Remain and Leave commentators, Tories and Labour Blairites alike, are at least agreed upon one thing: Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to settle on a Brexit policy is a failure of leadership, resulting in a Labour policy that is chaotic, unclear or even suspiciously motivated. From party leaders like Vince Cable to newspaper commentators like Polly Tonybee and aggressive TV hosts like Andrew Marr, everyone is pushing the shadow cabinet to come out one way or the other (even Corbyn’s most vocal supporters).
But there is a compelling reason for Corbyn to resist being forced either way on Brexit that is bigger and more important than internal party divisions. The current position – the same since the party conference in September – is the only position that is fair to the voting public. As things stand, it is only Corbyn’s resistance of impatient demands from all sides that is keeping the possibility of a fair and reasonable next general election alive.
If Corbyn backs a second referendum before a general election, that will ensure that the election – the most important in recent political history – is based only on Brexit. The Labour leader cannot rule out a second referendum without speaking to Europe: doing so would be tantamount to May’s own “my deal or no deal”. Thus, he could only end the ambiguity by promising one. That would turn a vital choice between ongoing Tory austerity and a new political manifesto for a progressive future into another round of Leave vs Remain.
The Tories have been trying to push that Leave-Remain framing onto the situation for their own reasons, of course. Corbyn might even get more votes by coming out now and making the election about remaining in the EU, and he likely knows that.
But he also knows that doing so would obscure the reality of the next election from the voting public. At every opportunity, Corbyn reminds the public that a general election means not only new negotiations with the EU but reform of healthcare, education, public housing and investment, as well as a chance to democratise many major UK institutions. At the moment, the only thing keeping these vast differences between Corybn’s Labour and the current Conservative party in clear focus is the fact that Corbyn won’t let his manifesto be reduced to a position on Brexit.
In other words, the reason Corbyn won’t be forced to pick a side is not because his party is divided but because he doesn’t want his entire project reduced to a response to a single policy concocted by David Cameron. That’s why, last week, Labour made a statement that was carefully worded to avoid coming out either way on a second referendum
It is true that some within the party – most notably Chuka Umunna – are attempting to force his hand and push him toward backing a second referendum, but this is in Umunna’s own interests rather than those of the British people. What is fair to the people is keeping the focus on the key differences between the options they will choose from in the next general election.
A Corbyn government is the biggest opportunity in as long as many voters can remember to reform the British political scene from ongoing neoliberal policy and elitist austerity to a politics for the many that represents a fundamental reorganisation of the social fabric. Whatever people’s opinion of these options, they should be given a chance to choose between them, rather than have the choice disguised by another one.
People should be given the opportunity to vote on two vastly different political visions for the future of Britain: for that we need a general election not coded into the terms of Leave and Remain. At the moment, Corbyn’s ambiguity seems like the only viable path to that end.
Alfie Bown is lecturer in Media Arts at Royal Holloway University London and author of several books on technology and politics with Zero, Polity and Bloomsbury. He writes for The Guardian and The Paris Review and tweets at @leftist_gamer.