In examining Corbyn’s Coventry speech, one main question needs to be asked: does a Labour government feel more likely after it, or less likely? I have to say that it not only feels more likely, but much more likely. The Tories need to grasp what a threat the speech and what it sets out poses to them. So far, the signs on that aren’t great: we’ve had the Daily Mail saying that staying in a customs union with the EU means accepting freedom of movement of people (it doesn’t) and other right of centre outlets trying to hammer home the message that Corbyn is “betraying” Brexit with his latest proposals, a strategy I think will backfire.
The problem with the line of attack is that it does two things that are bad for the Tories: one, it forces people to think about what Brexit actually does mean and what the Tories are proposing in greater depth, scrutiny that it most definitely does not stand up to. Whatever the actually reality of what kind of agreement can be reached with the EU, Corbyn has essentially said that goods need to be able to move freely in and out of the UK (his car example was well chosen) but not people. The Tories are saying everything needs to stop at Dover, which I think is further from where the country is, not to mention business.
Two, it gives Brexit another focus, an opposite idea, one that has been totally absent until now. The Tories have all jumped in to say that Corbyn’s plans risk striking free trade deals all around the world, not stopping to think about whether or not the people who voted Leave actually wanted that at all. I feel safe in saying that the reason most Labour voters who plumped for Leave was not so that a plethora of free trade deals could be struck. In fact, something which controls immigration and yet keeps supply chain open (and thus, factories in Britain open) sounds like just the ticket for most Labour Leavers.
It is worth looking at what Corbyn actually said in regards to a Customs Union:
“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union as the Brexit Secretary, David Davis promised in the House of Commons, with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections. We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.”
“But we are also clear that the option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals. A new customs arrangement would depend on Britain being able to negotiate agreement of new trade deals in our national interest. Labour “would not countenance a deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others. That would mean ending up as mere rule takers.”
The CBI and even the IOD welcomed the speech; the fact that a Labour leader who is an avowed socialist is drawing praise from business trade bodies tells you how badly wrong the Conservatives have gone in terms of ignoring the business community’s concerns on Brexit. This is not a minor thing, but a major shift in British politics.
The speech will have disappointed a lot of diehard Remainers, and they should have figured out that it is very unlikely that Corbyn will go further than this and announce membership of the Single Market is still on the table. Yet given Corbyn has been Brexity Brexit on toast up until now and Remainers have still flocked to him, I figure this speech will be more than enough to keep the vast majority of them on side. The right-wing press, now given to handing Corbyn easy victories, has probably gifted him another one with this “Brexit betrayal” stuff – it will be catnip to most left-wing Remainery types, who have never been that interested in the detail anyhow.
The speech is bad news for the Conservatives, but also for the Lib Dems, who are hoping to pick up a slice of the Remainer vote, particularly in London. I almost never say this, but I’m forced to today: Corbyn and his team have played a blinder. It will almost certainly have a major effect on the future of the country, whether for good or ill.