Corbyn’s Brexit


Nick Harkaway
Jan 16, 2019 · 9 min read

All right, look: I can’t keep up. Okay? I have work, but even if I did not, there is absolutely NO WAY I could keep up with the torrent of crazy rushing through Britain’s public sphere right now. It’s not a flood, it’s an actual sea level rise. One day the waters may recede, but that day is not — repeat NOT — today.

This my soundtrack for January in the UK:


Okay. Let’s start on Sunday, when the world was young. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, went on the Andrew Marr show and talked about Brexit. You can see the whole interview here. Corbyn comes on at around 35:00 minutes and stays to the end. It was a horrible interview and anyone pointing to it joyfully is out of their tree.


Refusing to discuss the People’s Vote option favoured by upwards of three quarters of his party — the party to which he has repeatedly pledged internal democracy and control of its own destiny — on the basis that it was still hypothetical, he was nonetheless willing to say that his preferred option was a negotiated exit from the EU. He went on to outline his two main goals for that exit:

  1. a customs union in which Britain would have a say in trade deals concluded by the EU (which is as close to physically impossible as anything in politics actually gets) and
  2. access to the single market close enough for just-in-time supply chains without the burdens of full membership (which is incrementally less impossible but still sufficiently so as to be the kind of thing that has Barnier et al accidentally inhaling their Trappist ales in horrified mirth and having to be patted on the back).

For an encore, he suggested that the European Court of Human Rights was an EU body (it isn’t) and discussed his feeling that the UK would need a liberal immigration agreement with Europe to fill NHS vacancies and so on. In the space of twenty minutes, he demonstrated either a willingness to deceive his vote or a Boris Johnson-like level of ignorance of EU function, then followed it up with a posture likely to infuriate those same Leave heartland voters whose anger he was assiduously representing throughout the segment.

It was not good.

At all.

Then came Tuesday.


Parliament voted down Theresa May’s deal. This is either a good thing (because the deal is lousy) or a bad thing (because it was the only deal on offer and if we don’t now revoke A50 we stand to crash out of the EU at the end of March and endure, frankly, a really stupid self-created national crisis.)

May achieved exactly one thing: she took control of the timing of the No Confidence vote which must inevitably follow by saying she’d make parliamentary time for one even if it was submitted by a member of a party which wasn’t Labour. That vote will now be held today.


This is where I started laughing like Salacious Crumb and have so far not been able to stop.

Last night, Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon told the country that Labour could hold No Confidence votes “again and again and again” until they win one. (There’s very little evidence this would happen. Tory MPs and the DUP seem not to feel the urge to open their own political veins.)

And this morning, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and an un-named colleague dished out this glorious twofer:

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Okay, let’s just take those two points in order. First up: as I write this there are seventy two days, ten hours and forty minutes until Brexit. We do not have time for Jeremy Corbyn to take a break for a gathering space. Second: it is not really appropriate for the leader of the opposition to have to have a sit down and a little think about the central fracture line of British contemporary politics in order to work out what to do about it because that would imply he hasn’t really come to any solid conclusions in the two years since the referendum. You know what is appropriate? Knowing what you think some considerable time in advance of the defeat of the government’s crucial bill.

Here’s Corbyn’s top layer problem as far as I know: his party is somewhat north of 75% in favour of a People’s Vote. Labour internal polling allegedly has it that the target seats he needs to win an election are in the other bit and will punish him for any such decision, though other studies say different. A Survation poll last week had a complex mess of different outcomes if Labour proposed a second referendum (bad) or let the Tories propose one (good) or called for one jointly with another party or parties (bad-ish) or did not support one if another party called for it (catastrophic). Actually, here’s a video summary.

(The jangling soundtrack and slightly too-quick dissolves are a perfect metaphor.)

Almost all of this was within the margin of error, though, so… you know. Now… A much larger YouGov poll had Labour facing electoral collapse if the party goes into a new election on a pro-Brexit manifesto. So Corbyn has a legitimate problem, or at least a reputed problem serious enough to give him pause. It’s neither surprising nor new, and he hasn’t done anything to make it better since he took over, so I’m not massively sympathetic, but there it is.

His second layer problem, I think — but now I’m just using the Force to read his mind — is that this whole thing gives him a headache. He’s a conviction politician, not someone who relies on complex critical analysis, and he’s used to thinking of the EU as a neo-liberal economic monster, which is — not a secret — how he regarded it for years. Having to square that earlier perception with the realisation that it maybe necessary to his political ends makes him uncomfortable and he just doesn’t engage with it. There’s a running complaint about the EU that it would constrain his legislative agenda, but of twenty six Labour policies it turned out that only two were potentially problematic, and even those would likely ultimately be fine. There’s another theory that because Tony Benn was a Eurosceptic, Corbyn is too. That’s a rather simplistic thing to say about a complex man, and Benn was in any case a staunch advocate of activist power: if Corbyn — who has made a great deal of the ideal of internal democracy in the Labour Party — turns his back on the People’s Vote, it could be an Iraq-level wound to his reputation going into any eventual election. So -


In what will be seen as a blow to hopes of those campaigning for a second ‘public vote’, the spokesman also ruled out any further consultation of party members during the coming crunch Parliamentary votes on Brexit. [full text here]

I can’t keep up.

+++UPDATED no shut up YOU’RE wasting your life+++

This seems to be somewhat to Corbyn’s address, along with all the Soft Brexit/EFTA/Norway crowd:

Donald Tusk said: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

And while I’m here:

An American correspondent asked me this morning what Corbyn’s role is in Brexit, and it’s both a critical and a hugely revealing question. US coverage, he said, doesn’t really include Corbyn. That is both a glaring omission and a perfectly understandable reality. Corbyn should be a central figure in the Brexit discussion; he’s the leader of the Labour Party resurgent, the reforming fire of British politics, the man with a plan. Brexit is — with the exception of climate change if ever any administration dares to get serious about it — the single most significant factor in any political agenda here for the next two decades. His natural role was either fiery opponent or deal-maker, but he’s been neither. He chose the strategy of letting the Tories tear one another apart, hoping they’d own a botched Brexit. Well, now they’ve torn themselves apart, but it seems that perceptually he’s likely to get left with a solid chunk of the bill.

He has two “good” alternatives and one terrible one:

  1. He can make a real case for Lexit. It’s difficult, because — despite some early concerns — an analysis of his legislative agenda finds few if any conflicts with EU membership. His own Economic Advisory Committee — a left economic brain trust of formidable names — was in favour of Remain. But he could cite the EU’s own internal problems, its savage austerity treatment of Greece, its acknowledged goal of “ever closer union” and accuse it of a too-close interweaving with the international financial system. He could lean on his domestic agenda — though the issue of how to pay for it in a Brexit nation becomes vexed — and plead the moral need to unseat this awful Tory clowncar. It might just about pacify enough of his Remain support that they’d hold their noses and put him over the line — but he has to be careful to stay real about the actual benefits, because they’re few and far between, and the pain would come. He can take May’s deal as a starting point and get the best negotiated onward deal he can — it won’t be anything like what he’s asking for — and fight his corner on immigration. It would hurt, but he might ultimately achieve something worth having, and even drag the EU leftwards. Or — more likely, alas — he might find himself like the conjurer in Michael Foot’s narrative, standing in front of the nation with the pieces of the economy wrapped in a hanky, acknowledging that he’d forgotten the second half of the trick. That would be the end of left Labour for another generation, and in a post-Brexit world the Tory right would turn Britain into Singapore-Upon-Thames faster than you can say “Working Time Directive”. High risk, indeed. I say “good” but I think this is a terrible idea. But it has to be here in case it’s what he actually wants.
  2. He can make the case for Remain. This would be easier if he’d been reaching out to the angry voters he wants to represent to offer them alternative and more effective ways to fix what’s hurting them, rather than telling them their anger at Brussels and immigration was justified. Still, it might be doable. He may not be a working man, but he’s been for the working man all his life. He’s Labour leader, and he really wants to help people. His cosmopolitan, metropolitan base would forgive him his uncertainties and rally to his banner. It might not be enough, but it would have one thing going for it which is arguably the most important part of the Corbyn brand: it would be honest. Somehow all his choices are fraught with the danger of loss. That being the case, better to lose honest than lose crooked. It seems quite possible, in the light of the last twenty four months, that we’d be looking at yet another election before 2022 anyway.

Or there’s the awful one: He can fudge. It goes like this: “Labour cannot negotiate a deal until it’s in government, so first we have to win the election. We can set out our negotiating aims [as per Corbyn’s appearance on Marr] but we won’t know if they’re feasible until we try. If we can’t achieve those goals, we’ll talk about the other options.” That lines up his Leave vote — who are once again offered the possibility that he will get them impossible things — and pacifies his Remainers with the idea that he’s just discharging his obligation to the Leave marginals and when that’s done he’ll turn to their preferred solutions. It’s also either an ugly abuse of trust or a denial of reality so stark it implies an inability to govern.


If Labour can’t solve this, and fast, the Tinkerbell of the party’s resurgence is apparently lying on the deck, choking to death. She may actually expire before anyone pays attention to the rasping cries for help, and the only person who can save her has seemingly forgotten how to clap.



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