Jeremy Corbyn's speech on Europe was cleverer than you think

Jeremy Corbyn's difficult balancing act puts the Remain campaign under pressure - but keeps the Labour show on the road.

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What do Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron want out of the European Union? The answer is more similar than you might expect: for the issue to go away so they can get back to doing other things.

Neither man is particularly pre-occupied, as Tony Blair was, with being seen as “a good European” by their fellow leaders, although Corbyn has been receiving a better reception from his fellow members of the Party of European Socialists than the Islington North MP ever expected.

Even the likes of Matteo Renzi and Manuel Valls, the continent’s remaining Blairites, like that Corbyn is attempting to change Britain’s social democratic party from within, not attempting to destroy it from without like Podemos, Die Linke or France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Not since Blair and the early days of the Third Way has a Labour leader been as enthusiastically received by the PES, and that response is part of why, if Britain does remain in Europe, a Labour breakaway to form a new European grouping with the likes of Syriza in the European Parliament is now firmly on the backburner.

In terms of keeping Britain in Europe, however, today’s speech, taken in its entirety, was full of the messages that Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party Remain campaign, regard as “unhelpful”. Chief among them was Corbyn’s attack on warnings of dire economic consequences should Britain leave the EU. But in the arenas that decide elections and referendums – the brief newsbreaks on music radio and the muted TV screens in pubs – the message “Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backs Remain” should, hopefully, be enough.

In any case, the primary role of Corbyn’s interventions on the European issue aren’t to keep Britain in Europe, but to keep Labour intact. Just as Cameron pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in order to win the votes of Eurosceptic MPs and activists in his leadership election, pro-Europeanism is a non-negotiable as far as leading the present Labour party is concerned.

On that metric, Corbyn’s speech today went very well. He made enough pro-EU noises to make grumbling from Labour’s more committed pro-Europeans look insurrectionist rather than constructive. He chucked a bit of red meat at his core supporters, bashing TTIP – a treaty that is now looks to be dead on arrival in any case -  and re-announcing that a Labour government would renationalise the railways.  And, crucially, he did just enough to hint to those few Labour MPs and activists who are anti-European that he might just possibly remain on their side, really.

Of course, that balancing act puts Britain’s EU membership at risk, by potentially reducing the number of Labour voters who will turn out to vote for “Remain” on 23 June.

But so too does Cameron’s own balancing act on holding the referendum in the first place. And just as the Prime Minister’s skill in holding his party together will be largely underappreciated until after he’s gone, Corbyn’s tightrope-walk is further evidence that he is a better player of the game of Labour politics than many of his opponents might wish.  

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. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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