Jeremy Corbyn Is No 'Man of the People'

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.K. Labour Party’s leadership has often seemed more annoyed by Brexit than truly worried about it. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was an unenthusiastic “remain” campaigner in 2016, and has mostly wanted to change the subject since. And yet the annual party conference in Liverpool has been largely dominated by debate over Labour’s Brexit strategy.

With less than six months to go until the U.K. leaves the European Union, Labour has now grasped the reality that the Conservative Party’s crisis over Brexit presents the biggest opportunity the party has seen in nearly a decade to retake power. But that means overcoming Labour’s own Brexit divisions and even encouraging the very chaos it claims to want to avoid.

Corbyn has been under pressure — from unions, Labour constituencies and campaigners — to push for a new vote on Brexit. After a five-hour debate Sunday, Labour delegates managed to agree on a motion that will be put to the conference for a vote on Tuesday. It reads: “If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.” You can see the hesitation in the wording.

Corbyn’s clear preference is to have a new general election, but that is not straightforward. Britain’s fixed term election rules mean that unless a motion for new elections receives approval from at least two-thirds of parliament, a vote of no-confidence is required. A new government could then be formed and submitted for approval, and only failing that could new elections be called. And Labour would need some Conservative MPs to get behind its no-confidence motion. 

Meanwhile, many in the party (as well as in other parties) are pushing for a so-called “people’s vote.” Polls have shown a shift in favor of remaining in the U.K., and especially in favor of a new vote. A YouGov poll commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign for a new referendum showed nearly 90 percent of Labour Party members want another referendum and that 93 percent would vote to stay in the European Union if that were on the ballot.

It’s not clear though how this would get done. A new Brexit vote would have to take place before Britain exits on March 29 next year. There are treaty provisions for extending the two-year timetable defined by Article 50, but that would require unanimous approval of the 27 other EU members, and it’s far from clear it would be granted for a new vote.

Certainly it would depend in part on what exactly the referendum is asking, and on that there is fundamental disagreement. One of Britain’s most powerful union bosses, Len McCluskey, says putting a “remain” option on the ballot would be a big mistake and would push Labour leave voters into the Conservative Brexiter camp.

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell was more reluctant to have a second vote but seems to share the view that if so, it should just be about the deal itself. That is at odds with another Labour figure and potential challenger to Corbyn, Chuka Umunna. Umunna, a moderate who is a leading member of the cross-party People’s Vote campaign, wants a “remain” option on the ballot.

The debate sometimes gets personal, reflecting deeper issues over the direction of the party and accusations that the left-wing leadership is driving out moderates and dissenters. In his party speech, McCluskey called on Umunna to “drop the country-club plotting” and “get behind the party that made you.” (Umunna responded by saying he’d never been to a country club.)

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham supports a second referendum only in the event that the U.K. is heading for a “no deal” Brexit. London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants a vote on whatever deal May reaches (along with a remain option). Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer was once opposed to a second referendum and led the debate over the motion; he refuses to rule out a “remain” option.

Theresa Griffin, a Labour Member of the European Parliament and a former Liverpool local government councilor, brushed off the party’s divide when I asked her about the disagreements and the five-hour debate over the motion. “That’s democracy. People have to work these things out, and I support that,” she said. “I would hope there would be an option to remain. I think we are getting there.”

If there is no Brexit deal or it is rejected by parliament, the issue of a second vote may become less theoretical. But it’s far from likely. It’s hard to imagine Conservatives agreeing to put “remain” on the ballot, given the depth of support for Brexit in the party. Given the clear economic damage a no-deal Brexit would cause, it would seem reckless for any parliament to allow that option on the ballot. And if a second vote is promised by either party after a general election, that simply drags out the uncertainty and would require the EU to delay the Brexit timetable, something it is reluctant to do especially with European parliamentary elections coming up next May.

It’s a delicate issue for Corbyn. Leaving the EU with no divorce deal would be particularly devastating for many Labour-supporting northern parts of the country, including areas that voted to leave. One union delegate I spoke with in Liverpool, who asked not to be named, says decades on an automotive assembly line taught him how closely tied to Europe Britain has to be.  

That would suggest Labour support almost any deal that Prime Minister Theresa May concludes with the EU so long as the uncertainty and the economic pain of no-deal Brexit can be averted. But Labour has set six tests for approving any Brexit deal, and they are designed to be failed. Advance extracts of Starmer’s conference speech published Monday night suggests Labour is preparing to vote against any deal.

If May doesn’t agree on divorce terms with Brussels, calling for a people’s vote satisfies demands from both camps in Corbyn’s own party and puts pressure on the government. But a campaign against a withdrawal agreement in the hopes of triggering a new election might just backfire among Labour remainers. Ordinary voters are not the same as the party activists who go to the annual conferences. They could see the Labour decision as cynical. Perish the thought.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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