Lee Whitehill: How Corbyn could benefit from turning against Brexit

Written by Lee Whitehill on 5 January 2018 in Opinion

By listening to Tony Blair, the Labour leader could accelerate his journey to Number 10.

At the end of last year MPs and commentators were left fuming about what had happened to David Davis’ ‘now you see them now you don’t’ impact assessments on the economic outcomes of Brexit. Never fear, politics abhors a vacuum and Tony Blair’s Global Institute for Change has stepped in to fill in the detail, leading Alistair Campbell to chide Theresa May that a former PM has done more detailed economic research than the current one on the most important political decision for a generation.

Blair hit the airwaves yesterday morning with some chilling stats on the drag on growth, the rising cost of living and skills shortages across the board including an 89% fall in applications to become a midwife. Moreover, the report also showed that those areas in the North of England which had voted most strongly to leave would hurt the most.

The key thing to take away from Blair’s argument is that he says that 2018 will be the last chance for the public to have a say on whether or not the deal being negotiated with the EU will be better than the existing one. He is pushing Labour to take a strong principled position and differentiate itself with what he calls ‘the Tory Brexit’.

This approach presents a problem for the Labour leadership who have pursued a policy of 'constructive ambiguity' in order to balance affluent middle class remainers with huge swathes of the electorate in its northern heartlands who voted to come out.

Jeremy Corbyn has consistently ruled out a second poll both in recognition of the political risk associated with going against the ‘will of the people’ but also because his world view over thirty years has been that the EU is a bosses club and that its regional aid rules will block his plans for infrastructure investment.  However, polling from the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary Institute, conducted in December, shows that eight out of ten Labour members either agree or strongly agree with having a second vote. This would indicate that the vast majority of Labour’s half a million members are aligned with the unions and the Parliamentary Labour Party in support of remaining in the EU – or at least in the single market and customs union.

Despite the opprobrium that Mr Blair’s interventions draw from Labour’s new model army, his analysis and political approach remains the only coherent argument coming from the left of centre and Labour's leadership appears to be out of step with the Party. The public are overwhelmingly bored with Brexit and just want to get on with it. It is conceivable that, even when the chlorinated economic chickens come home to roost, they may not even lay the blame at the door of Gove and Co. and look, instead, for saboteurs and enemies within to take the blame.

However, as Phil Collins argues in the Times the only person with the reach and credibility able to cut through to the public is Jeremy Corbyn. It is highly unlikely he’ll take advice from Tony Blair but without him, it would seem, the remain case will be lost.

So will Corbyn come under pressure from his party? The country is facing important local elections in May this year, and there is a growing movement among Labour councillors who see this as an opportunity to illustrate the cost of Brexit, which OBR forecasts suggest is already running at £72bn, versus the 40% cuts in local authority funding which are starting to bite close to home in areas like education, health social care, transport and children's services.

Once the public make the link between austerity and Brexit, so the argument goes, then Article 50 might start to seem a little less boring. The political opportunity this provides for Corbyn, therefore, is to use Brexit as a means to destabilise Theresa May in order to create the political weather to bring forward the date of the general election (time is not on his side) and then win it.

If Blair is right and 2018 is the last chance to stop or soften Brexit then May's local elections present the logical place to start.



About the author

Lee Whitehill is a director at Interel Consulting and former head of campaigns at Unite.

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