Why Corbyn Needs Europe and Why Labour Needs Corbyn

12/07/2016 10:09 | Updated 12 July 2016

There are two big issues for Labour today: how to respond to the vote for Brexit and the Labour Party leadership. Rarely have these issues been discussed together. They should be.

Less than a year ago, a significant majority of the Labour family voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader. According to YouGov, in the June 2016 EU referendum, 65% of those who had voted Labour in 2015 voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

Nevertheless, many working people did vote for Brexit, voting to reject an institution that they saw as imposing rules, such as the requirement to accept unlimited immigration from Eastern Europe, but without providing benefits to the UK that they felt were worth keeping. They were unimpressed by the arguments that half our exports go to Europe, that millions of British jobs are linked to trade with our largest market - the EU, that our standards of living and rights at work are protected by the EU. They saw the status quo as so irredeemably broken that they had little to lose by leaving the EU: we could trade with other countries, we could be free from EU laws and we could 'take control' of immigration.

So, what happened? 37.4% of the electorate voted to leave the EU. A narrow win for Leave, with a margin of victory of 1.3 million votes. Within hours, the key promises on which the Leave campaign were based began to unravel: it turns out that there is not £350 million per week to spend on the NHS after all; it turns out that immigration from the EU can't be controlled while we remain in the single market; it turns out that we are not alright economically now, with the pound plummeting dramatically, companies already beginning to relocate, taking jobs with them, and the prized triple-A credit rating - in zealous defence of which George Osborne imposed a decade or so of austerity - gone within days. The fall in economic growth that will follow will be devastating for ordinary people's livelihoods; jobs will disappear just as prices for goods in the supermarket will rise.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister who called the referendum has resigned. Nigel Farage, who excited anti-immigrant sentiment, has gone too; as has the deputy leader of UKIP. Boris Johnson, shocked to have won the referendum, promised the moon on a stick for what post-Brexit Britain would look like and was swiftly betrayed by his chum Michael Gove. In turn, Gove failed to make the final two in the Tory leadership contest.

The only prominent Brexiteer left is Andrea Leadsom, a junior energy minister, of whom no-one had heard before the referendum TV debate. As the last Brexiteer standing, and the anti-continuity candidate for the Tory leadership, she could become Prime Minister, enjoying the endorsements of Britain First, UKIP and the BNP. Her main qualification for the job of Prime Minister, ignoring the allegedly sexed-up CV, appears to be that she is a mother. She has views on gay marriage that are out of step with Britain in 2016. She wants to overturn the ban on fox-hunting. The icing on the Leadsom cake is that she wants to scrap maternity pay and the minimum wage for small businesses. At the same time, across the country, we see a terrifying rise in hate crime and racist sentiment, openly expressed. In London alone, reported hate crimes have risen by over 50% since the referendum.

It is painfully clear that there is no plan for what happens next. The economically sensible option of remaining in the single market and continuing to enjoy tariff-free and unfettered access to our vital main export market requires accepting common rules, over which we would have no say. Those common rules would almost certainly include free movement of labour. Accepting free movement of labour, even if the other 27 EU members would allow us to stay in the single market, would undermine the motivating factor for millions of English Leave votes. Imagine the fury when the perceived main disadvantage of EU membership is perpetuated. On the other hand, leaving the single market would be devastating for our economy and would mean quickly negotiating new trade deals with countries that are not neighbours, as Richard Corbett puts it, without "the full clout of the world's largest market behind us". It is difficult to imagine even moderate Conservatives stomaching this option.

In addition, we have all heard the countless accounts of people who simply wished to register a protest vote, not expecting their vote to be on the winning side. While almost all polls pre-referendum pointed to a close result, a number of polls showed that a clear majority of people expected Remain to win. In other words, potentially millions of people voted for Leave but expected Remain to win - a protest vote not expecting adverse consequences.

Little wonder, then, that, according to research from Opinium, about 1.2 million people already regret voting to leave the EU. That's within a whisker of the margin of victory; and that's before the economic pain has fully filtered through to ordinary purses and wallets. Wales, of course, benefits from EU membership to an annual net figure of £245 million, according to Cardiff University research. An ITV Wales / Cardiff University poll found Welsh voters would now vote Remain by 53% to 47% for Leave if there were a second EU referendum. That's a roughly 6% swing to Remain since the actual referendum result in Wales, where Leave had prevailed by 52.5% to 47.5%. Only 86% of those who voted Leave said they would do so again.

The issue is clearly not dead. Simply telling at least 48% of voters (especially when they include most of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, London and most of the big cities) to shut up and move on is hopeless. For such a major constitutional change, voted for on false pretexts (in this week when we have heard so much about false pretexts) and on the basis of outright lies, such a narrow margin in favour of such a far-reaching change, from 37.4% of the electorate, is clearly inadequate. Especially when it is still not clear what has been voted for: we are still trying to piece together what Britain outside the EU would look like and whether those who voted Leave will like what they see.

For the sake of our democracy, in dealing with this matter, which will take at least 2 years to develop or unravel, it is vital that our parliamentary democracy provides a strong voice for those who voted to Remain, for those who already regret their vote to Leave, and for those who, when they see what Leaving will look like, will decide that it is better off to Remain after all. With a Conservative Party that will be led by either a Brexiteer or a shy and reluctant Remainer (where was Theresa May during the referendum campaign?), the opposition - i.e., Labour - needs to be robust, loud and proudly pro-Europe. Our party policy has been to Remain, we campaigned to Remain, and most of our members and voters (and many of the voters that we need to win over) voted to Remain. If the next general election is called sooner than scheduled, Labour must fight it on a pro-Remain platform.

Does this mean that we must elect a new leader? No. It is manifest nonsense to suggest that Brexit was somehow Jeremy Corbyn's fault. In Corbyn, Labour have a leader who understands the struggles of the working family, who understands the economic challenge posed by rampant in-work poverty, who is passionate about fighting against the draining of resources from state safety nets and passionate about fighting for a better quality of life for those who need state help. More than any other potential Labour leader, Corbyn can speak to working families with the credibility that comes from sincerely held and plainly spoken beliefs, rather than the focus-group-calibrated words of someone who cares about winning more than about principle. Corbyn is best-placed to make the case for the benefits of immigration that leaders have for years been too afraid to make. After all, it is a case that he believes in. It is also a case on which securing public support for continued membership of the single market, and even the EU, depends. Corbyn is the person to make the case for solving the root causes of the problems of working-class communities: for providing the investment to build the houses, provide the jobs and properly fund the schools and hospitals put under such pressure in these areas by austerity, a pressure that is exacerbated by immigration. He is the person to make the case against austerity because he is, and has from the start been, the anti-austerity leader. There need be no contradiction between arguing for the interests of marginalised communities and arguing for immigration. Let Corbyn tackle the root causes of the strains on working-class communities and then the aggravating factor of immigration becomes diminished as a problem in its own right.

With all respect to her, to suggest that Angela Eagle is more electable than Jeremy Corbyn is laughable. As Stephen Bush elegantly put it, the grassroots do not want "a return to the days of anti-immigration mugs and lukewarm opposition to the Conservative cuts." In the week after the publication of the Chilcot report, it is absurd to suggest that Labour should offer the public a leader who voted for invading Iraq and for air strikes on Syria, consistently voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, voted for university tuition fees and failed to vote against the Welfare Bill in July 2015.

On policy, apart from Trident (a difficult issue for Labour, no matter who is leader), Europe is the only policy area where a contender from Labour's right or soft-left could enjoy a clear advantage over Corbyn. He faces political danger if his opponent chooses to stand on a platform that is more pro-European than his. Even though Corbyn has made Labour unequivocally an anti-austerity party, as Tom Watson memorably announced at the 2015 Annual Conference, some of Corbyn's supporters owe as much allegiance to their place in Europe and the wider world as they do to Corbyn's social policies and McDonnell's breath of fresh air in economic thinking. But if he makes a strong pro-Europe stand, Corbyn decisively outflanks his opponents, leaving them with no obvious policy issue of substance with which to attack him.

So, it is not an either / or choice. To provide a credible alternative to the Conservatives, to provide a meaningful opposition on the most important issues in our politics today, we need to be pro-Europe and we need to be pro-Corbyn. This is our path to winning the next general election. That is not to say that Corbyn's leadership has been perfect: no doubt lessons must be learned from the last few months and the Vice documentary uncovered a worrying apparent lack of competence in his staff. As George Monbiot beautifully put it, "the lords of misrule will not be overthrown by mumbling". Corbyn on song, as he was at the Durham Miners' Gala, is a force to be reckoned with. Corbyn, when reading off someone else's script, can be prone to the political equivalent of mumbling. Now, more than ever, Labour, and Britain, need powerful pro-European opposition from Corbyn, and Corbyn at his best: speaking out loudly and proudly for tackling the root causes of the problems of marginalised and left-behind communities - problems that no-one understands better than he does, speaking out loudly and proudly for the net positive contribution made by immigration, speaking out loudly and proudly for Europe and so for Britain.

UPDATE: Monday 11/07/16, 5pm: The above piece was initially submitted at about 2am today. Within 10 hours, there had already been further developments. Andrea Leadsom, the last Brexiteer standing, withdrew from the Tory leadership contest. The Tory Party rallied around Theresa May and this afternoon it was announced that May will be Prime Minister by Wednesday evening. This further underlines my point that the Brexiteers have abdicated responsibility, leaving the country in limbo, edging towards a seismic constitutional change that its new leaders did not really want and which the people who argued for the change have proven entirely unable to deliver. Meanwhile, also this morning, Theresa May declared that "Brexit means Brexit" and that, under her premiership, there would be "no attempt to re-join [the EU] by the back door". These developments reinforce my arguments above about the need for and importance of Labour providing meaningful and powerful opposition on a pro-Remain platform.

The views expressed here are the author's and do not reflect those of any organisation with which he is professionally associated.