A few weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn made clear what had been hinted at for months: he would remain ‘neutral’ in a second referendum on membership of the EU. Both Tories and the Liberal Democrats have since united to pillory Corbyn over it. In the final BBC debate on Friday, Boris Johnson said: “You cannot be neutral on questions like this.” Jo Swinson has called it “astonishing”.
But Corbyn’s Brexit position is entirely consistent with Labour’s vision: to bring the country back together. After several years of internal conflict in Labour over the issue, the party is now united around the plan to negotiate a close relationship to the EU, and put it the deal up versus Remain in a fresh vote.
How does it compare to the other parties? The Liberal Democrats have endorsed the undemocratic position of revoking Article 50 in the unlikely event that they win a majority. The Greens back an “immediate final say on the terms of any Brexit deal”, which must mean Johnson’s deal vs Remain. Perhaps counterintuitively, it is a harsher Brexit offer than Labour’s.
Like millions of Remainers, I was enraged by Labour’s prevarication over Brexit, for the best part of two years. But Corbyn’s current Brexit policy is the best on offer this election. Corbyn is promising to be an ‘honest broker’ in a second referendum. If Labour is a broad church, the country is an even broader one. An honest broker could be precisely what we need.
The newly leaked Treasury document brought to our attention by Labour last week again highlighted the checks and charges on goods coming to/from Britain and Northern Ireland under Johnson’s deal – undermining the Good Friday Agreement and eviscerating the UK economy. The stakes could not be higher.
Remainers have been rightly critical of Labour’s glacial repositioning on Brexit. But saying ‘you should have got there sooner’ is not a principled standpoint: it’s petty politicking. And this election is no time for ideological purity. It is a stark choice between Johnson’s disastrous Brexit or a a fresh referendum. While Remainers in England have a few options, only one party has the potential to actually push through a new public vote on Brexit.
Corbyn is not a staunch Remainer, but he is a democrat. Campaigning against the deal he negotiates – i.e. half-heartedly backing Remain – is untenable. Corbyn is proposing the only sensible alternative.
Negotiating a new Brexit deal will not be unproblematic. The make-up of the negotiating team will be crucial, and the timeline short. But there are options already on the table – from EEA membership to the draft bill that began to emerge from the Theresa May/Jeremy Corbyn negotiations earlier this year. The EU have made clear they are open to new talks: the political will is there.
There is no easy way out of this morass. The divisions are deep. It’s time to do the unthinkable, to break the taboos of compromise and cooperation. This election offers one clear, democratic route to ending the chaos of Brexit – and stand up for the 99%.