Can we trust Jeremy Corbyn over Europe?

Simon Wren-Lewis asks, “Can we trust Jeremy Corbyn over Europe?“.

This seems like an honest and relevant question, and it could be. But this little piece is marinaded in the arguments and viewpoints of the rebel PLP camp, among them little digs like “true believers” and “the incompetence thing”; the cover story that “The vote of no confidence was the result of Brexit” – perhaps not quite swallowed whole, but indulged as either a genuine reason or a justifiable pretext; and making it a principal argument that Corbyn suggested in one speech that Osborne wasn’t a reliable source on economic matters. Oh, and referring to Alex Andreou’s latest iteration of “Why I no longer support Corbyn“.

Beyond that, I don’t currently have the patience to pick out any sensible arguments from the “Anyone but Corbyn” talking points – sincere, thoughtful, well meant, and thoroughly assimilated as I don’t doubt they are.

Historically, Corbyn has been skeptical about the EU – in a neutral sense of the word, not the euphemistic “hates Europe from the bottom of his soul” sense. As the campaign began, he took the position that the EU has many faults but that remaining within it is better for Britain than taking our chances outside, and he campaigned on that basis.

It’s clear, as far as we can tell, that Corbyn worked hard on the campaign. He made more media appearances than anyone else in the Remain campaign, including Alan Johnson (chair of Labour In for Europe) and Will Straw (who earned a CBE for his failed campaign as executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe). Angela Eagle, pre-resignation, said 

Jeremy [Corbyn] is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult.

Still, he gets criticised for not working hard enough, for an intractable suspicion among some people that he didn’t really mean it, for refusing to share platforms with Tories – a practice that had contributed to Labour’s self-destruction in Scotland during their referendum campaign on Scottish independence – and being honest, as he was about Osborne, rather than evangelically sycophantic. (No other remain campaigner, by the way, was evangelically sycophantic – perhaps because they knew it would persuade nobody). People who choose to believe that these were significant failures on his part won’t be interested in any viewpoint I can offer on the subject. People who choose to believe that Corbyn, and Corbyn alone, caused the outcome of the EU referendum must have decided that being very silly is actually a valid political stance. He could have taken a holiday instead (anyone of course is entitled to a little time off), or campaigned for the other side, and as far as anybody knows the result would have been exactly the same. But he did not do those things; he campaigned hard for a Britain in Europe to make Europe better.

The campaign was awful, of course. The Remain side expected to win and made a token effort; both sides lied without restraint – though the biggest whoppers came from the leave side, and aimed without fail at British greed, righteous anger, narcissism and xenophobia. The media, even when not shamelessly partisan themselves, gave the liars a very nearly free ride, confining any sober facts to their less well-read corners; and the BBC was by no means the bastion of truth and good sense that licence fee payers may feel entitled to expect. And the Leave side won, of course, by a small margin.

Corbyn’s immediate instinct was to accept this as a democratic decision – horribly flawed though we might think it – and advocate that we must get on with it. And though he has moderated this view a little, he still intends to respect the result.

Personally I’m disappointed by this and I believe that many (I don’t know how many) of the Leave voters were at least somewhat bamboozled by the wild claims of Johnson, Gove, Farage, Smith and the rest, but above all profoundly angry and alienated by politics as usual and desperate to pull any lever available to bring about change. I don’t know how long it will take them to understand that this particular change is set to make things even worse. I don’t consider that this result is more than superficially democratic, and I see no problem at all in asking the voters if they are actually sure about this very significant decision. If they are, they will say so.

Corbyn may also be thinking, of course, that the voters who are alienated by politics as usual are exactly the voters who are open to a Labour that openly advocates social justice and caring for people more than for banks, if only the party machine will stop offering them warmed-over Thatcherism and start working together with the leadership and the members to win the next election. I would like a humane government inside the EU, but humane government outside it is immeasurably better than the cruel shambles that has been wished upon us by the architects of the Ed Stone.

Meanwhile, we don’t know what will happen. I suspect Theresa May wants a way out of this, but needs to have both a credible case that she has given Brexit a fair go and a new mandate from the people. That mandate could reaffirm the original decision, of course, and if it does I don’t believe there will be any third chances. May may even be looking ahead to an early election where she can promise a “return” to the EU and Labour, still divided, is nonetheless committed to Brexit.

Interesting times.