This is a decisive moment for the relationship between the Labour Party and the anti-Brexit movement, and the sparks are flying. At a 100,000-strong People’s Vote march in June, crowds joined together in a “where’s Jeremy Corbyn” chant, subverting last year’s Glastonbury anthem. A week earlier, a crowd of young protesters were kicked out of Labour Live festival for unfurling a “stop backing Brexit” banner. Then there were billboards, criticised by almost everyone, portraying John McDonnell in the pocket of Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The jury is out on whether the parliamentary arithmetic exists for Labour to stop Brexit, even if it were so inclined. Much will depend on just how bad Theresa May’s deal is, and how much of a mass anti-Brexit movement is created between now and the important votes in October. But below the surface of the Brexit debate, crucial processes are at work in Corbyn’s Labour – in its relationship to a key part of its electoral coalition, and in its deeper political culture – which ought to worry anyone interested in the success of the project.
The wedge that has been driven between the anti-Brexit movement and the political left is now the main obstacle to any prospect of success, and it largely owes its existence to the political opportunism of those who have claimed ownership of the Remain movement. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for some centrists, the real goal is not stopping Brexit but reclaiming the territory they have lost to the left – either within Labour or via a new centrist party.
But recent months have also witnessed another driver for the left-Remain divide. Alive to the dangers of the “get Corbyn” tendency within the anti-Brexit movement, those in charge of Labour’s strategy have sought not to engage in compromise with its membership – 78 per cent of which does back a fresh referendum – but by seeking to toxify Remain. High level strategy has chimed with a grassroots tendency to loyally defend Corbyn and spit venom at his centrist enemies. Remainers are “delusional middle class idiots”, “white middle class zealots” and, if on the left, secret friends of Progress.
The reality of the anti-Brexit movement is, of course, very different. I went to the People’s Vote protest, and, leafleting for The Left Against Brexit, encountered a mix of visceral hostility and a large number of supportive Labour and Momentum members. One woman, whom I obviously initially assumed to be a chablis-swilling Lib Dem, walked up to me with pent-up rage. “You know what really angers me most about it [Labour’s triangulation on Brexit and immigration]? It’s the contempt it shows for us people from the estates. They think we’re all a load of knuckle dragging racists,” she said.
Attempts to simply attack anti-Brexit sentiment as “cosmopolitan” and “establishment” are liable to fall into a seriously problematic conception of what the “real working class” is, while ignoring the fact that most Labour voters, most of the urban precariat, and a big majority of black and ethnic minority voters, voted to Remain and still want to. Paradoxically for a strategy that claims to be about electability, some in Labour appear to have picked a strategy that involves a concerted character assassination on its biggest new support base – young, socially liberal Remainers.
The irony of Labour’s internal debate is that both the ultra-loyalists and the Labour Right are effectively playing the same game. Both are driving a wedge between the Corbyn leadership and its young anti-Brexit base. Both support membership of the customs union. Both seem content to end free movement, while pushing either for single market membership or for a bespoke deal with the “exact same benefits” as single market membership.
But the similarities between some parts of Corbynism and the Labour establishment highlighted by the Brexit debate don’t, sadly, end there. As members bang on the door of Labour’s Brexit policy, the instinct to stage-manage internal politics will grow. Party members may find that their views come second to that of the imaginary “normal voter” who is not open to being persuaded. The party has thus far been quite willing to eschew doing what it thinks is right, most glaringly in the area of migration policy, for what it thinks is electable. In all this, Corbyn’s Labour is so far a (much) more left version of previous leaderships, not a complete break from them.
More worryingly, we are witnessing the development of a political culture which aggressively shuts down reasonable internal debates and upholds the current leadership line. It consists of both a network high profile enforcers and the development of an ultra-loyalist common sense at the grassroots, and it is part of a system of internal discipline which is essential for keeping the membership of a governing party in line when its leadership is making compromises. Just ask any Syriza activist who went through the 2015 bailout referendum and the subsequent capitulation by the Tsipras administration.
If Corbyn’s Labour is to do something truly transformative, it must escape these traps.