The Brexit campaign is throwing up the oddest of paradoxes. Having been elected as a leftist hammer of the Conservatives, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has now decided he wants to ensure David Cameron stays as Prime Minister by joining ranks with him to urge a defeat of the Brexit camp in the referendum on 23rd June.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister for Europe and author of Brexit: Why Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris).
Corbyn is putting the national interest of keeping Britain in Europe ahead of the party pleasure of seeing the Prime Minister defeated and replaced by a pro-Brexit leader, probably Boris Johnson in the event of Britain voting to quit Europe.
By contrast most British political commentators see Cameron’s decision to call the referendum as an inner-party ploy to appease Tory Eurosceptics and lessen the charm of UKIP which has long campaigned for a plebiscite.
So while Cameron plays the party-first card with his Brexit plebiscite Corbyn take the higher ground by putting nation before party point scoring!
Moreoever while Corbyn has never been a full-on supporter of Out or joined the more ideological anti-European politicians of the left, he has never been seen as pro-European and indeed voted to quit the EEC in the last British referendum in 1975.
Labour had 9.3 million votes in the May 2015 election and there are 6.4 million trade union members in Britain who tend to take a political lead from Labour.
These votes are essential to David Cameron’s hopes of defeating Brexit and Corbyn’s intervention is an important moment in the campaign to stay in Europe.
Corbyn made his case in a relaxed fluent manner yesterday (14 April) in front of a crowd of students and supporters as well as the media at London University. His EU was one based on social Europe rules that support workers rights; takes on tax dodging oligarchs and off-shore firms – a dig at the Panama Papers revelations about Cameron’s tax-haven family wealth; an EU that tackles global warming and cleans up British beaches; and an EU in which every young Brit can travel, study, work and live in 27 other countries.
He cited his “friend”, Antonio Costa, the Socialist Prime Minister of Portugal who told Corbyn the EU allows progressive forces to work together politically.
Corbyn has enjoyed his trips as Labour leader to gatherings of fellow EU left leaders and they in turn have enjoyed his unashamed leftism after the years of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, when British Labourites seemed keener on supporting the values of Davos-man than the needs of the poor or the workers.
The British press have tried to depict it as a massive conversion. Yet an examination of Corby’s interventions in the House of Commons from 2005 until his arrival as leader in 2015 shows that he never joined with out-and-out Eurosceptics.
He regularly asked ministers what the European Commission was doing on causes dear to his heart like Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, or what action the EU was taking to combat climate change or tax-dodging by multinationals.
But he never endorsed the so-called “Lexit” or left-wing Leave campaign and as he made clear in his speech the idea of a Boris Johnson government supported by UKIP’s Nigel Farage arriving after a Brexit vote is a nightmare for Labour.
The significant development is that Corbyn has come off the fence and his speech is an important endorsement for Labour’s pro-Europeans. A beaming Alan Johnson, the former Labour cabinet minister, who heads the LabourIn campaign and who has little in common politically with Corbyn was full of praise for the Labour leader in TV and radio interviews after the Corbyn’s anti-Brexit speech.
Will it make the difference? Can Corbyn’s new pro-EU lin reverse the growing fears, supported by opinion polls, that Britain will vote for Brexit as a vote against immigrants, refugees, against a lack of housing and fair pay jobs, against the FTSE elites who want the UK to stay in, and against David Cameron himself after six years of lacklustre premiership?
No-one knows but in the Remain camp there is a huge sigh of relief that all the main party leaders are now lined up against Brexit.
The Corbyn-Cameron axis against Brexit is welcomed by the pro-EU Remain camp but does not ensure its victory on 23rd June.