What Corbyn's Fans Overlook: Labour Leader Is Still Pro-BrexitBy and
Young who chanted his name at Glastonbury are pro-European
But Labour leader is committed to exiting EU single market
The crowds cheering his name at the recent Glastonbury music festival are in for a shock if they think Jeremy Corbyn will soften Brexit.
On the most pressing issue faced by the U.K. in decades, Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader is showing little sign of changing his stance a month after an election unexpectedly solidified his position and stripped Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives of their parliamentary majority.
Rather than heed the calls of the pro-European young Britons who backed Labour at the ballot box and chanted at “Glasto,” Corbyn is sticking with a commitment to extract the U.K. from the bloc’s single market -- something the Tories are doing too. In the end, there is not much separating his not-so-secret euroskepticism from the position of his rival.
“He’s ambiguous, he’s not an enthusiast for the EU and never has been,” said Steve Fielding, who teaches politics at the University of Nottingham. “The more clear Brexit becomes, the more clear Corbyn’s position becomes. Potentially it’s going to be more difficult for him than Theresa May.”
Clarity on Brexit is not something Corbyn is aiming for. A weakened May offers him a path to power and he has everything to gain from staying vague given that the 40 percent of support he drew in June came from both pro-remain London and leave-voting northeast England. Taking one side risks alienating the other.
That means rather than helping investors and businesses in their renewed push for a softer Brexit, Corbyn is paradoxically echoing May. He can stir emotions and unite people over austerity, but sidestep Brexit, where Labour and its supporters are split.
The reluctance to engage was on full display last Saturday when he spoke for 25 minutes to supporters in the southern coastal town of St. Leonards on Sea. Just 38 seconds of his comments were devoted to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
“We recognize the result of the referendum but I’m determined we have an intelligent partnership relationship with Europe,” he said, promising a Corbyn premiership would strike a free-trade deal with the EU without saying how.
May has a wafer thin majority in Parliament with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists and there will be opportunities for opposition lawmakers to unite with Tory rebels to soften the divorce. But Labour has already shown it will pick its battles and might have other priorities.
Corbyn last week ordered his lawmakers not to back an amendment tabled by Labour’s former business spokesman calling on the government to keep open the option of staying in the bloc’s single market and customs union. In doing so, Corbyn drew criticism that he is not doing enough to stop May’s trajectory.
The 68-year-old is a longstanding euroskeptic who reluctantly put his name to the Remain side in the referendum and his lackluster campaigning has been blamed for helping Leave win. The contrast between his half-hearted speeches before the EU vote and his passionate anti-austerity campaigning was striking.
“I’m still hurt by the lack of emotional commitment from the Labour Party to the original referendum campaign,” said Peter Kyle, a Labour lawmaker. “But we now need to retrieve from the rubble of the referendum and Theresa May’s high-handed approach to the negotiations a credible and unifying way forward.”
Kyle was one of 49 Labour rebels who went against Corbyn, with 20 of them representing London districts, and others coming from remain-supporting parts of the country such as Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cambridge and Bristol. Corbyn fired three of them from his frontbench team and a fourth resigned.
It remains to be seen how long Corbyn can dodge the country’s biggest post-war negotiation and disappoint influential Labour players. The trade union movement, his biggest cheerleader, want him to work harder to moderate May’s plans for leaving the EU. Keir Starmer, leading his Brexit team, has called for a transition agreement to extend talks past the two-year deadline.
“As a government-in-waiting it falls to Labour to show another Brexit world is possible: no Brexit at all!” Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA trade union wrote in an article for Huffington Post last week. “Just like Jeremy Corbyn has successfully changed the narrative about our economy, I have every confidence he can do the same for free movement.”