Brexit: Where is Jeremy?
Where is Jeremy Corbyn? The Labour leader came out in favor of Britain staying in the EU with a big, set-piece speech at Senate House in London on April 14. Since then, he’s toured the country to push the “Labour case for staying,” which essentially rests on two arguments, one positive, the other negative: the EU offers critical support for workers’ rights, and if Britain votes to leave the EU, David Cameron will surrender control of the Conservative Party — and for now, the government — to its hardline wing.
We know where Jeremy Corbyn is: he’s out there, slightly half-heartedly, on the Brexit campaign trail. But in the digital campaign, he’s gone AWOL: the Labour leader’s online Brexit profile is practically non-existent. Britain Stronger in Europe, the official Remain campaign, has included Corbyn in three of its campaign videos; posted to the campaign’s official YouTube channel, the clips have fewer than 2,000 views between them. (To be fair, BSE tries to spread the digital endorsements around — it’s not as if the channel is overloaded with videos of David Cameron. But even one video of the PM has more views than the three of Corbyn combined.)
Corbyn’s own political party has hardly been more enthusiastic in its promotion of him as a Brexit campaign presence. On March 11, Labour posted “Jeremy is In for Britain,” a video of Corbyn setting out a pro-Remain position. A week ago, after a silence of almost three months, a second Corbyn Brexit intervention arrived on the party’s YouTube channel. It has practically the same title as the first: “Jeremy’s IN for Britain.” Despite the significant increase in intensity denoted by that shift from “In” to urgent, upper case “IN,” these videos have been viewed by almost no one.
If the Corbyn case for staying in the EU — “protect workers, don’t let the slightly more evil strain of Tories in” — sounds curiously downbeat, that’s because, as countless commentators and analysts have reminded us throughout the campaign, the Labour leader doesn’t care much for the European project. Indeed, in his earlier activist years, Corbyn was a rabid Eurosceptic. This has given the Out camp plenty of material to work with, and they’re making full use of it.
To get a sense for how this is affecting the campaign, I grouped the nine Corbyn-related sources included in Predata’s Brexit topic signal into those that advance the case for staying in the EU (six) and those that help the case for leaving (three). (More information on our Brexit signals and coverage can be found here.) The chart below summarizes the activity levels for these two bundles of online sources since the beginning of the campaign. What’s startling about this visualization is that the Corbyn pro-Out signal has seen far more activity in the last month than the material advancing the cause of which he is nominally a leader.
Corbyn’s irrelevance to the campaign is increasing the degree to which voters see the referendum as a poll on David Cameron, as I explain here. But what the chart shows is that Corbyn’s lack of involvement is not just hurting Remain — it’s also helping Leave, because it’s allowing the erstwhile Eurosceptic to be turned into a digital warrior for the Out cause. This provides fuel for one of the Brexiters’ favorite campaign narratives — that the In camp are a confused, opportunistic muddle whose lack of principle and fundamental self-deception serve as a counterpoint to Remain’s ringing conviction and clarity of purpose.
Senior Labour party figures have in recent days taken their plea to Corbyn to get more involved in the campaign public. But it seems unlikely this will convince the Labour leader, in these last few frantic days before the June 23 vote, to divert from his narrow, lonely, peripheral campaign furrow. In the meantime, Leave’s sport with the audiovisual ghosts of Corbyn’s anti-EU past will continue to make him an oddly equivocal figure in the most important British political event of our generation.
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