With the perverse and wrong-headed decision to sack three of his shadow ministers, and to accept the resignations of two more, for the offence of voting for Chuka Umunna’s amendment favouring Britain’s continued membership of the single market and the customs union, Jeremy Corbyn has virtually completed his project of reversing the Labour party’s official policy, endorsed unanimously by the 2016 party conference, of keeping open the option of staying in the EU.
This abandonment of the party’s considered policy, and of the country’s interests, was clearly signalled by the leader’s equally perverse decision to order his parliamentary colleagues to vote with the Tories for Theresa May to trigger article 50 last March, also in blatant defiance of agreed Labour policy.
By imposing a three-line whip on mostly reluctant Labour MPs, Mr Corbyn has effectively reversed the party’s formal stance at the time of the EU referendum, according to which Britain’s best interests are served by remaining a full member of the EU, substituting his own antiquated and far-fetched view of the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. By doing so he risks alienating the substantial pro-Remain majority of the under-45s who flocked to support Labour generally, and Corbyn in particular, at the June 2017 election.
A majority of all MPs and peers, including a majority of Labour parliamentarians, know that leaving the EU will severely damage the living standards of ordinary working people, destroy jobs, raise the cost of living, sharply reduce our ability to trade on preferential terms with our closest partners and friends, damage the protection afforded by the EU’s clout against the power of the great multi-national corporations to exploit us, wreck Britain’s international influence and standing, limit the freedom of Brits to travel and live freely throughout our own continent, and invite the incredulous mirth of the rest of the world over our inexplicable folly.
And all because of the reckless misinterpretation of a purely advisory, non-mandatory referendum which revealed only that opinion in the UK was, and probably still is, almost equally divided between those in favour of our membership of the EU and those against.
Had Corbyn campaigned with the rest of his party against leaving the EU with even half of the flair and charisma he displayed in fighting the election campaign in June, the referendum result would almost certainly have been different, and Brexit would now be just a bad dream.
History will judge Corbyn to have been almost as guilty as May and David Cameron of the self-harming folly that is driving our country to disaster. Britain desperately needs a major political party or movement willing to commit itself to stopping Brexit in its tracks, while there is still time. This ought to have been Labour’s role and destiny.
As the Brexit negotiations increasingly reveal the harm that our departure will inflict on us all, the need for a party dedicated to opposing it will become increasingly apparent. If Corbyn continues to use his leadership role to prevent Labour from accepting the obligation that history has imposed on it, the only alternative will be the creation of a new cross-party movement — not necessarily a new party — to do the job that Labour ought to be doing.
Umunna seems to understand this, as his amendment shows; so do the rest of the 49 Labour MPs who voted for it; so do the rest of the majority in the parliamentary Labour party who were too timid – the politest word – to defy the whips by voting for what they know to be right, whatever the short-term electoral consequences.
President Macron has shown that it’s possible. Our clapped-out electoral system makes it much harder, but it’s not too late to make the effort. Let the adult majority in the PLP find the spinal fortitude to stand up and make it happen. They may find it attracts more support across all the political parties than they think possible. Their allegiance must be to the interests of the country, to all their constituents – not just their local party activists – and to their own judgement and consciences, not to Corbyn’s whips and certainly not to his mistaken and out-dated view of the greatest issue facing us.
Chuka has opened the door a chink: now is the time to open it wide and push through it. Ye are many, JC represents the few!
Brian Barder is a former civil servant and diplomat, now retired after stints as a hospital governor and a member of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. He campaigns on civil rights issues, writes a blog and is the author of What Diplomats Do.