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24 July 2018

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Brexit’s economic benefits be enough to win over Tory Leavers?

What’s the boiling point of a Remainer? The Labour leader may be about to find out.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn will give a speech today in which he will describe the post-Brexit pound as “more competitive”, criticise successive governments for relying too much on “cheap labour from abroad” for manufacturing, and commit a Labour government to backing building more things in Britain instead.

The calculation that Team Corbyn are making is twofold. The first is that for most people who backed a Remain vote in 2016, their allegiance to Labour is about a set of values not their preferred institutional relationship with the European Union. It’s the social liberalism, stupid. Corbyn offers plenty to Remain voters on that score, so the next election will be fought and won among those who backed a Leave vote in 2016.

And the second is that whatever Brexit deal Theresa May delivers will mean that a large chunk of people who backed Leave in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2017 will be up for grabs, and that Labour can win them over by emphasising the areas in which they align with Leave voters: public ownership, local procurement, and the impact of immigration on wages. That it’s a political brew that Corbyn is comfortable serving only adds to the strategy’s appeal in the leader’s office.

Are they right? Whether in the Labour leadership elections of 2015 and 2016, the elections of 2017, or the local election in 2018, having an explicitly pro-Brexit position has never stopped Remainers voting for Jeremy Corbyn in significant numbers in the past. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, of course, but it’s the best guide we have.

If I were working in the Labour leader’s office, I’d be more worried about Corbyn’s hopes of winning over Leave voters in great numbers than I would be about losing Remainers. Yes, Corbyn aligns with them on public ownership, on the referendum result and much else besides. Yes, Labour has done a neat job offering populist stuff that goes down a treat with that group: bank holidays for St George and for Gareth Southgate, for instance.

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Corbyn still has a glass jaw as far as two issues go. The first is that while he might use words about immigration that Leave voters agree with, they disagree on the meaning. The Labour leader’s problem with “cheap labour from abroad” is the “cheap labour” part, while for the voters he is targeting, it is the “from abroad” bit. He might be able to finesse that, but it’s a tricky balancing act for any politician to pull off.

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And the second vulnerability is security. The story of the polls since the election is of two movements of Leave voters – the first, away from Labour following Salisbury, the second, away from the Conservatives following the fallout from the Chequers deal.

If the Conservatives can somehow cobble together a Brexit deal, they have other tunes they can play to retain the support of pro-Brexit voters that Labour may struggle to answer. But the Tory problem is that, at the moment, that “if” isn’t just large, but planet-sized.