Ayesha Hazarika: The EU referendum is Jeremy Corbyn's big chance to shine
If the Labour leader plays to his strengths, he could boost the Remain campaign, unite the Labour party and enhance his own standing.
Last week a rare thing occurred. Jeremy Corbyn made a strong, timely and well briefed intervention. Yes. That actually occurred.
After much hesitation, he waded into the debate about Europe and spoke some much needed sense. He basically said: "Now look here. Europe is far from perfect, but on balance, we are better in that out and we should stay to try and make it better on the things we care about like workers’ rights and climate change."
No hysterics. No talk of bogeymen. No ginormous, brain-aching stats. Just a bit of straight talking honest politics.
Now many people may say "nonsense – Jez hates Europe and this is all bogus" but I think we can reasonably hope that the leader of the opposition is on a journey…
The reason I was cheered by his speech was that there was an attempt to have a more honest conversation about the EU. It isn’t perfect. We all know that and we should acknowledge it.
When I was a civil servant at the Department of Trade and Industry many moons ago, I would go to Brussels and sit through hours of the Competitiveness Council which was all about how to improve productivity, jobs etc. Nothing makes you want to get out of Brussels more than sitting through hours of depressing meetings where nothing seems to happen. But being honest, I used to feel similar feelings of frustration during meetings when I was both a civil servant and special adviser right here in Blighty.
Sadly, Brussels doesn’t have the monopoly on nightmare levels of bureaucracy and madly long meetings where the most exciting development is the arrival of the tea trolley. That’s not just the fault of the EU and Brussels – that is the wider problem of unwieldy, lethargic and remote styles of governance and we suffer from that badly here at home.
We all accept that our domestic political system isn’t working massively well right now, but but no one’s suggesting that we tear up the entire British political system because it’s broken – well okay…. some people who like going on marches wearing masks do… but you know what I mean.
The arguments that we make about trying to make our domestic politics work better are the same that should be applied to Europe.
I chaired a debate recently on the EU referendum and as the arguments on both sides unfurled, it was clear, there was one striking thing in common on both sides – everyone in the room felt that democracy was very remote from them whether it was their local council, Westminster and of course Brussels. This democratic deficit or distance that people are feeling so acutely is something which is colouring the EU debate and that is not helped by the fact that the arguments are so polarised – the EU is either all evil or it’s all marvellous and most people have a sense it’s somewhere in between which is why Corbyn’s speech was so welcome.
Lots of people have spoken at EU events I’ve attended have said they want to have a conversation about how we can try and have get a Europe that look like it works a bit better for ordinary citizens – not the rich guys in suits zooming about doing the deals but on things that make a difference to their lives like better rights at work. Some may think we have reached the summit of our ambitions on workers’ rights, but that is a very limiting view of the world and the future.
If we want to be more productive plus get and keep more people in work longer we need to look at how people’s lives are changing – ageing populations, understanding the caring responsibilities that come with that particularly for older relatives and new health challenges. There are also all the other big ticket issues that most people instinctively care about – the overall economy, jobs and security. But there is a large group of people who would appreciate the more honest conversation on Europe that Corbyn has started.
But - and there’s always a but - one speech does not make it mission accomplished. This vote is going to be tight and turn out is going to be critical. A narrow win on a poor show could lead to the public having a sense of a judgement “not proven” which could prove to be difficult and disruptive for a long time to come and could further fuel that feeling of distance from democracy.
Corbyn tapped into that feeling with spectacular success during the Labour leadership contest with his grassroots supporters’ organisation which is now called “Momentum”. He and Momentum must now swing into action and try and use their collective reach and power to help get the right result on the EU referendum and get out the vote particularly with younger and older people.
However, Momentum has decided not to campaign for the EU and support their leader which is weird and wrong. They are probably thinking “oooh… look at the Tories going all political fight club over Europe… wouldn’t it be marv if Brexit won, Cameron would go and then we’d have an election and hello Prime Minister Corbyn!!” Sadly, I don’t think the fantasy would play out quite like that. We’d probably end up with PM Johnson or someone even worse with a bigger Tory majority - not exactly a soothing thought if you care about progressive politics - and the country would be significantly worse off out of the EU.
It’s a pompous phrase but country above party has rarely felt more appropriate because the stakes are so high. It’s not an election. It’s permanent. Corbyn must use all the fizz of his leadership campaign and get Momentum to hit the road, get out there and sell the vital message with honesty, integrity and Labour values. And if he does that as well as he did last summer, it would significantly boost the Remain campaign.
Labour could then legitimately have some ownership of a successful verdict and if Corbyn can show that he stepped up when it mattered and displayed real leadership, it could help him in the eyes of the public on his long and difficult journey to Downing Street. He would also unite Labour MPs, members, trade unionists and the wider movement who want to come together and campaign properly on this as it matters so much. And what a contrast that would be to the Tories who are tearing themselves apart.
Corbyn has a massive opportunity over the next nine weeks to not only do what’s right for the country but what would be good for the party too. He should grab it with both hands.