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Is Corbyn doing the country a favour?

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

May 3, 2019   5 mins

Jeremy Corbyn is not for turning. Swinging Labour behind another referendum seems to make sense on so many levels. Yet, for the moment anyway, he simply won’t do it – to the obvious frustration not just of #PeoplesVote fans but of many Labour MPs and trade union leaders, most of the party’s ordinary members, and, as he’s made very clear on several occasions now, Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson. And Labour’s rather ‘meh’ showing at last night’s local elections certainly isn’t going to persuade its leader to change his mind.

But could Corbyn, by making what might be a big mistake in the short to medium term, end up doing the country a huge favour in the long term? By sitting on the fence he just might prevent the already painful polarisation between Leave and Remain voters from creating a partisan divide between Labour and the Conservatives to rival the one between Democrats and Republicans that’s disfiguring politics across the pond.

Declaring Labour’s support for a second, ‘confirmatory’ referendum would undoubtedly be a logical move for Corbyn. It would open up the possibility not just of topping the poll at the European elections (an accolade which on current form will otherwise go to the Brexit Party, just as it went to UKIP in 2014), but of strangling Change UK in its cradle or, if that’s too murderous a metaphor for you, blowing up its planes while they’re still on the ground. It would also stop what, after the locals, is bound to be trumpeted (with some justification, it has to be said) as #libdemfightback.

Before anyone gets on my case, yes I know – or at least think I know – why Corbyn won’t make that move.

For a start, there’s the ‘Lexiteer’ perspective he shares with his hard-Left advisors and trade union allies. Just because most economists deride the idea that EU membership presents an obstacle to a faster growing, more ‘socialist’ Britain, it doesn’t mean Corbyn and co. are going to stop believing that it does anytime soon.

And then, of course, there’s the widespread concern among many (but by no means all) Labour MPs in ‘Leave constituencies’ that being seen to do anything that smacks of stopping Brexit will lose them the support of ‘traditional Labour voters’ or ‘the white working class’. Doubtless those MPs will be citing Labour’s disappointing local election results in some Leave voting areas in the north of England as ‘evidence’.

Again, expert opinion would differ. It’s not just a matter of refusing to lump all sorts of very different people together in outdated, subjective, and fetishised categories. Or of being wary of extrapolating too much from the outcome of council contests. It’s also about preferring solid survey research over the faux-concern for their constituents or  ‘democracy’ expressed by a bunch of politicians arguably more interested in hanging on to their precious seats in parliament than the fate of the country as a whole.

Naturally, those politicians will dismiss that research: no-one but no-one, especially a bunch of ivory-tower academic number crunchers and London-based polling companies, will ever persuade an MP that they don’t know ‘their patch’ and ‘their people’ quite as well as they think they do – something which presumably accounts for the stunned incredulity with which so many defeated incumbents greet their demise at general election after general election.

But, to me at least, that research suggests that supporting a second vote wouldn’t actually lose Labour many, if any, seats anyway. And it also suggests that, even if it did, Labour might well win seats elsewhere as a result.

We also need to factor in the opportunity costs that Labour may have to pay for continuing to sit on the fence. True, a fair few of its members and supporters, whatever their t-shirts say, ultimately love Corbyn more than they hate Brexit. But not backing a second referendum – or whatever euphemism you prefer to call it – is, over time, still going to alienate an awful lot of them.

Maybe not so badly that they’ll immediately take to Twitter with their party cards and a sharp pair of scissors. But enough to see them slowly drift away or at least out of the ‘high-intensity’ activities (canvassing, leafletting, etc.) that are still so vital in first-past-the-post contests – something that Labour learned to its advantage, and the Tories to their cost, in 2017.

The eight-month run-up to that election saw Theresa May dismiss any notion that the 2016 Referendum had produced a close result which, along with the difficulties the UK was always going to face negotiating with a more powerful interlocutor, implied the best course to pursue was some sort of Norway-style arrangement. Instead, she went for a hard Brexit designed to appeal to Leave voters – many (though not all) of them socially conservative, less well-heeled and less well-educated – and in particular to the four million voters (13% of the electorate) who two years previously had voted for UKIP.

Sadly for Mrs May (and, as it turned out, fatally for her hopes of honouring her promise to extract the UK from the EU by 29 March 2019), she was only partially successful. Although she increased the Tories’ vote share (from 36.9% to 42.4%), the narrow majority they won under David Cameron in 2015 evaporated, leaving them as a minority government reliant on a dodgy support arrangement with the Brexit-supporting DUP.

True, the Conservatives did win over (and in many cases win back) many former UKIP voters, but only rarely in sufficient numbers in the places where they stood a chance of winning seats from Labour.

Meanwhile, Labour, despite its leader’s ambivalence during the referendum campaign, and despite its pledge to honour the result of the referendum, picked up votes from those sections of the electorate most likely to have voted Remain, namely the younger, the better educated and the more socially liberal. But because many of them were located in more urban areas where Labour would have won anyway, and because Tory support also rose, the party’s big improvement in vote share (from 30.4% to 40%) resulted in a much smaller, 30-seat improvement in seat share.

At that point, the stage was surely set for Britain’s two main parties to make Brexit and, crucially, the values associated with Remain and Leave voting, the main divide between them. And in many ways it still is – but for Jeremy Corbyn.

Few can doubt that the Conservatives’ response to what has happened since – most worryingly the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party  – will be to become, in nature if not in name, what Nick Timothy (once seen as some sort of Rasputin to May’s Tsarina), has taken to calling the National Party. Losing seats at the locals in some Remain-voting areas in the South might give them pause for thought, but it’s unlikely, particularly when Brexiteers can (and will) point to picking up the odd council in the West Midlands – an area that traditionally helps decide the result of general elections.

Now, if politics were physics it would presumably obey Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there would be an equal and opposite reaction. The Conservatives’ seemingly inexorable drift towards what many of its more moderate MPs see as populism, jingoism, and intolerance would be matched by a Labour Party catering only for those for who shudder to think of such things.

Anyone who wonders what that might do to our politics only has to look across the Atlantic, ideally with a copy of Lilliana Mason’s provocative but persuasive book, Uncivil Agreement, in their hands. The polarisation we are witnessing in the USA is driven not just by the fact that Americans are divided by race, religion, and whether they see themselves as conservative or liberal, but by the fact that these identities, via social sorting, increasingly map on to the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Nobody, surely, wants to see that kind of poisonous politics play out here. All of which raises the intriguing possibility – even for those who want to see Corbyn commit his party to a referendum and to remaining in the EU – that, by resolutely refusing to do either, he might be doing precisely the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.


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