“So far, there has been no big offer,” Jeremy Corbyn confirmed in an update on the ongoing cross-party Brexit negotiations yesterday. Theresa May hasn’t shifted on her red lines, as the government insists that its withdrawal agreement already basically provides for Labour’s key customs union demand. And so anti-Brexit Labour MPs can breathe a sigh of relief. It is thought that if the talks amount to nothing by the end of next week, they will end and – if the Prime Minister is willing to risk it – parliament could see a second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill (WAB) before the European elections.
Can those same MPs worried about a Tory-Labour leadership ‘stitch-up’ on Brexit feel equally as reassured by Corbyn’s European campaign launch speech? There is a lot in its content that could inspire hope (and we know that they are always looking for reasons to feel reassured, when the alternative for some is leaving the party). The Labour leader did many of the things pro-Europeans in Labour often urge him to do: emphasise the party’s internationalist tradition (“We are internationalists to our core”); recognise the importance of working across borders on climate change and other priorities (“international issues… demand international solutions”); explicitly take on the far-right, as Tom Watson urged earlier this week (“Only Labour can see off the Farage snake oil in this election”); acknowledge that the country’s ills are not the fault of the EU (“it wasn’t the EU that slashed public services… it was Tory governments”).
But Corbyn also gave a surprisingly candid explanation for Labour’s Brexit position, which is not to oppose it and only even consider doing so – by keeping open the “option of a public vote” – as a very last resort. “Over 17 million people voted to leave the European Union,” he said. “As democratic socialists, we cannot ignore that.” He made a positive case for Labour’s “real and credible” plan, which would “restore pride and prosperity to parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”, and firmly stated that “Labour agreed to talks because we believed it was the right thing to do”.
As for all the seemingly pro-EU things said and outlined above, what must be remembered is that the Eurosceptic left doesn’t see the EU as crucial to internationalism, solidarity across borders, fighting the far right and resisting austerity. In fact, to state the obvious, it sees the EU as too often an enabler of those problems. Which means Corbyn is being entirely honest and passionate in making those statements that might appear to concede ground to ‘stop Brexit’ colleagues. He is also frank in promoting Labour’s core message of the “real divide” being between “the many not the few” rather than Remainers and Leavers. The main characteristic of the leadership’s position on Brexit is not ambiguity but apathy. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.