The way in which Corbyn and his mates have been using the issue of Brexit as a weapon in their desperate attempts to retain control of the Labour Party is, I think, revealing. The most common criticism of the Labour Party they inherited was that it wasn’t ideologically pure enough. That it was too concerned with “triangulation” and compromise in its policies – too weak in chasing the lowest common denominator (on immigration or business, for example) to be true to Labour’s roots. So it’s odd, then, to see the attack on “centrist remainers” in the cabinet (by which they mean, I presume, Starmer and Thornbury, not McDonnell. But who knows the inner workings of the politburo?) framed entirely in terms of the fact that it cost Labour votes. That we should have adopted a strong leave position because it would have preserved our position on the “red wall” – it would have won us more seats.
This argument is, for a start, at best only reality adjacent, ignoring:
- That Brexit was not the main issue (by a long
distance) amongst those who switched from Labour to Tory.
- That the promise of a second referendum was, undoubtedly, one of the things that dragged the Liberal Democrats down from their 20% plus poll rating they held for most of 2019 and contributed to Labour’s recovery from low/mid 20s to the giddy heights of 32% in the general election
- That Corbyn has spent four years turning Labour into a middle class, metropolitan party – its voters and members are overwhelmingly remain – and any reduction in the seats lost in the towns of the north, midlands and Wales by being unambiguously pro-Brexit would have been, at least partly, offset by losses in the cities.
But even if we take it at face value the claim that Labour would have gained more votes if it had taken an unashamedly Leave position, it would still have been the wrong thing to do.
Leave is wrong economically. Leave will make the people of the United Kingdom poorer than they would otherwise be, and all the evidence shows that it will do the greatest damage to the poorest communities.
Leave is wrong socially. The Brexit agenda is designed to divide people, to break up links between nations but also to break up communities. It seeks to turn back the clock – there is no Brexit that doesn’t undermine the rights and freedoms that underpin the (for all its flaws) more open and equal society we now live in.
And Leave is wrong morally. It’s designed build walls and exclude and if, today, its targets are immigrants and foreigners make no mistake, when the shit hits the fan (and it will), the Brexiters will find other minorities and vulnerable groups to scapegoat.
So Leave is wrong – even if it is popular. And arguing now that we should have supported it in the election because it was electorally expedient is wrong too.
I’m a believer in parties building broad-based alliances, but a party also has to lead sometimes. Whether it was abolishing the death penalty, legalising homosexuality, making racial discrimination illegal or legalising abortion (all enabled by that most centrist melt of centrist Labour melts – Roy Jenkins – in just three extraordinary, brave years), Labour has done best when it has lead the public not surrendered to a desire to appease narrow (sometimes narrow-minded) majorities.
And let’s be absolutely clear – there’s nothing “centrist” about backing Remain. Remain is the defence of trades unions hard won rights, it’s the maintenance of the human right to equality of treatment across all of society and for every minority, it’s internationalist in bringing people together and spreading understanding and common rights across borders.
And there’s nothing radical about Leave’s pretence that we can go back to the 1950s – whether your imagined 1950s is a Tory idyll of village greens and no foreigners or Lexit’s “socialism in one nation” nonsense.
The Corbynites are wrong about Brexit’s effect on the election. They don’t believe it. They are using it as a crude distraction from their own failures. But even if they were right, even if unequivocally backing Brexit had been the only way to win the election, it would still have been the wrong thing to do.