Why it doesn't matter that Jeremy Corbyn isn't the EU's number one fan

Jeremy Corbyn is being criticised by supporters and enemies. But the criticism is misplaced.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan, and although the referendum battle isn’t lost yet, it’s a measure of the mood in the pro-European camp that the race is on to deny Brexit’s paternity.

One culprit is looming large in sections of the press and parts of the Labour party: Jeremy Corbyn. “When the history of the European referendum is written,” the Times thunders this morning, “Jeremy Corbyn will have a controversial walk-on part as the inverse of Forrest Gump. Instead of being omnipresent and endearingly sincere he will be depicted as largely absent and culpably dishonest.”

The Economist had a go last week, accusing the Labour leader of offering “a study in reluctance” on the campaign trail. This morning, the Independent’s Matthew Norman, and a supporter of Corbyn, lambasted his performance in the contest, adding “small wonder that 40 per cent of Labour supporters still have no idea which way their party wants them to vote. The leader hasn’t much clue himself”. Alex Andreou, a Corbynite commentator, meanwhile, condemned Corbyn’s “anonymity, lack of passion and refusal to engage meaningfully” in the referendum battle.

Are they right?

First things first, an undeniable truth: Corbyn has not been an enthusiastic advocate for a “Remain” vote on the campaign trail. As I’ve written before, his interventions are designed primarily to keep Labour intact, not to keep Britain in the European Union. Just as Cameron spent the first ten and a half years of his leadership of the Conservative party pretending to be open to the idea of leaving the European Union in order to keep his party together, Corbyn has spent the past nine months going through the motions of committed pro-Europeanism in order to keep his party happy.

But here’s the thing: throughout his leadership campaign, Corbyn’s antipathy to the European project wasn’t hidden. He told the New Statesman he hadn’t “closed his mind” to supporting a Brexit vote, and at multiple hustings suggested he could campaign for a Leave vote. Added to that was Corbyn’s 33-year-long record of principled dissent against every Labour leader from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband, again, something not hidden but actively cherished by his supporters. Within that record was a record of untrammelled, unrestricted opposition to the European project.

So, frankly, I don’t understand where Norman and Andreou get off kvetching about Corbyn’s lack of attention to the referendum campaign. Nobody lied to them, except themselves. These are the same people who like to talk about Corbyn’s “mandate”. Apparently his mandate only extends to the issues at which they are at one with him, rather than the platform he ran and was elected on.

It’s of a piece with progressive caterwauling that Barack Obama failed to build socialism in America, or that Tony Blair governed as a centrist social democrat. It’s not the fault of Blair, or Corbyn, or Obama that some of their supporters decided they were voting for an idealised version of themselves.

What about those more centrist opponents of Corbyn? They can, at least, honestly claim that they were concerned about having anything other than a committed pro-European at the helm of the Labour party. The idea that Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm is Labour’s main problem is superficially attractive for nervous pro-Europeans as it does at least have an easy solution, unlike, say, the thorny question of how you win a referendum on immigration in which the cultural headwind is against you or on the economy when not enough voters are feeling the benefits of the recovery, such as it is.

If Corbyn is the problem, then there are two easy solutions: Corbyn becomes more enthusiastic, or Labour get in a centre-forward who is genuinely committed to the European project, perhaps Chuka Umunna or Emma Reynolds, who Stronger In cite as their “gold star” performers on the Labour side, willing to give up as much time as needed to the referendum contest.

But I’m afraid it doesn’t stack with the historical data. When I re-read the newspaper coverage in the run-up to the 1975 referendum as part of the preparation for my column last week on the differences between that contest and this, I was struck by how peripheral a figure Margaret Thatcher struck day-to-day. Her presence looms large in the memory and historical accounts because of the figure she became. Her biggest headlines came when she was sharing a platform with the big beasts of Conservative governments past, just as Corbyn has only really achieved big stories when flanked by Gordon Brown or Alan Johnson.

That’s why Thatcher’s lines from that contest are largely those that have a resonance for the Tory party she would build – that warning that referendums are a “weapon for demagogues and dictators”, the jumper bearing the flag of every member state, and so on. But then as now, the media largely focused on the battle within the governing party at the expense of the opposition leader, let alone the minor parties.

(And remember that, due to the fragile parliamentary majority of the Labour government, Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, was a far more newsworthy figure than Tim Farron, his successor-but-six. Oh, and also the press was much more pro-European then.)

The reality is that Labour have got a leader who is not het up about the European Union because that’s what they voted for. All the evidence is that even if they did have a committed pro-European, they would struggle to get the attention they badly need to get their voters to the polls. There are fair criticism of Corbyn, but this ain’t one. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS