Jeremy Corbyn is under increasing pressure from the Labour right to shift his policy on Brexit. This would mean—at the maximum—supporting a second referendum and—at the minimum—backing Britain staying in the European single market if it does leave.
One reason why this is happening is that the first stage of the negotiations with the EU, which ended in December, showed that most of the cards are in Brussels’s hands. It is 27 states to one, with Britain needing access to European markets after it leaves. One ex-European commissioner, Pascal Lamy, has called Brexit not a negotiation but “an adjustment”.
So Theresa May ended up caving in to all the demands of the 27 EU countries. Now the talks will move on. May is seeking a so-called “bespoke” relationship with the EU that will allow banks and multinationals based in Britain the same access to the single market as they have now. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is saying that this isn’t going to happen, and there’s every reason to believe him.
So Remainers are becoming increasingly desperate either to reverse the Brexit vote or to ensure that Britain stays in the European customs union and the single market. This would mean having to accept EU regulations without having any say in their making, which is the plight of Norway and Switzerland.
The efforts to shift Labour towards this position are aided by the fact that party members seem to agree with it. A recent poll by the Mile End Institute found that 78 percent of Labour members support a second referendum and 87 percent want to stay in the single market.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee was on the Today programme last Saturday demanding that Corbyn “listen to his members”. But she didn’t say that in the early 1980s, when Labour Party members supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and pulling out of the precursor to the EU. Instead she helped engineer a right wing breakaway.
The even more tarnished figure of Tony Blair has been campaigning for Labour to oppose Brexit. He’s too discredited to have much influence, but members of the shadow cabinet are pushing in the same direction. For example, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said, “We have to leave the European Union but we don’t need to go a long way.”
Corbyn himself has taken a carefully balanced position. A long standing critic of the EU, like his hero Tony Benn, he was forced by his shadow cabinet after he first became leader to campaign for a Remain vote. But, after the referendum, he moved quickly to accept the result and has concentrated on campaigning for a “jobs-first Brexit”.
To the fury of Remain supporters this position, combined with Labour’s programme of economic reforms, has proved remarkably successful. It allowed Corbyn in last June’s general election to win the backing of pro-EU young people opposed to austerity while not losing the votes of traditional Labour supporters who had voted to leave. “Labour’s Brexit hokey-cokey wins votes, so far,” the strongly anti-Brexit Financial Times newspaper grudgingly admitted last week.
Corbyn is right for principled reasons too. Re-running the referendum won’t change the fact that England in particular is split down the middle about the EU.
If the balance tilted the other way in a second vote, this would leave a huge chunk of voters —overwhelmingly at the poorer end of society—feeling bitter and cheated. They might be easy meat for the next right wing bandwagon that came along.
And Corbyn is also right to want to leave the single market. Its introduction in 1985-6 was the work of Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors, respectively the architects of neoliberalism in Britain and France.
The single market is not simply an economic space—it’s a constantly expanding mass of regulations whose effect has been to drive neoliberalism deep into the political economy of Europe.
EU apologists point to the relatively generous welfare states that survive especially in northern Europe—but they continue precariously despite, and not because of, the single market. So Corbyn should stick to his guns.