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To lead a new movement, Labour must stop giving ground to the Tories on Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble.

After months of bad polling figures, this week ought to mark a turning point in the fortunes of the Labour leadership and the wider progressive left. Monday evening’s anti-Trump mobilisations, which drew tens of thousands at barely a day’s notice, were among the most vibrant and politically diverse demonstrations in years. In the energy of the crowd and the thousands of home made signs you could spot the tell-tale signs of a major new political movement. And this movement is aimed not just at Trump, who is easy to revile, but at Theresa May and her role in the new world order.

May’s visit to the United States did not have to be a blunder. But by failing to condemn Trump’s ban on Muslims, and then defending his planned state visit, May has put herself in the position of providing cover for new administration as it implemented the most extreme and prolific set of executive orders in American history. This is the conclusion that will have been reached by many of the almost two million people who have now signed the petition calling for Trump’s state visit to be cancelled. The dividing line between Trumpism and the acceptable mainstream has crystalised – and the Prime Minister has, for a moment, found herself on the wrong side of it.  

The mass dissent against Trump and May is providing a window onto a much deeper division in British politics, which Labour should exploit. When the government stood by Trump’s state visit, Labour was right to call for its cancellation. Where May appears relaxed about torture and banning Muslims, Corbyn should roll out an ethical foreign policy, defend immigration and preach equality. Where May appears doggedly Atlanticist, Corbyn can point towards a close relationship with Europe. As a new coalition promises to organise the biggest demonstration in British history against Trump’s state visit, multiple strands of Britain’s ideological and cultural war will come together in the minds of millions. If Labour can provide bold leadership to them, everything could change.

The problem is that Labour has already triangulated itself into a hole on the biggest related issue of the day – Brexit. Having whipped in favour of Article 50 on its second reading last night, Corbyn has played it safe in the hope that Hard Brexit can be averted further down the line. This is a trap. When May returns with a negotiated deal, parliament will be voting with a gun to its head – either to accept the deal or to have no deal at all. Then, when Labour runs a general election campaign on the basis that Tory Brexit has been a disaster for society and the economy, critics of all political stripes will point out that Labour voted for it at every possible stage.

There is an alternative to this strategy. It is remarkably simple and it has actually been formally proposed by Labour backbencher Chris Leslie. Amendments 5 and 9 to the Article 50 Bill would bind the government into retaining European Single Market membership. This Norway-style Brexit option would offer stability to the economy, and, more importantly, have the effect of retaining swathes of protections for workers and the environment, as well as free movement. The government has no mandate to withdraw from the EEA – in fact, membership of the Single Market was in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2015. Instead of retreating, Labour should make a show of holding the Tories to their own election pledge.

Labour finds itself wedged into a corner because it has failed to attack the government’s legitimacy narrative, and it has convinced itself that doing so would be electoral suicide. To change that, it must state some relatively modest facts. Abstaining on, or even opposing, the government’s particular formulation of Article 50 does not equate to blocking Brexit. With 48 per cent of people having voted directly to continue it and not all of the 52 per cent being opposed, there is a good case that there is a popular majority in favour of free movement with Europe, grudging or not. The "working class vote" does not consist entirely of white people with regional accents.

As with much of what has gone wrong since September 2015, Corbyn’s strategy on Brexit thus far has been driven by the politics of the Westminster bubble – in which the parameters of what is possible are defined by a hostile press and the prevailing common sense among MPs. Labour is giving ground and surrendering the narrative on Brexit and free movement, and this will only strengthen Ukip and the Tories. Meanwhile, a new movement quite outside that bubble is emerging, disgusted at Trumpism and rebelling against Hard Brexit. If Labour can provide this new movement with leadership, it could find itself catapulted into the lead; if it fails to do so, many will look elsewhere.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.