Why has Corbyn remained so ambivalent in this Brexit saga? He has a long history of Euroscepticism, rooted in the view that the EU is a neo-liberal project of global corporations. In addition, however, he wants, as Labour Prime Minister in waiting, to be free from EU regulations that might constrain him in rebuilding public institutions in this country, from the health and welfare services to local industrial strategies and community revitalisation.
The rhetoric of the Brexiteers contrasts ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom-loving Brits versus the rigid and punitive Europeans. Corbyn similarly risks contrasting the green and pleasant land, which his policies will foster, and the hostile neo-liberal environment from which Brexit will free them. He is also, of course, sensitive to the pleas of those Labour MPs who represent Leave constituencies and who are understandably wary of the accusation that Labour might ‘steal’ their referendum victory.
In many ways, therefore, his position is as unenviable as that of Theresa May – a Remainer, but tasked with holding together a party torn between the hard Euroscepticism of its membership and the much softer Parliamentary party.
There are three tasks that Corbyn faces, if he is to resolve this set of interlocking dilemmas, with advantage for his party, the communities they represent and the country – and indeed, for his own place in history.
He should first recognise that the EU cannot be reasonably described as a neo-liberal project of global corporations. Those corporations have indeed accumulated a position of considerable power, shaping the EU’s rule-based systems of economic governance, but this is a continuously contested terrain. The labour movement of the last 150 years developed precisely to engage in that contest, at national and international levels. To imagine that the sort of democratic socialism Corbyn espouses can be built in one country, even one separated from its neighbours by the sea, goes against all that experience.
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