After Theresa May’s bungled election miscalculation and continued Conservative infighting with members of the cabinet actively briefing against one another, you’d be mistaken for thinking Mr Corbyn’s position is looking healthier than ever. However figures released from a poll of Labour party members expose the disjoint on Brexit between membership and leadership and the growing dislocation from their traditional support base. It’s not just Rebecca Long Bailey literally claiming that Labour wants to “have our cake and eat it”, but that Labour MEPs are openly criticising Brexit and trying to reverse it, whilst their Party leadership supports it.
The scale of the gap between Labour’s leadership and their own members is shown in research from the Party Members Project:
- 49% of members think there should “definitely” be a vote on the final Brexit deal, with a further 29.4% answering “more yes than no” to the question, and only 8.8% definitely opposing it.
- 66% of members think Britain should definitely stay in the single market with a further 20.7% saying “more yes than no” to the question. Only 4.2% of Labour members said they definitely believed Britain should leave the grouping.
- There were similar levels of support on the customs union with 63.1% saying Britain should definitely stay within the group, 22.2% leaning towards the same position, and only 2.4% saying the UK should definitely leave it.
- Of those members polled 87% voted said they remain in the 2016 referendum.
There is then a second disconnect, between the working-class Labour vote – particularly in the North – and the views of the Labour Party’s membership, so it’s totally unsurprising that there’s some muddled thinking going on as Labour try to please all of the people all of the time. As the White Queen said to Alice, “sometimes I’ve managed to believe six impossible things before breakfast”. That’s okay for a fairy tale, but not so good for a Labour Party intent on simultaneously believing four contradictory things before Brexit.
The 2017 Labour Manifesto Brexit position had promised to try to retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union but the leadership was clear: the UK could not remain in the Single Market and Freedom of movement would end. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary said “As it currently stands membership of the single market is incompatible with our clarity about the fact that freedom of movement rules have to change…freedom of movement will have to end”. Likewise John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, admitted staying in the single market would be seen by voters as “not respecting” the referendum vote.
Even since the election we’ve seen nearly 50 Labour MPs snubbing the Party whip and the sacking of three Shadow Cabinet members – in a Shadow Cabinet which has seen more reshuffles than a magician practicing his latest illusion. Could the current appearance of stability, of Corbyn’s belated honeymoon, be merely a passing ‘eye of the storm’ with future turmoil close on the horizon? Jeremy Corbyn currently enjoys the paradoxical position of the most favourable leadership ratings of his career, whilst holding crucial policies that only 2-4% of his membership support.
Part of Labour’s success on June 8th was generated by its sometimes ambiguous stance on Brexit. Pro-EU MPs warn Mr Corbyn’s “studied ambiguity” is unsustainable with amendments on the repeal bill likely to solidify the party stance in one way or another. Professor Tim Bale (of the Party Members Project) said Labour would eventually be forced to “show its true colours on this – and it can either go with the membership and probably the feeling of most MPs, or it can carry on with what is effectively a hard Brexit”.
With Theresa May’s authority repeatedly being called into question, rebellious Labour MPs are only likely to be emboldened in the knowledge that their arguments on issues like the single market have overwhelming support from the membership. Mr Corbyn on Monday night told Labour MPs he wants to actively engage with the party’s 560,000 members this summer. With time running out on ambiguous stances perhaps Mr Corbyn’s summer ‘homework’ is deciding which half of his voters he’s going to disappoint.
More than ever, we need to be vigilant. If the Labour Party were to move against Brexit, that could be an even bigger threat to the process than the Conservatives’ recent sell-out on immigration. I find myself in an odd position: I despise almost everything that Corbyn stands for including his fantasy economics (and Labour’s dishonesty over students has just been brought into sharp focus), but in terms of Brexit any other Labour leader would be far worse.