Labour must lead now

It’s hard to keep up.

On the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn said that a Labour government would take the United Kingdom out of the single market, because it is dependent on membership of the EU, which would presumably have come as a surprise to Norway.

Later that day, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, warned against remaining part of the customs union, only for Corbyn to contradict him 48 hours later.

By Wednesday, John McDonnell was saying that Labour hasn’t ruled out continued membership of the single market after all. Ok then.

And none of the above come close to the official party policy, agreed at conference last year.

Pity the poor saps attempting to defend the leadership line; they’re having to twist themselves into all sorts of knots at the moment.

But in truth, Labour’s constructive incoherence has been going on for quite some time. Refusing to be pinned down on exactly what the party wants undoubtedly served the party well in the general election, and Andrew Gwynne hints that the party position could shift depending on public opinion. Following, not leading.

But if public opinion is going to change, it’s not enough for the party to sit tight and hope things fall in the direction they want; Labour is going to have to make the arguments, to drive that shift in opinion. Currently the left is making the same mistake with Brexit that the moderates made with austerity two years ago. Wasn’t the point of electing Jeremy Corbyn to stand up unambiguously for the party’s values, to get away from this hedging and fudging?

There are no electoral considerations any more. There won’t be another vote before Brexit is a reality. The time is now.

Labour needs to decide what it wants out of Brexit, and start making its case clearly and consistently. Reversing the referendum result is currently an unrealistic prospect, and not one that Labour should campaign for. But the very least the party should be doing is explaining the risks and benefits of the various options available, which path it believes would be best for the country’s future, and why.

Instead, dishearteningly, Jeremy Corbyn flat out lied about the single market on Andrew Marr. He must know full well that single market membership is possible outside the EU. Assuming he does, the only reason to say what he said is to discredit those who wish to stay in the single market after Brexit.

While many seem to believe that Corbyn is playing the long game, or engaged in some form of four-dimensional chess, the reality is much simpler. He’s not putting up any opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit because it’s what he wants as well.

This is why John McDonnell’s row back on Corbyn’s comments yesterday is so interesting. Perhaps the leadership is susceptible to pressure on this point. That if forced to choose between the hard Brexit that they want, and the continued support of the membership, they may well conclude that control of the party is more important. And given that a vast majority of members want to stay in the single market, internal pressure may force the leadership’s hand.

This is leverage that Labour members and MPs who oppose hard Brexit must use. Theresa May is vulnerable in parliament, and it wouldn’t take many rebellious Tories to force the issue and cause her a major headache. But this also requires a Labour opposition which is clear and united on what it wants.

Unfortunately, this relies on Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, to step up. The best way to steer him away from the damaging course he favours may well be pressure from within.

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