Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in Westminster yesterday about, well, the road to Brexit. Coming on the same day that the loss of Copeland was announced, it took on an interesting texture.
Introducing the event was Sergei Stanishev, a Bulgarian MEP who is the president of the Party of European Socialists. I think perhaps Labour HQ and Sergei should have touched base about messaging beforehand. From the his intro, you would have thought that Brexit was something that the Tories were trying to inflict on the country but that Labour were not going to let happen come hell or high water. Aren’t Labour trying to taste Brexity these days? Because I’m trying to wrack my brain to think of something more Remainy than a Bulgarian MEP talking about the glories of the European project, but I really can’t come up with anything. Again, you ask, what exact message is Labour trying to convey about Brexit here? Is leaving the European Union a catastrophically terrible idea or something that is filled with opportunities for progressives across Britain? That is binary; it cannot possibly be both.
Then Corbyn got started and it all got much worse. At least I understood where Sergei stands on Brexit – Saint Jeremy on the other hand was, as usual, all over the shop on the topic du jour. For a start, the Labour leader still thinks that his party can shape the Tories’ Brexit negotiations – he does not make clear exactly how this will actually happen, other than Labour remaining “united and open to ideas”. Given Corbyn’s leadership and the ideological makeup of the PLP, that is a paradoxical statement before you even get into its pragmatic absurdity.
He talked a lot about how terrible Britain becoming a libertarian tax haven would be; how lacking he thinks the Tories plans for Brexit are; yet never once did he seem to understand that he had one chance to actually shape the Brexit process via the vote in the House of Commons – and he threw it away.
“Trade unions must be listened to in the Brexit negotiations”, says Corbyn. Yet the only way the unions will have any influence is by lobbying the Conservative Party, either directly or via third parties – they will get nothing through working within the Labour Party.
The nadir of the speech was when Corbyn said that in leaving the EU Britain should “strengthen not weaken our relationship with the 27 EU countries.” What does the hell does he actually mean by this? He even dropped the line, “Just because we’re leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe,” adding Boris Johnson to the list of right-wing politicians he’s decided to ape of late.
I want to say something positive here, so here goes: Corbyn proposed a Crossrail for the north, which is a great idea. I’m glad he put it in the speech too, because perhaps one of the Tory governments we’re going to have over the next twenty years (at least) will nick it.
The overwhelming impression I got from the event was just how irrelevant Labour has become. In the wake of an historic by-election defeat to a sitting Tory government, Corbyn thought it was a good idea to prattle shapelessly on about a Brexit process he will have nothing to do with. Another milestone in Labour’s sad decline.
I watched Corbyn’s talk. From a backbencher in despair of his party’s leadership, it would have been quite plausible. Lots of alternatives would be more remainy, including contributions from prominent politicians of the left from Germany, France, Italy etc. Few would volunteer to stand alongside Corbyn right now.
My impression is that he dreams of a completely rebuilt socialist Europe, which is why he would like a Maoist strategy involving dismantling the current EU. I do not think the consequences and implications of Brexit have really sunk in for Corbyn, or I have to assume his coterie. For Corbyn it is all abstract and theoretical politics. In this he is in tune with a large sector of the UK electorate, who voted to leave in the expectation that nothing so abstract could have much impact on their standard of life. It is a politicians job to understand and communicate implications that may not always appear immediate. Corbyn cannot do this; it is above all a failure of intellect.
p.s. Nick Tyrone: a topic that you have not looked at yet are Labour’s MEPs: where are they? What are they doing? Do they have any hair left? – Actually we can ask much the same of Conservative MEPs, though, I imagine many will hope to be candidates for Westminster in 2020.