Jeremy Corbyn came to the Labour leadership contest as an outsider and was elected as a revolution, a rejection of Blairite centrism and a return to socialism. It was a choice to try to find and rally latent support on the left as a path to victory rather than trying to occupy the centre-ground and the tactics of triangulation. It’s a decision that the Democratic party is wrestling with in their search for a nominee in an election that feels both a great opportunity and a huge risk.
If Corbyn has a sense of English irony he might reflect with some amusement that he has spent most of his time as leader trying to play the moderate dealmaker who will find a compromise between the two warring sides. Brexit overshadows all else as not only the most important issue but being mentioned twice as often as the next highest issue; the imminent general election seems set to go down in history as the Brexit election.
This choice for a centrist path seems to have been born out of ideology before it was driven by strategy, Corbyn’s 40-year record on the EU and its forerunners has always wandered between hostile (mainly before he became leader) and lukewarm (as leader.) It’s a history that’s much in line with old Labour views, Labour supported remain in the 1975 referendum with a divided cabinet and the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’ manifesto of 1983 (when Corbyn entered parliament) promised withdrawal from the EEC, to be completed well within the lifetime of the Labour government.
It took falling behind the Liberal Democrats at the European elections for him to move (or be moved) to explicitly supporting a second referendum. It remains to be seen which major party benefits more (or is hurt less) by a Lib Dem revival, they are taking more votes from Labour but their previous general election success came through taking Conservative seats in South West England. Labour’s move to
Corbyn currently appears to be trying to model himself after Harold Wilson, who supported remain with more of a shrug than a shout, except with even less personal commitment. All of Labour is likely to be free to campaign whichever way they believe in a referendum, while Corbyn will wait for the party to make a decision that he can follow. It’s a position that rather unfortunately echoes Tony Blair’s shot at John Major (also beset by splits over Europe) for following his party rather than leading it.
Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal