I voted for Jeremy Corbyn twice in the two most recent Labour leadership elections. The first time because he was the only candidate that seemed to directly address substantive policy issues and the second time because I felt he deserved a chance to succeed despite his lamentable performance during the EU referendum of 2016. Had any other candidate won I would have rallied round and supported them as usual: the only time in recent years that I have withheld my support for Labour is for Blair in the 2005 general election, in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War.
It’s clear that Corbyn takes a 1970s view of the European Union that is both conspiratorial and wrong headed. His few remarks on state aid for industry indicate a misunderstanding about the role of the EU in the fields of technological change, competition policy, and regional development. Other socialist politicians in Europe have urged Corbyn to adopt an internationalist perspective but he will not let go of a parochial and backward looking stance. The repeated mantra of the current Labour leadership for a “jobs first Brexit” ignores the impact of a shrunken economy on any progressive political programme.
If Labour’s support for Brexit is driven more by political expediency than anything else then this stems from a misunderstanding of British politics. Although many constituencies with Labour MPs voted for Brexit in 2016 a majority of Labour voters opted for Remain. Recent surveys show that the shift towards Remain among existing and potential Labour voters has further strengthened so that a pro-Brexit position risks alienating millions of supporters. It would be far better to combine a commitment to Remain via another referendum with a clear programme to end austerity and tackle critical challenges such as the need for more social housing, the impact of inequality, and declining public services.
Clinging to the “Lexit” position seems even more disastrous when we move the focus from economic policy to cultural identity. Brexit is a project of and for the political Right: the referendum was narrowly won by the Leave campaign on the basis of cheating, lies, and the deliberate use of racist rhetoric to unleash a kind of angry nostalgia. This is the vision of Enoch Powell not Clement Attlee and Labour’s dalliance with a destructive form of English nationalism risks shattering their commitment to anti-racism and social justice. As the Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn has recently argued, the defining failure of centre left parties across Europe in recent years has been to allow worsening socio-economic inequalities to be blamed on migration rather than neo-liberalism. This failure of political leadership predates Corbyn but he has neglected to challenge dangerous misconceptions about the causes of poverty, inequality, and industrial decline.
So here we are, just a matter of weeks away from Brexit, unless article 50 is rescinded or delayed. And time is rapidly running out for the Labour leadership to take a principled position on the most critical political dilemma of our generation.