If we are going to accept Labour’s rhetoric about being the government in waiting, we need to consider what kind of PM Jeremy Corbyn will make. As an accomplished backbench contrarian, Corbyn had the latitude to say and do pretty much what he wanted. But since being elevated to the top job he’s had to play a different game. As PM, he’d be expected to raise that game even further.
I’m beginning to doubt that he can do this for many reasons, but my principal source of scepticism now is his lack of opposition to the government’s chaotic Brexit plans.
To me it’s pretty clear that Corbyn personally supports Brexit. It’s not an uncommon position for those towards the further left of the political spectrum, and he’s entitled to that view. But as leader of a party whose stated position was remain, he was faced with a personal paradox.
The referendum result gave him some respite from this dilemma as his party could take the position of ‘respecting the will of the people’. There followed Labour’s somewhat paradoxical tests for Brexit, and the gradual realisation that neither side of the political divide can make any sense out of the process of leaving the EU.
As this has dawned on more and more of the population, Corbyn has sought to keep his head down and avoid any confrontation on the subject. But that confrontation has now found him. His opposition to the idea of a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal puts in doubt his claims to support a truly representative democracy, even in his own party.
There’s evidence of a significant swathe of opposition to Brexit within the Labour Party now, especially in their younger membership, many of whom only joined the party after Corbyn took the reins. There was a stark reminder of this during the recent Labour Live event when the now infamous banner was unfurled in the audience calling on Corbyn to stop backing Brexit.
At last year’s Glastonbury, Corbyn triumphantly took to the stage to chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”. A similar refrain rang out during the People’s Vote rally on Saturday, except this time the crowd was asking: “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”.
The answer – he was in Palestine highlighting issues in the Middle East. Important issues, yes, but issues he could have raised at almost any time. It’s patently obvious he was ‘doing a Boris’. Just as Johnson has done prior to the vote on the third runway at Heathrow this week (something else Corbyn hasn’t taken a firm stance on), he conveniently contrived to be out of the country to avoid criticism of his lack of involvement in a key debate. When he takes a leaf out of BoJo’s playbook, it’s difficult to see how Corbyn’s claims to a new open and honest politics can really be taken seriously.
Corbyn appears to be at the mercy of the right wing reactionary elements of his support base. In many ways they’re his natural bedfellows, but they don’t make very good partners for a progressive government. The Brexit rump of Labour’s mainly northern voter base seems liable to jump in whichever direction suits their aims. In 2015 they could easily have voted Ukip. In 2017 they may have vacillated between Labour and the Tories, but in the end most of them seemed to stay loyal to the utopian dream being offered by Corbyn. Just so long as that dream was set outside the EU.
Labour knows this and Corbyn is in a bind. He knows that his unexpected performance in the 2017 General Election was largely down to voters abandoning Ukip in favour of Labour. While he’s paralysed by the fear that they might flip again, he’s laying back and allowing the Tories to push ahead with their damaging plans.
A bad Brexit - and let’s face it any Brexit looks like being bad - will probably be damaging to the Tories. But by the time we get to that point it may be pretty academic who’s in power. There’s going to be very little that Corbyn and Labour can do to fix things once we’ve left. He’s playing the odds, but if recent polls are anything to go by, the odds are shifting against him.
Once our economy starts to circle the drain, we’ll need to rebuild bridges pretty fast. At that point, a Eurosceptic PM still looking over his shoulder at the more rabid Brexiteers is going to be just as ineffectual in dealing with the EU as he’s been shown to be on the subject so far. Moreover, if he continues to be in the thrall of the reactionaries, I doubt he’ll be able to deliver on many of his other progressive ideals.
It’s been reported that Momentum - Corbyn’s party within a party - are starting to recognise the folly of an opposition failing to oppose the government on the most important national issue in generations. Even they are now calling on their figurehead to take a more active role in blocking the Tory led Brexit and to support a People’s Vote.
If Corbyn wants to win, wants to show truly representative democracy, he needs to take into account the wishes of all his membership, not just those he feels most comfortable with. Indeed if comments I heard on the doorstep during the recent local elections are anything to go by, his success at the next election may well hinge on the support of those members who don’t share his views on Brexit.
Moreover, if he’s going to deliver the truly progressive, forward-looking leadership, he needs to stop conceding to the backwards-looking old party stalwarts, or those members who would just as easily vote Tory if it suited them.
If he’s the democratic visionary he’s being billed as, I’d like to see him stop playing games, long or short, and start taking the issue of parliamentary sovereignty and the real will of the people seriously. Democracy didn’t end on 23 June 2016, and those people Corbyn abandon now may remind him of that come the next general election.