What should Corbyn do now? A response to Aaron Bastani

"Brexit confronts us with an unavoidable binary choice. We are either in the EU or not. The key question is which of these two outcomes can then create an inclusive future. "

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 April 2019, 9.59am
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking in the House of Commons, April 1, 2019.
House of Commons/PA. All rights reserved.

After the indicative votes in the House of Commons on the 28 March, when no one proposal won a majority and the Labour Party whipped support for taking any deal back to the voters in a ratification referendum, I tweeted:

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In response and with a welcome lack of belligerency, Aaron Bastani, who supports Jeremy Corbyn, replied:

Twitter is a dreadful medium for conducting serious disagreement in a constructive fashion. So I’m responding here. Delayed by a brief trip to participate in the Imagining Belfast Democracy Day on March 29, I’m writing in what is in effect a new era – one that makes the issue of central importance as power shifts into Corbyn’s hands.

Dear Aaron,

As Theresa May has summoned Jeremy Corbyn into No 10 to help her finalise an agreement, we have to hope that he does not share the fatalism and calculation behind your tweet.

There is only one sure way forward for the left at this historic moment. To persuade the Labour leader to insist that we have a referendum on Brexit whatever the shape of any proposed agreement that emerges between him and Mrs May. A vote of the people that allows him to issue a triple call: to remain in the EU, implement deep reform of the UK’s political system as the essential framework for a democratic economy.

In this way we can fulfil the radical, anti-establishment energy tragically locked in the Brexit vote.

If we can’t change the terms of the debate, how can we hope to change the way the country is run!

First, in this fast-moving situation we have to ask how come Corbyn is now in the Brexit driving seat?

First, in this fast-moving situation we have to ask how come Corbyn is now in the Brexit driving seat?

When May announced that she was turning to him for an agreement that would secure a parliamentary majority, she left the ERG group gasping with horror and astonishment as they listened. But they have only themselves to blame. The previous weekend she had called their leaders to Chequers. There, they offered her a devilish pact. They would vote for her deal if she promised to resign immediately after it was passed. That way, one of them would become Prime Minister to negotiate the all-important future relationship.

She agreed. But it would be up to them to convince all their colleagues and the DUP that the Union would be safe in their hands. They failed spectacularly. The third ‘meaningful vote’ which followed did not come near a Commons majority.

May herself, however, was now a free woman. The devilish pact boomeranged on those who had hurled it. No longer facing the prospect of leading her party the Prime Minister was liberated to destroy the party that had destroyed her premiership. She has turned to the one person who has steadily told her he has the votes and the desire to deliver Brexit, someone with whom she shares a Westminster shaped heart going back to the 1970s (see the conclusion of my Albion’s Call).

By turning to Corbyn and Labour, May has signalled that she is willing to consider ongoing membership of the EU’s Customs Union and therefore its Single Market in traded goods (without which the Irish border issue is not resolved and there is little point in customs union membership).

You cheer the prospect of this “national union”. Will Corbyn, too, find the temptation of facilitating such a soft Brexit irresistible? And will he, like you, reject putting it to the voters?

If he does, he will destroy himself.

I’m not one of those who ‘blames’ Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour leadership for where we are, even if I sometimes despaired. They have been straddling a north/south civil war within their party, a very uncomfortable position to be in. But when it came to it (with a few exceptions, such as Jon Trickett who abstained), they took a principled and popular course and voted for a ratification referendum.

This represented a significant movement in Corbyn’s own position and it is very striking that a media which gloats in assailing his ‘inflexibility’ gave him no credit or recognition for this major shift. (Except for the cool-minded Stephen Bush who notes, “Labour has now backed a second referendum and the continuation of the free movement of people after Brexit on the floor of the House, both positions that, rightly or wrongly, many at the top of the party believe could cost it at the next election”.)

The Labour leadership’s waiting game was calculated to allow the Tory party to destroy itself. It seems fully vindicated.

So Corbyn should be congratulated. His ‘zen’ approach has led to the self-destruction of the oldest political party in the world. As delightful, it has left that party’s main support, the globe’s most vicious and partisan press, floundering.

As delightful, it has left that party’s main support, the globe’s most vicious and partisan press, floundering.

Corbyn has never been very interested in Europe. For him, the temptation of coming to a deal with May is less about delivering Brexit than the belief that doing so will drive a stake through the monstrous heart of the selfish English Toryism he has detested all his life.

But if Corbyn takes Labour into the black hole of Brexit however soft, it will not re-emerge.

On this your sense of the energy of the future seems to have failed you.

It is far from the case that any referendum in which Labour campaigns to stay in the EU would be lost – or as good as lost because won only narrowly. Indeed, in a tweet on May’s offer to Corbyn you celebrate the idea of national government or at least “national unity”, no less, without any by-your-leave to the country’s citizens.

You claim that the Prime Minister is “implicitly saying Labour, as much as government, will decide what kind of Brexit now happens. Britain can keep FoM and the single market. The idea you’d want a second ref, which you might lose anyway, instead of that, is stupid”.

There is, I agree, one possibility that could make losing likely. I will come back to that. Otherwise it is near inconceivable.

The most sober overall analysis by John Curtis shows that last week remain led leave by 55% to 45%. He reports that 85% of referendum voters have not changed their mind but new voters and non-voters break overwhelmingly for remain. By contrast, in the immediate run-up to the 2016 referendum a poll of six polls held between 24 February and 6 March had Remain on 51 per cent and Leave on 49 per cent (Blimey it Could be Brexit, p 6).

As Curtis observes any outcome will depend on turnout. Here we need to look at situation differentially for there are fast-separating national politics under way, which is why all talk of ‘national unity’ is shocking.

I have just talked with a Protestant, East Belfast Leave voter. He had also voted against the Good Friday Agreement “when I was young”. He told me his whole community voted for Brexit and no one expected it to win. He will not vote again, “I’ve lost interest”. He was quite different from the angry English voter who feels betrayed. However much they dislike the EU, Ulster unionists sense that Brexit threatens the union with Britain and are not mobilising to support the referendum outcome. By contrast those from the Catholic community I spoke to were vociferously for Remain. In 2016 Northern Ireland had a low 62% turnout and a 12% majority for Remain. Today, it will be a very much higher overall turnout and a Scottish level of support for remaining in the EU.

Scotland, of course, had a 25% Remain majority in 2016. It is likely to see the much higher 80% plus turnout that it achieved in its 2012 independence referendum in any new vote increasing its total support. Wales is now firmly for remain. The young in London will pour out to vote for openness and free movement. Women are switching to Remain in far more significant numbers than men. The significant ethnic minority vote for Brexit has collapsed as its inherent bigotry has been revealed.

No Brexit option is likely to beat a remain one in these circumstances.

No Brexit option is likely to beat a remain one in these circumstances.

There is another factor that pollsters don’t reach but which effects the way things swing. This is the amount one side really wants to win. In 2016 the listless, ‘Stronger In’ campaign led by Prime Minister Cameron and Peter Mandelson was concerned not to confront the issues that motivated people. Whereas Brexit supporters wanted something badly.

Their desire won them the contest against the odds. Yet they didn’t know how to win after they won. Now, confused and rebarbative, their cause is imploding. The contrast of motivation can be measured in the ten to one ration of the recent petitions: Revoke Article 50 has more than 6 million signatures while Leave without a Deal just over 600,000. Or contrast the immensely confident million strong march on the 23 of March with the Brexit mobilisation on the 29th (see this as friendly as possible account in the Daily Mail).

Paul Mason makes the obvious moral point that any Brexit shaped by Labour’s terms would be “so far away from the fantasies sold to leave voters it would have to be put back to them in any case”. More important, it is a wonderful opportunity. Which is also where the only possible flaw in any new referendum comes in.

It must not in any way be led by those officially controlling the Peoples Vote campaign such as Alastair Campbell, Mandelson and, behind them, Tony Blair. No one can stop Campbell doing his hectoring and cussing equivalent of Farage in any campaign, denigrating all who dare to disagree. But the campaign’s leadership must pass to a new generation without a vested interested in restoring the old order. The young men and women who organised the network of 200 local groups that supercharged the Revoke petition, the actual march organisers, the social media advocates of OFOC and FFS and I would add politicians like Caroline Lucas (declaration of interest, I’m part of her Dear Leavers team) and Labour’s Clive Lewis mean an informal alliance is already in place.

It will not be sufficient to seize the leadership of any remain campaign from the one-time masters of the neoliberal epoch, who spun the disaster that led to Brexit in the first place. We need to transform the politics of remain. For Brexit was and is centrally about how we govern ourselves.

We need to transform the politics of remain. For Brexit was and is centrally about how we govern ourselves.

Winning any referendum is an opportunity to link it to a programme of democratic control that offers an alternative to powerlessness. This is why you should welcome the challenge.

Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, takes a similar view to yours. In a striking use of the Revoke petition she shows that Brexit has “exposed two Englands”. She sees that “The vote to leave the EU wasn’t just a rejection of the EU itself, but of a political system that is remote and unaccountable”. But like you she is a determined opponent of a referendum for similar reasons to yours:

"Brexit has become a tug-of-war to decide which of these two Englands will win. For as long as this continues, we will all lose. Neither side can be wished away, and long after the arguments about trade deals have ceased, these fundamental divisions will remain.

Behind the Brexit wars is a much more fundamental set of questions about the sort of country we want to be. Unless we start to listen, respectfully, to understand and reach an accommodation with one another, there is no prospect of moving on."

There is a disastrous mistake here. Brexit confronts us with an unavoidable binary choice. We are either in the EU or not. The key question is which of these two outcomes can then create an inclusive future.

The decisive failure of all the Brexiteers and Lexiteers is that they have shown themselves incapable of reaching out and building support. The kind of country they want us to be has shown itself to be ineradicably divisive in a deeply unproductive way. I would argue that this follows from their ‘Great British’ exceptionalism and its superiority complex. But whatever the reason, they cannot resolve the divisions Nandy identifies.

But we – the remain side – can. We can win the argument to remain in the EU as democrats, not would-be aristocrats. This is why Nandy and you are profoundly mistaken to think you can swerve around a clear resolution by embracing a soft Brexit. This will preserve the very divisions you wish to overcome. We have to build on the democracy that was the kernel of the 2016 referendum; make its moral force our own and apply it to ensuring people can have control by putting any deal back to them in a People's Vote.

This is Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunity.

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