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To lead a new movement, Labour must stop giving ground to the Tories on Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble.

After months of bad polling figures, this week ought to mark a turning point in the fortunes of the Labour leadership and the wider progressive left. Monday evening’s anti-Trump mobilisations, which drew tens of thousands at barely a day’s notice, were among the most vibrant and politically diverse demonstrations in years. In the energy of the crowd and the thousands of home made signs you could spot the tell-tale signs of a major new political movement. And this movement is aimed not just at Trump, who is easy to revile, but at Theresa May and her role in the new world order.

May’s visit to the United States did not have to be a blunder. But by failing to condemn Trump’s ban on Muslims, and then defending his planned state visit, May has put herself in the position of providing cover for new administration as it implemented the most extreme and prolific set of executive orders in American history. This is the conclusion that will have been reached by many of the almost two million people who have now signed the petition calling for Trump’s state visit to be cancelled. The dividing line between Trumpism and the acceptable mainstream has crystalised – and the Prime Minister has, for a moment, found herself on the wrong side of it.  

The mass dissent against Trump and May is providing a window onto a much deeper division in British politics, which Labour should exploit. When the government stood by Trump’s state visit, Labour was right to call for its cancellation. Where May appears relaxed about torture and banning Muslims, Corbyn should roll out an ethical foreign policy, defend immigration and preach equality. Where May appears doggedly Atlanticist, Corbyn can point towards a close relationship with Europe. As a new coalition promises to organise the biggest demonstration in British history against Trump’s state visit, multiple strands of Britain’s ideological and cultural war will come together in the minds of millions. If Labour can provide bold leadership to them, everything could change.

The problem is that Labour has already triangulated itself into a hole on the biggest related issue of the day – Brexit. Having whipped in favour of Article 50 on its second reading last night, Corbyn has played it safe in the hope that Hard Brexit can be averted further down the line. This is a trap. When May returns with a negotiated deal, parliament will be voting with a gun to its head – either to accept the deal or to have no deal at all. Then, when Labour runs a general election campaign on the basis that Tory Brexit has been a disaster for society and the economy, critics of all political stripes will point out that Labour voted for it at every possible stage.

There is an alternative to this strategy. It is remarkably simple and it has actually been formally proposed by Labour backbencher Chris Leslie. Amendments 5 and 9 to the Article 50 Bill would bind the government into retaining European Single Market membership. This Norway-style Brexit option would offer stability to the economy, and, more importantly, have the effect of retaining swathes of protections for workers and the environment, as well as free movement. The government has no mandate to withdraw from the EEA – in fact, membership of the Single Market was in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2015. Instead of retreating, Labour should make a show of holding the Tories to their own election pledge.

Labour finds itself wedged into a corner because it has failed to attack the government’s legitimacy narrative, and it has convinced itself that doing so would be electoral suicide. To change that, it must state some relatively modest facts. Abstaining on, or even opposing, the government’s particular formulation of Article 50 does not equate to blocking Brexit. With 48 per cent of people having voted directly to continue it and not all of the 52 per cent being opposed, there is a good case that there is a popular majority in favour of free movement with Europe, grudging or not. The "working class vote" does not consist entirely of white people with regional accents.

As with much of what has gone wrong since September 2015, Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit thus far has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble – in which the parameters of what is possible are defined by a hostile press and the prevailing common sense among MPs. Labour is giving ground and surrendering the narrative on Brexit and free movement, and this will only strengthen Ukip and the Tories. Meanwhile, a new movement quite outside that bubble is emerging, disgusted at Trumpism and rebelling against Hard Brexit. If Labour can provide this new movement with leadership, it could find itself catapulted into the lead; if it fails to do so, many will look elsewhere.

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.

“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.

It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:


Applause, cheers, and even some tears.

But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.