The Labour Party is struggling to unite around a single line from which to attack the Tories. It risks giving Theresa May the chance to struggle on.
Until very recently the leadership was clearly for defeating May’s Brexit deal in parliament, and then pushing for a general election.
Jeremy Corbyn-supporter’s group Momentum emailed its members last Friday asking them to lobby their Labour MPs to back this. There was even a petition—and a call to contact Labour MPs who hadn’t “already committed to voting with Jeremy”.
“May cannot get her deal through parliament. This means she has only one option—to target Labour MPs and persuade them to save her government by voting for her botched Tory Brexit,” it said.
“As socialists, we have only one option—vote down the deal, push for a general election and elect a socialist Labour government.”
Yet Corbyn seems to be edging away from that position. Labour did not call for a general election on the day that Theresa May took her Brexit deal to parliament. Jeremy Corbyn ended his speech merely by saying, “The government must now withdraw this half-baked deal.”
And in a 20-minute long interview on Sky News on Sunday, he did not explicitly call for a general election.
Instead he repeatedly called on the government to go back to the EU and renegotiate the deal.
It was only when asked if he still wanted a general election that he said, “I think the country needs stability. It needs an opportunity to have a say—who it wants to conduct negotiations with the European Union and who it wants to deal with the chronic social issues facing Britain.”
Corbyn’s problem is that there are far too many right wing Labour MPs—and union leaders—who don’t want a general election. They would prefer a “People’s Vote”—effectively a second referendum, with the hope of stopping Brexit.
These include Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, who is gradually pulling Labour’s position towards backing a new referendum.
He fought at Labour’s conference in September to make sure its policy kept the option of backing a second referendum open. He then said Remain must be one of the options.
Starmer is backed by right wing Labour MPs who want to remain in the EU because they are ideologically committed to its neoliberal, racist policies.
So Corbyn attacked the deal because it “hard-wired” restrictions on state aid and included “no guarantees for workers’ rights”.
But right wing MPs criticised it for failing to protect the interests of business and financial services.
Phil Wilson MP complained that it “does nothing to lift the uncertainty that has caused such alarm to business and employers”.
Chuka Umunna said it “doesn’t include the final details of our future trading relationship with the European Union”. Neither called for a general election. Both wanted a “People’s Vote.”
Several union leaders also argue for a “People’s Vote” because they think getting a good deal for business will protect jobs.
It’s a mistake to think that what’s good for business is good for workers.
For the past decade “good for business” has meant austerity and pay cuts.
Being in the EU stopped none of that because it doesn’t protect workers’ rights.
Its rules enforce austerity, privatisation and restrictions on unions—which is why big business overwhelmingly backs it. Corbyn has so far managed not to commit to a “People’s Vote,” but he hasn’t ruled it out. He said on Sunday, “I think it’s an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today.”
Yet he also sought to reassure the CBI bosses’ conference on Monday that his vision for Brexit would provide “certainty” for “businesses and workers”.