Image: Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer in 2017. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images.
Not much is clear in the fog created by Brexit, except for two cold calculations: The Tory party is far more split over Europe than Labour. And, therefore, Theresa May will likely need Labour votes to get approval for her Brexit deal.
If May is able to satisfy all her MPs with a deal of some sort, it would be a miracle. But, to be frank, she has never looked like a miracle worker.
So I can see why strong Remainers are constantly critical of the Labour leadership. They want Labour to take a strong stance against Brexit, yet all they get from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is ambivalence. They don’t see the Labour leadership articulate the rage and anger they feel, which leaves them feeling ignored. I know that feeling too.
But this criticism is misplaced.
To understand what Corbyn and McDonnell are doing, we first have to understand what drives them. Sadly, their critics don't. The Labour party will almost certainly vote against the Tory Brexit deal. Just don't expect them to do so enthusiastically.
The language of priorities
What drives Corbyn and McDonnell is a desire to transform the UK economy and its politics. They see Brexit as a subset of that goal, not the overarching priority. This is why they sound different to most Remainers.
This doesn’t mean Corbyn and McDonnell are heading in a different
direction to Remainers. It just means they have a delicate balancing act first.
They couldn't reject any Brexit deal immediately, as it would repel Labour
Leavers. Do it slowly enough and you can convince people it's the Tories who
have screwed up the process, and they can negotiate something new.
They want power. They are hungry for it because they know they won't have all the time in the world. They need to preserve the Labour coalition and bring down the Tories. That is the basic calculation.
Some say Labour could be doing much better if the party took a strong Remain stance but I see little evidence for this. The Lib Dems are still nowhere in the polls, despite their clear and loud stance against Brexit. This illustrates an important point: most Remainers also have other priorities, like fixing the economy, so they will tolerate the Labour leadership’s ambivalence (providing it doesn’t go too far towards Leave, of course).
Trade unions and triangulation
Remainers seem to neither understand nor engage with the biggest influence on Corbyn and McDonnell: Trade Unions. The Labour leadership will never betray the unions. Anyone who doubts this doesn’t understand Corbyn or McDonnell’s politics.
And this is why I have faith: the unions are largely against Brexit because they know it will hurt jobs. Last week the TUC, which consults trade unions before taking a stance, said it backed a second referendum if the Brexit deal failed workers. The three biggest unions: Unison, GMB and Unite – have all hinted at a second vote too. This is why, for all their ambivalence, the Labour leadership won’t agree to the deal Theresa May produces. But they’re all being careful of not giving the Tories too much ammunition.
There is one word that sums up this strategy: Triangulation.
That’s right. Of course they won't admit to it, but Corbyn don't want to lose the mostly working-class-vote that are strong Leavers. Saying they don’t respect the Referendum result would be the quickest way to lose those people. And there is no evidence they will attract ‘lost’ Remainers.
With the Tories changing strategy every day and constantly fighting with each other, it makes more sense for Labour to just give them more rope. Let the Tories fail on their own terms before plunging in the knife.
Remainers can criticise Corbyn and McDonnell for a lot, but not their hypocrisy. We hate politicians when they are two-faced, and we hate them if they don’t pander to our feelings. We cannot have it both ways. Corbyn and McDonnell are behaving as they have always felt towards the EU. And that authenticity is a major part of their appeal. They won’t suddenly start developing a love for the EU.
Let’s turn all the firepower on the Tories
Yet, despite their ambivalence, they have been dropping hints all along. People just seem to have missed them.
The most important one: Keir Starmer’s Six Tests. They already signal where Labour is going with this. Those tests won’t ever be accepted by the Tory Hard Brexiters. Last week Emily Thornberry told the FT that a workable Brexit deal was “just not going to happen” under Theresa May.
And even when the Labour leadership have clashed over their position, it's less about policy than perception.
John McDonnell told Mumsnet yesterday that if those six tests were not met by May (they won’t), then Labour will vote against May’s deal. He added that he wants a General Election (of course) and if that doesn’t materialise then they will support “a people’s vote”.
The Labour leadership have been as clear on Brexit as their priorities have allowed them. Their Remain critics just haven’t been paying attention.
The task now should be to turn all firepower towards the Tories. Otherwise Remainers will squander the opportunity presented to them.