"Cleverly, the party has so far managed to be all things to all people"

Brexit: Corbyn is playing a clever long game that could benefit us all

Remainers are a largely harmonious community. While most harbour ultimate dreams of staying inside the EU (and regard Brexit as a nightmare), a majority seem prepared to settle for a compromise of soft Brexit inside the single market and customs union. But one issue divides them more than any other: the Brexit stance of the Labour party. For some pro-EU advocates, Labour is a hard Brexit party and Jeremy Corbyn is as culpable as Theresa May. Others are prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt, and their votes. Here’s why I fall into the latter category – and why Brexit could be Labour’s prize to take.

For the best part of a year, Labour’s Brexit stance was profoundly disappointing. Corbyn’s traditional Bennite Euroscepticism was nothing new, but many progressives found his failure to resist May’s hardline stance on the single market and customs union shocking, particularly as the poorest in society stand to suffer the most. The three-line whip over February’s Article 50 vote – which Corbyn hadn’t even applied when opposing the bombing of Syria – represented a particular low point.

But it was always unreasonable to expect Labour to act like the Liberal Democrats. While a majority of Labour voters backed Remain in the referendum, swathes of seats in the north and Midlands voted emphatically for Brexit. In many of them, UKIP had also come a perilously close second in the 2015 election. It would have been extremely difficult for Labour to tell those voters that their concerns were being disregarded or their votes ignored. Certainly, Labour failed to provide a counter-narrative (why, for example, curbing immigration would harm, not help those communities), and offered too little to young voters and urban constituencies who worried, correctly, that Brexit was going to shatter Britain’s economy and bring down much of our social fabric alongside it. But their electoral geometry was always going to necessitate a fine balance and nuanced tone.

The point, of course, is that nuance cannot replace policy indefinitely. The general election campaign was the turning point. Although Labour declined to give clarity on the single market and customs union, Corbyn’s platform guaranteed something which May still denies to this day: we will not leave the EU without a deal. The necessary corollary to that – that if there is no acceptable or negotiable deal, we will stay in – remained, of course, unconfirmed. But Labour, it turns out, did not need to spell out any more on its Brexit policy. It kept the bulk of its Remain and Leave voters, and added many more (mainly, but not exclusively Remainers).

A number of Remainers have continued their criticism of Labour in the half-year since the election. Certainly, the party has moved more slowly than many of its supporters would wish, and its statements on Brexit are often bewilderingly opaque. But it has not done the party demonstrable harm to sit in the shadows while the Conservatives self-immolate – and more importantly, Labour has dramatically changed its rhetoric.

In August, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer – who is liked and respected across the party (and also across the House) – declared Labour’s support for a status-quo transition, which preserved free movement after 2019. It is a sign of how far we have come in four months that this seemed revolutionary then, and universally obvious now. Since that breakthrough, Labour has only moved in one direction, and usually arrived at the inevitable position before the Tories. In November, Starmer declared that a “new single market relationship and a customs union” were “viable long-term options”, and on 5th December he asked the prime minister in the Commons whether she would “now rethink her reckless red lines and put options such a customs union and single market back on the table”. This language would have been unthinkable at the start of the year. Labour’s soft Brexit stance is now unmistakeable.

Of course, Labour has calculated that it must move slowly and ambiguously in order to keep all its flanks (and voters) on-side – which has occasionally proved frustrating and obfuscatory. The discussions about ‘a’ customs union and ‘a’ single market, in particular, represent a verbal trick to disguise the fact that outside the EU we will not be in ‘the’ EU customs union or EU single market, but could still remain in every other way. The talk about ‘easy movement’ instead of ‘free movement’ must also, we hope, mean a recalibration within EU rules. Labour could, for example, apply Belgian-style immigration restrictions, with compulsory registration, and call that a ‘reformed’ single-market relationship. Anything else is delusion.

Really, the end of delusion forms the heart of Labour’s Brexit evolution. While Corbyn once spoke of leaving the single market while putting jobs first, he now seems to recognise the incompatibility of a jobs-first Brexit which leaves a single market that keeps thousands of people employed. We moreover cannot preserve an open Irish border (and, indeed, ensure simple customs procedures) while leaving the customs union. His conference speech line about implementing socialist reforms outside the single market has never been specified – and indeed, left-wing commentators have emphasised for months how Corbyn’s agenda could be easily delivered inside the single market or EU. (And in any case, if the EU thought that we were under-cutting them or promoting unfair competition outside, they would not sign a comprehensive trade deal.)

If Labour had gingerly embraced soft Brexit before the phase one agreement, that deal has cemented it. The wording of the UK/EU joint report all but mandates Northern Ireland’s – and therefore the UK’s – membership of the single market and customs union, in that we must remain ‘in full regulatory alignment’ in all areas pertaining to the Good Friday Agreement and all-Ireland economy. There seems to be no way of aligning in regulation outside the single market, and it is hard to imagine a scenario in which tariffs will be collected on some goods but not others. Labour should embrace the direction of traffic and make it firm policy. If necessary, it can reassure its Leave voters that it wanted very much to leave the single market in apparent (although by no means clear) accordance with their wishes, but Dublin’s insistence on a fully open border has rendered that impossible. Given that Corbyn could never have reconciled the demands of soft Brexit with the outcomes of hard, Leo Varadkar has gifted him the perfect get-out.

As for Corbyn himself, some matters remain clear. Certainly, he is no pro-EU convert, and he still does not like talking about Brexit. But ultimately his views are irrelevant. He is allowing Starmer to chart a soft Brexit course. Moreover, Corbyn asked May a series of incisive questions about regulatory alignment after the phase-one agreement, and even suggested that we should extend Article 50, which Remainers like me have been advocating for months but which May is (for the moment) implacably against.

The problem for Labour is that they do not have infinite time. Even a long game must eventually end. And that could prove alienating. Cleverly, the party has so far managed to be all things to all people. A recent YouGov poll, for example, showed that 32% of Labour Remain voters think Labour is “completely against” Brexit, and 31% of Labour Leavers think it is “completely in favour”. Many voters could therefore end up sorely disappointed – which is why, again, Labour will have to communicate its final position carefully and pragmatically. But they will have to reach a position. That will also mean demanding fewer abstentions in future votes.

We should not get ahead of ourselves here. Labour is, as things stand, unlikely to stop Brexit altogether. But politics at the moment is uniquely febrile, and positions quickly change. Polls are now consistently showing a lead for Remain, and psephologists are clear that Labour stands to gain the most from a soft Brexit (or no-Brexit) position. The party knows it must differentiate itself from the Tories and highlight the economic cataclysm of May’s ideological Brexit, which would casually smash livelihoods along with immigration figures. If the Tories are driving off a cliff, Labour should put itself in a position to capitalise, not pursue them.

The demand for a second referendum could prove irresistible – and if the government dares to attempt a no-deal Brexit, a general election and Corbyn government would swiftly follow. A general election could indeed take place even in other circumstances. Either way, if the government isn’t on track to negotiate a deal, and Corbyn replaces them with too little time, Article 50 will have to be extended at the very least. If it then becomes a choice between revoking it altogether or departing via the cliff-edge, that choice has already been made.

If Corbyn is following Napoleon’s advice not to interrupt his enemy while she is making mistakes, he is not showing great courage, or even perhaps acting in the immediate national interest – but he is playing a clever long game that in the end could benefit us all. If Labour has finally abandoned the delusions of Brexit, they also uncover a political space that carries with it electoral spoils. If they want it, they only need a few short steps to take it.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the think tank British Influence, which researches the impacts of Brexit. He specialises in diplomacy, foreign and security policy and the single market.

The opinions in politics.co.uk’s Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.