Britain’s Labour Party is holding its annual conference in Liverpool this week. While it has spent much of the (northern) summer worrying about accusations of antisemitism, the focus has now shifted to the no less fraught territory of Brexit.
Since we last looked at the topic, in the wake of Boris Johnson’s resignation, the position of Theresa May’s Conservative government has gone from bad to worse. Last week, the European Union told May quite firmly that her Brexit plan – the one agreed in July at Chequers, which prompted Johnson’s departure – was a non-starter.
That leaves her with a position that’s too “soft” for her own backbench but too “hard” for the Europeans. Whichever way she moves, there is trouble.
That provides a golden opportunity for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Unlike May, he can tack “soft” without upsetting most of his party. The softer the Brexit, however, the less point there seems in doing it. No doubt the EU would agree to something like the “Norwegian option”, under which Britain would continue to be bound by EU rules but no longer have a say in forming them. But what use is that for Britain?
Persuaded by this logic, many of Corbyn’s colleagues are keen to promise a new referendum, in which voters, now that they have had the chance to see what it leads to, could reconsider their 2016 decision to leave. According to a poll last week, party members agree with them overwhelmingly: 86% say they want the negotiations put to a referendum, and 90% say they would vote to remain in the EU.
For Corbyn and his hard-left allies, on the other hand, this is all just a big distraction from the issues they really care about. Shadow chancellor of the exchequer John MacDonnell has backed Corbyn’s view that the original referendum should be allowed to stand; from his point of view, Brexit just diverts attention from the main game, which is the overthrow of capitalism.
But party opinion on the subject is so strong that Corbyn is clearly going to have to accept some sort of pathway to a new referendum. As one Labour activist told the Guardian, “There is a huge groundswell among members to shift Labour policy, fight Tory Brexit and give people control over their own destinies by giving them the final say.”
Labour’s grassroots love Corbyn, but what they love is his authenticity rather than his Marxism: it’s a mistake to assume that the influx of Corbynistas will always drag Labour to the left. (Just as, in the United States, supporters of Bernie Sanders were no more left-wing in their economic views than supporters of Hillary Clinton. Stay tuned for a further post on what’s happening with the European left.)
And so we have the remarkable spectacle of Corbyn, doctrinaire leftist and natural isolationist, outflanking the Tory Party on the cosmopolitan, open market side.
Did it have to be this way? Remember, May herself supported the “remain” side in 2016; once it became clear that the Brexiters’ promises could not be met, she could have led the push for a second referendum herself.
No doubt she would have split her party, but she could have reached out to crossbenchers and Labour moderates and tried to build a coalition against hard Brexit. Even if it ended in failure, it would have given her some dignity in defeat.
That dignity now seems unachievable. Although talks with the EU have occupied the headlines, the real problem is in the House of Commons. While there may perhaps be a Commons majority for Brexit in the abstract (although even that is far from certain), there is no way to put together a majority for any particular Brexit plan.
Labour (minus a handful of dissidents) will oppose whatever the government comes up with, in the hope of forcing a fresh election, and a complement of Tories will be found to vote against it on the basis that is either too hard or too soft (quite possibly both).
And the ensuing election would be fought with Corbyn as the unlikely champion of liberal values and openness to the world economy. I remain as astonished by this development as I was a year ago:
Labour for decades has been identifiably the more insular and backward-looking of the British parties, while the Conservatives – at least since the time of Margaret Thatcher, but to some extent even before – have been supporters of trade, entrepreneurship and more cosmopolitan values. The reversal of positions over Europe is symptomatic of a deeper change.
The Conservatives are regressing to their nativist and anti-market roots – either awkwardly and reluctantly under May, or more enthusiastically under an alternative such as Johnson.
But Brexit is not yet a done deal, and with six months to go until the 29 March deadline, the options are still wide open.