Could Corbyn’s Brexit Boycott Help Win Labour the Next Election?

(Bloomberg) -- They stood in line in icy rain outside the former chapel where the man they want to be prime minister was going to speak. For the 200 Labour activists gathered on Thursday in the coastal town of Hastings, southeast England, the party’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn can do no wrong.

Yet about 70 miles away in London, Corbyn is facing a backlash for his mishandling of the Brexit crisis gripping Britain. Politicians on his own side accuse him of failing in his duty after rejecting Prime Minister Theresa May’s offer of cross-party talks on how to leave the European Union.

The question is, who is right?

Where Labour members of Parliament see a leader playing games with the country’s gravest issue, for grassroots supporters Corbyn has answers to their chief concerns on healthcare, poverty and education.

Corbyn’s aim is to force a general election, install himself as head of a left-wing government and radically reshape the British economy. Set against that, Brexit is something of a sideshow.

“The real divide in our country is not between leave and remain,” Corbyn said to enthusiastic applause. “It’s between the many who do the work, create the wealth and pay their taxes, work in our society, deliver for the rest of us -- and those others, those few who set the rules, reap the rewards and dodge their taxes.”

‘Constructive Ambiguity’

On Wednesday, Corbyn tried -- and failed -- to trigger the election he so badly wants, when May survived a vote of no-confidence in her government. Instead it was Corbyn who found himself facing some awkward questions about his own ambiguous policy on Brexit.

A lifelong Euroskeptic, he has long been reluctant to engage in a detailed argument on Brexit policy. He’s pursued a strategy of “constructive ambiguity” as he’s tried to strike a balance between pro-EU members of his party and the pro-Brexit voters in the constituencies of most Labour members of Parliament.

Even though political commentators in London criticize it, the formula worked well in the 2017 general election. Against all expectations, including his own, Corbyn erased May’s majority.

At the start of that campaign, the Tories had a 25-point lead in the polls. In the final result, seven weeks later, Labour won 40 percent of the vote and the Conservatives won 42.4 percent. The unexpected surge in Corbyn’s personal approval ratings during the campaign was credited with making the difference.

There are signs that parking Brexit and focusing on people’s ordinary lives could work for Labour again. While a YouGov poll this week showed voters think Brexit is the most important issue facing Britain, 47 percent of Labour supporters named healthcare top, and a quarter said housing was the most pressing problem to solve.

Activist Fervor

At the chapel in Hastings, there was no sign that the quasi-religious fervor among Corbyn’s supporters had dimmed since the 2017 socialist roadshow. As they waited, they talked of the campaign against austerity that had got them involved in the party and the “real issues” facing the country outside the London bubble.

One described Brexit as “purple smoke” -- a distraction from the deprivation and injustice infecting the U.K. An election fought on those issues is an election Labour can win, they believe.

Corbyn received a passionate standing ovation before he’d said a word and received an enraptured response for simply arriving at the venue.

But the picture is not straightforward. Polls also show the majority of Labour activists favor staying in the European Union and want a second referendum. Corbyn doesn’t, but he’s being pushed to change his mind. Many in the party see a second referendum as the only option Corbyn should pursue.

On Thursday, he came closer than ever to accepting the need for another plebiscite. Corbyn can’t have failed to hear the activists’ cheers as he said a Brexit vote should be on the table -- they threatened to lift the domed ceiling of the Georgian chapel where he spoke.

The next day, he published a letter he’d sent to May in which he put the onus on her to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Until then, Corbyn said his party wouldn’t hold any meaningful talks with the government.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.