Corbyn’s Brexit neutrality makes sense, but it might not win Labour the election

Finding a consistent position on Brexit has been a major challenge for the British Left over the last five years. On the one hand, since the financial crisis the European Union has followed many of the core tenets of the neoliberal ideology that the Left are fighting: austerity, technocracy, and virulent opposition to the kind of deficit spending that is the core of the Labour manifesto. On the other hand, the Left has failed to create a workable Eurosceptic movement that embodies their values and goals. The discourse around Euroscepticism has instead been monopolised by anti-immigrant groups and the right of the Conservative Party. Most on the Left seem to have given up on forging their own way, and have acquiesced to either the liberal status quo or its reactionary opposition. 

All this has put the Labour Party in a very difficult position. The Left’s ambivalence on Brexit is shown by the fact that Labour MPs hold major leave-voting and remain-voting constituencies. It seems that whatever position they take, they will be alienating half their voter base.

As a response to this, Labour’s strategy for the upcoming general election has been to focus on issues other than Brexit, primarily inequality and public spending. While the Tory and Lib Dem campaigns can be reduced to ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘stop Brexit’ respectively, Labour have argued that Brexit is merely a symptom of something larger: the failure of the neoliberal consensus that has developed since the 1980s. 

It is in this context that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit makes sense. A Labour government would negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU and then hold a referendum in which people can choose between this deal and remaining in the EU. Corbyn has controversially announced that he would remain neutral during this referendum. While this may disillusion many voters on both sides of the debate, any other option would fracture the party and derail the general election campaign. Taking either position would destroy Labour’s attempt to recontextualise the coming election on issues other than Brexit and would likely turn voters in many traditional Labour constituencies away from the party. Fundamentally, people could vote for someone who isn’t attached to their position on Brexit, but who would give them a chance to vote for their side, rather than someone committed to fighting against them. 

At this point in the campaign, Labour’s success will rely heavily on their ability to convince people to see beyond Brexit. Their ambitious policies on the climate, education, and the provision of broadband are clearly aimed at winning over younger people; disproportionately remain-supporting demographic.  This shift in focus, however, does not seem to have taken hold among voters in general. Recent YouGov polling has suggested that Brexit by far the most important issue for voters in the coming election. And despite their slow crawl upwards in the polls, Labour is still falling behind the Conservatives by roughly 10 points. 

The degree to which Labour will be able to sell their perspective to the electorate in the last weeks on the campaign remains to be seen.


Illustration: Polly Burnay