Euan McColm: Jeremy Corbyn does what no true leader would ever do
Well, things have certainly changed, all right. Over the past four years, the Labour Party has lurched from crisis to crisis. Jewish MPs have been bullied and abused by Corbyn supporters, the party is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over anti-Semitism claims, and a number of parliamentarians have walked away in advance of December’s general election, preferring life back in the real world over life as a member of Team Corbyn.
In the mind of the committed Corbynista, all of these problematic things can be easily accommodated. There has been no bullying (and if there has then it’s involved people bullying dear Jeremy), there is no anti-Semitism (or any other form of racism), and the party is better off without those who’ve walked.
One of the most magical pieces of thinking among those loyal to the Labour leader has been the notion that he is, somehow, opposed to Brexit.
Corbyn’s decades of Euroscepticism, his failure to campaign with any enthusiasm for a Remain vote in 2016 despite, ostensibly, being signed up to do so, his continued prevarication on the issue, Labour’s batty proposal that, should the party win the general election, he would negotiate a new deal with the EU then put it to a referendum – none of these things appear to have set off alarms among his disciples.
Fans of pathos will have enjoyed the sight of scores of Labour members at the party’s most recent conference wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit”.
But even the most devoted member of the Corbyn flock must surely be in no doubt about his true feelings now.
During his appearance on a BBC Question Time special on Friday night, Corbyn explained that – should he become prime minister – he would adopt a position of neutrality on the matter of Brexit.
Savour that one, if you will. Roll it around your mouth, let the flavour flood in.
Let the Corbynistas explain and excuse their leader’s remarkable announcement but don’t any of them dare claim it’s anything like leadership.
Brexit is the single biggest issue facing the country since the end of the Second World War. It has divided the nation like no other matter and its impact stands to be huge.
When (or if, depending on your capacity for optimism) the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, this country will be a fundamentally different place. Years of co-operation with our continental neighbours will come to an end, freedom of movement will be a thing of the past, a major stream of funding for scientific research will end, barriers to trade will be erected between the UK and the rest of Europe.
You are entitled – as a majority of Brits do – to feel all of this (and more) represents a price worth paying for “taking back control”, but no leader worthy of the name could possibly think that refusing to take a view is acceptable.
Corbyn’s explanation for his proposed position of neutrality is that only by refusing to take a stance will he be able to bring together our divided nation.
This is, at best, an optimistic assessment of the challenge facing whoever is prime minister after polling day on 12 December.
It is certainly true that the matter of Brexit may cost Labour the support of swathes of its traditional supporters. Many people in, for example, the north-east of England who might once have been depended upon to back the candidate wearing a red rosette without a second thought have thrown their support behind Brexit. Corbyn might think he can win these people back by refusing to take a side, but what good is he to them when there are others out there who demand that Leave must mean Leave?
And what of those Labour supporters – the majority of party members – who believe that Brexit is a mistake? Don’t they want someone to take up their fight? Don’t they deserve a strong voice arguing for their position that the UK should, in fact, remain a member of the European Union?
But there is more to this issue than political manoeuvring (or, at least, there should be). There is the simple matter of doing the right thing.
Any downside to Brexit – and, remember, even the hard Brexiteers’ leading wing nut, Jacob Rees-Mogg has said it might be 50 years before any benefits are seen – will hit the poorest in society hardest. Those who led the charge in favour of Brexit are comfortably financially insulated against its fall-out. It’s not Rees-Mogg’s future on the line, but the futures of families already struggling to get by. Surely Corbyn’s duty is to those people?
The fact is, however, that to a rigid ideologue like Corbyn, the project comes before the people. He wishes to completely restructure Britain and if that means some people at the bottom are left behind then that’s a regrettable inevitability. Eggs must be broken.
There will be scores of Labour voters, even now, explaining to themselves and others that Corbyn’s refusal to take a view on Brexit is a stroke of genius. I would advise those people to look at Labour’s experience in Scotland after the 2014 independence referendum.
Many of the party’s traditional supporters had voted Yes and Labour reckoned they could be won back if it softened its position on independence.
The message was spun that Labour might support a second referendum. What’s more, senior figures let it be known that they might even vote Yes if that looked like the best way of ensuring a fairer Scotland.
Did people flock back to Labour? No. In trying to please everyone, Labour pleased hardly anyone and was deserted not only by Yes voters but by substantial numbers of No voters, too.
Jeremy Corbyn and his admirers might think it wise to stand in the middle of the road on Brexit, but when the party did that on the question of Scottish independence, it was quickly run over.