The Genius of Corbyn’s Brexit Strategy
There is little doubt that the following two months are set to be the most defining period in British politics for many generations. Captain Boris and his band of merry marauders are steering HMS Britannia with delighted glee headfirst into a catastrophic collision with the iceberg of No Deal Brexit despite having no clear support from the public. And ever since MP Phillip Lee’s defection to the Liberal Democrats, the subsequent deselection of 21 Tory MPs who voted to against Johnson in favour of parliament taking over the Brexit agenda, and then further resignations from the Tory Cabinet, he also has no majority in parliament.
Furthermore, as the ultimate display of the contempt that he and his pals in power have for the institutions of democracy, Johnson has utilised a royal mandate to prorogue parliament till October 14th. This will leave a mere 17 days afterwards to try to halt this march towards insanity. All this, of course, to uphold democracy, supposedly. Despite the bizarre ride that British (and world) politics has been for the past three years, even this would seem like an absurd statement to write as recently as three weeks ago. This is why there is also every chance that this article might itself age very poorly in a short time. However, there is one pernicious myth surrounding Brexit which I feel compelled to try to dispel, one which may very well dispel itself in the coming weeks.
Among the multiple lines of attack that the trifecta of the Tories, the establishment commentariat and the PLP has employed in trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership there has been an insistence that his stance on Brexit has been insufficient, that he has been ineffective opposition, and that this will inevitably lead to his political demise at the next general election. However, upon closer inspection, it is increasingly apparent that this statement simply does not hold water. In fact, if anything, Corbyn’s position on Brexit may well turn out to be a gambit of genius.
One of the tropes repeated consistently by Corbyn’s critics ever since he took to office as the Labour leader in 2015, has been the idea that he is somehow “unelectable”. This idea has been stated time and time again, generally followed by calls for his resignation, over the past four years, and those calls, usually originating from the same cadres of Blairite MPs and centrist journalists, get louder every time YouGov publishes a poll that puts the Tories inexplicably far ahead of Labour. Corbyn’s political program has been branded as “fantasy”, “taking the country back to the 70s”, and that there is “no magic money tree” to pay for it. In fact, the way in which the prime culprits responsible for Brexit, Cameron, Johnson, Gove, and Farage, quickly stepped out of the spotlight post-referendum and the focus was immediately shifted to Labour’s supposed failure in campaigning for Remain, one could be forgiven for thinking that Corbyn was the one that caused this mess to begin with.
This argument somehow conveniently ignores the fact that Corbyn, despite his many justifiable misgivings over the EU, did in fact campaign actively for Remain, certainly more so than the likes of David Cameron. As for electability, under his leadership, Labour has doubled its membership to half a million, as he won a historic mandate in 2015, and an even bigger one after an embarrassing coup attempt in 2016 after the referendum. The fact is that the Labour manifesto (unlike the Conservative one) was fully costed, and that once it was leaked in the run-up to the 2017 general election, the gap between the parties closed rapidly and Theresa May lost her majority in parliament after calling the snap election herself with a view to wiping out Labour for a generation. Yet those who continue to admonish Corbyn for his supposed idealism, are the same ones who lambast him for his Brexit stance as being too politically-minded. As with the Antisemitism “crisis”, it’s almost like there’s a narrative and then there’s reality, and never the twain shall meet.
When we take a look at the hand that Corbyn was dealt in relation to Brexit, it’s something of a miracle that he is still in the position that he is in today. It is no secret that Corbyn comes from the tradition of left Euroskepticism championed by the likes of Tony Benn, which views the EU as an institution designed to uphold the social order of neoliberal capitalism at all costs, something which was made especially clear in its treatment of Greece following the Eurozone crisis. Yet it was also evident to all that the Leave campaign was a racist project based on lies bankrolled by billionaires who want to see Britain deregulated into becoming a Randian free-for-all with low taxes and no human rights, and as such it was certainly not a platform any decent politician could share.
It is often easy for those of us living in our relative bubbles of comfort in places like London to forget that the EU referendum did indeed pass. For whatever reason they did, no matter how much those voting for leave were lied to, the reality is that the majority of people voted for Britain to leave the EU. And for Labour, that meant around a third of its voters. Therefore, for Corbyn to fully embrace remain and a second referendum would not only be a slap in the face to any pretence of democracy that the political institutions we live under claim to uphold, but it would also alienate a significant proportion his voter base even further. These were people who rightfully felt betrayed and neglected by the political establishment for the better part of four decades, for the first time in their lives, felt like their vote actually counted for something, even if it was just a great big “fuck you” to the suits, whether in Brussels or Westminster.
Moreover, “Corbyn’s stance on Brexit” was never really Corbyn’s stance on Brexit. It is and has always been the policy agreed upon and voted for by the Labour membership. In short, it is to respect the result of the referendum, while also acknowledging that people did, in fact, vote to improve their lives, and so if no Brexit deal can deliver that, all options, including a second referendum, were on the table. Given the current state of affairs, this would involve, were Labour to come into government, attempting to negotiate a new deal, and then returning the decision to the people on a confirmatory referendum with remain as an option on the ballot. Sure, it’s a more nuanced position which can’t perhaps be condensed into a convenient soundbite, but it ought to be the media’s prerogative to communicate such matters of national importance to the people in an accurate fashion, something they have, wilfully or not, failed miserably at doing. Not only is this the only morally reasonable position for the party to hold if it claims to represent the will of its voters, but it turns out, it is also a politically expedient one.
The job of the party in opposition, and by proxy the opposition leader, is to hold the government accountable for their actions and generally to block legislation from passing. If that is the metric by which Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the opposition is measured, then only a few days ago, Corbyn surpassed Maggie Thatcher’s post-war record of defeating the government in Commons 40 times, becoming in effect the most effective opposition leader of all time.
This includes the historic defeat of Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement bill by 230 votes, as well as every single vote put forward by Boris Johnson after the resumption of parliament last week. Let’s also not forget that the only proposed amendments to Theresa May’s deal that Brussels even considered working with were those forwarded by Corbyn, but of course, May wouldn’t be caught dead conceding any ground to Labour. One could look at these cases and say that the Tories only have themselves to blame for this by doubling down on their hard Brexit position and collapsing within their own ranks, that they have scored own goal after own goal. In reality however, most own goals are scored when being put under pressure by the other team.
This was no more evident than during Johnson’s first PMQs, where he was repeatedly called out by Corbyn and other Labour MPs for his dishonesty regarding (not) negotiating a new deal and the truly catastrophic consequences of No Deal, the forecasts for which were being withheld from the public. It will have become abundantly clear to anyone thus far undecided that this man is nothing more than a sentient lump of cottage cheese, an embodiment of British aristocratic privilege writ large, as he tripped and stumbled over his responses, resorting to the same three soundbites delivered over and over with zero charisma or conviction, and failed to actually answer any of the questions he was asked.
What’s more, now that the Yellowhammer documents have finally been published, the actual extent of the devastation that will be caused by No Deal is there for all to see. The documents, the government’s own forecast for No Deal, describe a scenario in which supply chains for medications could be delayed by up to 6 months, there will be critical food shortages and thus price hikes, total chaos at the border, and an explicit admission that the already vulnerable will be the hardest hit. It has also proved beyond any doubt that new Chancellor Sajid Javid’s spending review, which claimed to put an end to austerity by promising an £18 billion investment into public services (not that that figure would make even a single dent on the damage wreaked by a decade of austerity) is utterly baseless since it doesn’t take into account the contingencies for the economic downturn that would inevitably follow No Deal.
The good news is, though, that many things will most likely change in the very near future. I began writing this piece a little over a week ago, and even in this short span of time, much has already happened. The House of Lords has passed a bill deeming it unlawful to leave the EU on October 31st with no deal. Three Scottish judges have ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful since he was allegedly deceptive about his motivations for doing so to the queen (I still can’t believe I have to type out that sentence). It would also appear, when compared to the leaks that came out in August, that the Mad Max-like scene depicted in the Yellowhammer files, was edited from ‘base case scenario’ to ‘worst case scenario’ before being published. All this on top of yet more resignations from within senior Tory ranks, including Boris’ own brother (and fellow arch-careerist) Jo Johnson, and Amber Rudd, one of the chief architects of austerity and the Windrush scandal. Boris Johnson is currently operating with a “majority” of minus 46 seats. Despite the many horrific possibilities awaiting us all in the weeks to come, it’s hard not to revel, ever so slightly, in witnessing the total implosion of the Conservative Party.
This, of course, means that there will almost certainly be a general election held before the end of the year. And this will be the best opportunity we have had to instate a truly transformative democratic socialist political program to power since right after WWII. The reason we are in this place is because the Labour manifesto offers a project for genuine tangible change to the material conditions of people’s everyday lives. Moreover, it signifies the resurgence of grassroots political engagement, and a restoration of a greater degree of democratic agency in people’s personal lives.
This is in opposition to the actual fantasy politics of the centrist melts in the Lib Dems and the Labour right, who simply wish to revoke Article 50, pretend like nothing has happened, and return to the glory days of 2015, as if that wasn’t a time when DWP policies were already killing thousands and the Home Office was deporting black and brown people en masse. And somehow Corbyn is supposed to be the impractical and overly idealistic candidate here? In the face of the death of the incumbent neoliberal world order, much like the Republicans in the US, the Tories have realised that their own means of clawing on to power for as long as they can is to redouble their suicidal right-wing extremism, no matter at what cost to their own party, and even less so to the lives of ordinary people. The choice in the coming election is thus clear — it’s either socialism or barbarism.
Ever since 2016, everyone knows that guessing political outcomes is a mug’s game. No one knows with certainty what will come of this entire saga. Now that parliament has been prorogued, at least until it is recalled, nothing can move forward, which was, after all, Johnson and his chief advisor Dominic Cummings’ plan all along. However, what was probably not in his plan was to lose every single vote in the House of Commons so far, including trying to force through a general election before the October 31st deadline in order to dictate the terms of Brexit if voted in, to which Labour rightly refused, in effect check-mating the Tories. Now that No Deal has been deemed illegal, when parliament is recalled, Johnson will have very few options left other than to resign, if only to save himself the blushes of asking Brussels for an extension and becoming the first sitting PM who loses his seat at a general election.
We have already seen the disregard Johnson and his lackeys have for the democratic process, and so it isn’t unthinkable that they take even further extreme measures to force through No Deal, in order to line the pockets of their backers like Crispin Odey and Arron Banks and turn Britain into a free-market tax-haven dictatorship similar to Singapore or Dubai. However, there is also every chance that before the end of this year, we will have Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10.
Despite recent polls showing the Conservatives leading by anywhere between 3 and 14 points, Corbyn’s entire Brexit strategy has rested on the assumption that similar to in 2017, when it comes round to election season again and people are delivered a program which promises to radically improve their lives in practical and achievable ways, that is ultimately what they will vote for. There is also an understanding that now that No Deal has been taken off the table, once an extension has been granted to the October 31st deadline, the Tories will have virtually no platform left to campaign on. And there is great wisdom in this approach.
That’s because ultimately for most people it’s not a matter of left or right, leave or remain, it’s just a natural desire for a better life. They voted Brexit because regardless of whether they voted red or blue for the past 40 years, they have seen their lives and their communities stagnate wholesale, and they had had enough. The unending soap opera of Brexit has been in many ways an enormous distraction from discussing these fundamental issues. And that is why Corbyn’s strategy has been a political masterclass — because it aims to address not the symptoms, but rather the causes. And despite having had to face down unparalleled adversity from all sides, it’s on the cusp of toppling the Tory regime.
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