Opting for EU realism, Corbyn tries to brand Tories as Brexit fundamentalists

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. [Venus2009/Flickr]

Like a crab emerging cautiously from under his rock, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is millimetre-by-millimetre re-calibrating his party line on Brexit, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and author oBrexit, No Exit. How (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe.

Having spent much of the past 12 months clinging on to Theresa May’s skirt-tails, Corbyn now sees that the dreadful shambles the Conservatives are making over Brexit – including inner-party succession war of ambitious politicians like Boris Johnson and David Davis – allows him space to attack the Prime Minister while remaining ambivalent on his own vision of Brexit.

Corbyn’s keynote Labour Party conference speech was carefully calibrated to stay on not-quite diverging tramlines with Theresa May but he at least dropped Labour language that the EU was responsible for driving down wages in Britain because of freedom of movement.

He also pointedly ignored the views of his shadow Trade Secretary that Britain should leave the Customs Union.

Corbyn said “Britain should stay within the basic terms of the single market and a customs union for a limited transition period” after the formal withdrawal from the Treaty in April 2019.

It is striking that there was no set number of years attached to the phrase “limited transition period” unlike the insistence of Tory Brexiters that either there should be no transition or it cannot be longer than two years.

Earlier in Brighton where the conference was held, different Labour leaders like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, or Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot used language that EU workers helped drive down wages, or that the EU stopped nationalisation or state aid.

The latter point now looks silly as the Bombardier row has exploded precisely because Britain has provided state aid to help the planemaker’s Belfast factory and done so with the approval of Brussels.

Corbyn repudiated those Labour MPs, like John McDonnell, who repeated UKIP lines that the presence of  EU citizens working in Britain drives down wages declaring “We will never follow the Tories into the gutter of blaming migrants for the ills of society. It isn’t migrants who drive down wages and conditions  but the worst bosses.”

Corbyn also got a cheer when he said the 3 million EU citizens should be allowed to stay in Britain, again a more friendly, liberal line than where the Conservatives are.

But on the other hand Corbyn reverted to 1970s socialism-in-one-country ideas associated with the late Tony Benn who argued that Britain had lost power to Brussels to control the UK economy. Corbyn referred to “A Brexit that uses powers returned from Brussels to support a new industrial strategy  to upgrade our economy in every region and nation.”

This just shows the lack of knowledge of Europe in the Labour leadership.  There are innumerable examples of different industrial strategies based on full or partial state ownership, regional government share-holding in key companies, compulsory training or regional development policies which are common on the continent but such is the atrophy of EU core knowledge in the Corbyn team he is allowed to say that Brexit is needed to allow Britain to adopt policies which exist all over the EU already.

That is a problem for next year’s speech or indeed for Labour to work on between now and October 2018 when the Article 50 negotiations come to an end.

But compared with where Labour was at its conference in 2016 when pro-EU MPs were putting forward their pet schemes for immigration control and refusing to criticise the Brexit result, the support for the EU in Brighton was strong and cheerful.

Corbyn skated over Brexit because he is not interested or knowledgeable about the EU. But every fringe meeting on Brexit including those organised by the left-wing Momentum group were packed with young delegates demanding a more robust attack on the Brexit ideology as expressed by ministers like David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.

There was also an increasing number of calls for a new consultation, possibly a second referendum. A new consultation was backed in specific or general terms by key Labour figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the Scottish Labour leaders, Kezia Dugdale, some trade union leaders and a growing number of pro-European Labour MPs who have recovered their voice and confidence after the initial shock of the plebiscite result.

Pro-European Labour groups are committed to visiting very constituency to make the case not only for a transition period in which like Norway the UK stays de facto in the EU but for a complete reversal of the isolationist ideology of Brexit.

Corbyn dare not allow the young voters of the June 2017 election who voted against Theresa May principally  – according to the British Election Survey of 30,000 voters – to oppose her hard Brexit line to become disillusioned with Labour.

There is now much more space to make a stronger case against Brexit. Whether there are enough Labour MPs and enough organisational drive and money to really stop Brexit remains an open question. Labour leaves Brighton still trying to walk both sides of the Brexit street but there is now a determination to open up clearer red water with the Tory Brexit line than has existed so far since June 2016.

In the end, however, as in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s, it is what is happening in the heads and hearts of 317 Tory MPs that will decide the future course of the nation. In those decades the other parties were irrelevant despite fond hopes that elections would change power.

Tory MPs are not turkeys voting for Thanksgiving and while parliamentary business will undoubtedly see votes lost in the Commons, none is likely to produce a collapse of the government before the end of Parliament in 2022.

Public opinion is slowly leaving political opinion behind as the latest opinion poll by BMG shows a 52%  majority for staying in Europe.

Jeremy Corbyn is not going to be in Downing Street this year or next. But as Brexit sucks all oxygen out of British politics up to 2021 on Mrs May’s Florence calendar most Tory MPs keen to stay as MPs must be hoping that normal politics can be resumed.

Mrs May’s Florence speech appears to be accepted by most Tory MPs even those linked to the hardline anti-EU Brexit Central grouping. If she gets through her conference without any rebuff she can move on to the next stage of U-turns and dilutions of her language compared to the hardline semi-Ukip tone of the months after the referendum in June 2016.

In the contest between European realists and Brexit fundamentalists both Corbyn and May are now Realists. The difference is that Corbyn has his party with him. Next week in Manchester at the Tory conference we will see if Tories are ready to become EU realists or remain Brexit obsessives.

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