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Corbyn’s confusion over the European Union emboldens the right

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
Issue 2668
Jeremy Corbyn at a rally last month demanding a general election
Jeremy Corbyn at a rally last month demanding a general election (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Labour will commit to holding a referendum on a Brexit deal, if there is a general election in autumn, with an option to remain in the European Union (EU).

But it hasn’t said what it will do if there isn’t a general election in autumn. And it might not take a position in that referendum even if it has negotiated its own Brexit deal—which it could do.

Or it could not. Confused? Don’t worry. The confusion is Labour’s.

Labour has been caught in a bind since the EU referendum in 2016. Many working class people—the people it looks to for votes—support leaving the EU.

But a vocal set of right wing Labour MPs want to push the party towards opposing Brexit.

They support the EU because they like its pro-privatisation, pro-austerity rules that look after big business.

They’re increasingly cheer-led by prominent left Labour supporters, and backed by the Labour Party’s membership.

The Labour left now largely sees backing Remain as the only progressive response to the Tories’ racist, right wing version of Brexit.

So at every step Labour’s position on Brexit has been just enough to sound, on the surface, as if it means something.


But it’s always contained enough vagueness and caveats to leave space for different interpretations, adjustments and backsliding.

Labour has been pushed to the limits of what its official position—decided at its conference last year—allows. This says Labour might support a referendum if it cannot get a general election.

But in a speech on Monday, Jeremy Corbyn said Labour now wants both. The new confusion is over what Labour’s position would be in that referendum.

Corbyn wouldn’t commit. But shadow chancellor John McDonnell said he would support Remain.

Given that the referendum could be on a deal negotiated by Corbyn’s caretaker government, he could end up opposing his own party.

This year’s Labour conference is set to begin on 22 September. Labour will be consumed with arguments over whether to back Remain.

The anti-austerity, radical-sounding message that worked so well for Labour in 2017 is at risk of being drowned out.

Where demonstrations and action on the streets against the Tories could have dominated, opposition has focused on parliamentary manoeuvres and inter-party wrangling.

This is the right’s terrain—the left is always weaker on it.

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech on Monday—attacking austerity and tax cuts for the rich, promising more for ordinary people—got almost ignored by the press.

The longer Corbyn spends giving into the right over the EU, the more he allows them to set the agenda and sideline left wing politics.

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