Britain’s Remainers — the unexpected mass movement of failing campaign groups, furious Twitter activists, countless Facebook dads and canny politicians with a mastery of parliamentary procedure battling to save the country’s European Union membership — hate Jeremy Corbyn.
If their social media posts are anything to go by, they blame him for Brexit even more than former Tory prime minister David Cameron, who called and lost the 2016 referendum on Britain’s E.U. membership in the first place. Labour, for them, is not only led by a man who is dithering, uninterested and indecisive toward their cause of saving Britain’s E.U. membership, but maybe even a closet Brexiteer.
Yet the brutal facts of Britain’s upcoming December election mean that only the left-wing Euro-skeptic who once called the “European bureaucracy totally unaccountable to anybody” can save them. Not to mention the added problem that he can do this only by being as little Remain as politically possible on the campaign trail.
Britain’s Brexit identities — Leave or Remain — have grown so strong that they have wreaked havoc in traditional Conservative and Labour heartlands. Former safe Tory seats in the south, such as Canterbury or Kensington, have turned into swing seats by Tory Remainers having deserted a party now led by Boris Johnson and his gurus from the 2016 Leave campaign. Meanwhile, in the Midlands and the north of England, Brexit appears to have opened up working-class Labour seats that voted strongly for Brexit to Johnson’s appeal to “Get Brexit Done.” So much so, in fact, that the Tory strategy is based on this trade.
The plan is simple but high-risk. It’s simple because by doubling down on Brexit, the Conservatives are betting on eating into those Leave-minded Labour seats to make up for Remain-inclined seats in London and the south of England. But it’s high-risk because in doing so they have also rendered vulnerable Brexit, Johnson’s premiership and the fate of their entire party.
And here’s the rub for Remainers. To hold onto those Labour Leave seats, Corbyn has to be as little Remain as possible. In fact, the future of Britain’s E.U. membership depends on the Labour campaign refocusing the election on poverty, social injustice, the fate of Britain’s strained National Health Service and Corbyn’s own transformative agenda.
Corbyn’s strategists have made their own high-risk bet. Instead of pivoting to a clear Remain position (to the fury of many Remainers), the party is now offering a convoluted plan for a Labour-led renegotiation with Brussels that would result in a new deal that would then be put up for a second referendum with Remain as an option. Corbyn’s team is gambling that this will be just enough to bring Remainers back from the Liberal Democrats while keeping those Leave-minded seats Labour.
The Tory gamble, though, can end only in complete victory or an utter defeat. At this point in the 2017 election campaign, the Conservatives were still on course for a majority. But Theresa May’s collapse in the last weeks of that campaign have traumatized them. A hung Parliament would ruin Johnson politically, and that result could translate into a second referendum — which, polls suggest, Remain could easily win.
Right now, the most likely outcome is a Conservative majority, ushering in Brexit and finally routing Remain. But Labour strategists have not given up hope. They hope their program can convince the Brexit-inclined but traditionally Labour voters that they need to vote for them. Corbyn is unlikely to win a majority — but unlike Johnson, he doesn’t need one. Barring some historically unprecedented shift, there is simply too much nationalism in the United Kingdom right now for a Labour majority. In Scotland, Labour has failed to recover the ground it lost in 2015, when the Scottish National Party made huge gains. But thanks to Brexit, Corbyn has enough potential allies in Parliament to either prop up a minority government or to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists.
That won’t be enough, however, for him to implement his radical party program, which includes a slew of nationalizations. This would struggle to pass Parliament should the austerity-minded Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power. Ironically, this means that for all Labour’s energetic and youthful campaigning for a 21st-century socialist transformation, the only historical role open for Corbyn — unless something incredible happens — is that of an instrument used by others to hold a second referendum and reverse Brexit.
How likely is it? A lot of this comes down to Remainers. Will they hold their nose and vote tactically for Corbyn? At this point in 2017, Labour suddenly surged from a similar position. But this time Labour will need to pull off the incredible feat of persuading Remainers to desert the Liberal Democrats en masse while campaigning with as little Remain as possible to hold that Red Wall. There is still a chance. But a slim one.
Ben Judah is the author of “This Is London.”