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2 February 2017

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.

By Michael Chessum

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.

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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.