Bennite dream of a socialist siege economy in the UK.
Whether he and those around him are clever enough to have done this on purpose, or that it is a happy coincidence, we’ll never know. But even on a purely partisan basis leaving aside any of the policy or political issues, it ought to have always been clear that the biggest beneficiary of a defeat for Remain in the referendum was going to be Corbyn because of the damage that defeat would inflict on Cameron. This may explain why he felt that he was strong enough to sack Hilary Benn and start to purge himself of the disloyal immediately after the referendum. That this benefit was not felt immediately is in large part down to the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership which followed, which was itself partly motivated by a significant minority in Labour who could see that Corbyn wasn’t going to lead them anywhere other than towards a “hard” Brexit.
The best defence against this will of course be for the details of the Brexit agreement to be somewhat “soft” in retaining those checks which are beneficial*, albeit as sovereign decisions of the UK made bilaterally with the EU rather than as rules of the EU which we are bound by our accession to the EU 45 years ago. At the moment it is unclear where things stand because of the nature of the negotiations but it is interesting that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is talking of transitional arrangements which make UKIPpers froth at the mouth while Corbyn’s position on the EU is getting Farage to purr. Ripping up all of the legacy of 45 years within the EU wouldn’t be in the EU’s interests or in any potential Prime Minister’s other than Corbyn.
But the people who voted for Corbyn, don’t want what he wants. So we are in the strange world of May having lost her majority because people thought she would aim for too hard a Brexit now being the bulwark against the ultra-hard Brexit which the man they voted for actually wants. I suspect that being canny folks, the EU team led by Michael Barnier will know that if they cause this government to fall, it will be replaced by one which won’t even want a deal at all.
The question is whether the large proportion of people who voted Labour in June on the basis of expecting them to soften the impact of Brexit will continue to support Labour under Corbyn if and when they realise that he has no intention of doing that. Maybe they will. Or maybe, as with the discovery that he had no intention of writing off or reducing past student debt despite saying “I will deal with it”, it will take more examples to overcome the cognitive dissonance of evidence of Labour’s actions coming up against people’s perceptions of their intentions.
So, we put our left leg in, our left leg out, in out, in out, shake it all about. Do the Hokey Cokey and turn around. Brexit, it’s all about!
* I am not at all discounting the possibility that there will be aspects of Brexit which could be advantageous, merely acknowledging that there are also many aspects of the EU which are also beneficial and where there is no obvious major improvement to be gained by doing something different or in conflict. The purist approach of “let’s just get rid of all the regulation” is unrealistic in practice because it ignores the costs of change even where the thing being changed to is better. In many cases economies of scale or of effort would mean that even if there were a lighter UK regulatory regime, most businesses would comply voluntarily with the dominant foreign standard. We can see this in reverse in anti-bribery compliance where the UK has one of the toughest regimes globally and so most businesses seek to comply with it as doing so then involves minimal additional adjustment to comply with laws elsewhere in the world. Even if we were to ditch all EU regulation, from experience, much of it would end up being incorporated contractually by businesses (at least those doing cross-border work), regardless of whether they liked the regulations – e.g. it is now pretty much standard practice to extend by contract the application of the new EU Data Protection Regulation to beyond the date on which the UK will leave the EU. There’s not much benefit to business in repealing EU regulations and replacing them with lighter touch UK ones if businesses will shun the additional freedoms and comply with EU ones! On the other hand, were a future UK government to decide to regulate more stringently than the EU does, particularly for “suspect” foreign countries (as might be expected from a Labour Party which was not so keen on globalised trade and was naturally more suspicious about the activities of big corporations), that would potentially be harmful.