Labour is a party of Remainers led by Brexiteers. More than two thirds of the party’s voters wanted to stay in the European Union, the majority of trade unions backed a Remain vote and 86 per cent of Labour activists want a second referendum. But Jeremy Corbyn himself is a Eurosceptic of long vintage who backed Remain in 2016 for two reasons: the first was that he feared a Leave victory would trigger the end of his leadership, and the second was that the left-wing economist and former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis convinced him that Brexit would lead to the break-up of the EU and a worse deal for the nations of the EU periphery. Corbyn’s belief that the United Kingdom itself was better off out never wavered.
Those who know him best have never disputed that he is, as one puts it, “a Bennite Brexiteer”: someone who is deeply sceptical of the European project because of its consequences for national sovereignty and the limits it places on any radical political programme. Some of his longest-serving allies even believe that he voted Leave in 2016. During the referendum campaign, Corbyn’s brother, Piers, jokingly told friends that the Labour leader had been “replaced by a duplicate”.
The Labour leadership’s policy preference is that Brexit should happen and their strategic imperative is to avoid taking political damage from either side of the Remain/Leave divide. That’s why so many of their political gambits are about running down the clock on the Article 50 process, in the hope that it makes any Brexit choice less politically painful to them. It’s why Corbyn only declared that parliament ought not to have gone on its Christmas holidays after the recess had begun, knowing full well that he’d had the power to stop it from doing so if he had wanted.
That Corbyn is a Eurosceptic is not a secret confined to his allies and relatives, but something that the Labour leader has been entirely open about. During his first run for the Labour Party leadership, he told the New Statesman he had not “closed his mind” to backing an Out vote — Labour Party members responded by electing him by an overwhelming margin. The following year, his leadership rival Owen Smith ran on an explicit platform of seeking to overturn the referendum result — Corbyn, who ran on an equally transparent ticket of implementing Brexit, was once again elected.
Earlier this year, the Labour right’s candidates for the party’s ruling national executive committee made support for another referendum the centrepiece of their manifesto and they lost in a landslide. So among Labour Party members, at least, Corbyn’s Euroscepticism doesn’t seem to be a deal-breaker.
Nor has it done real damage to his standing among Labour voters who backed Remain in 2016 either. A recent poll by the People’s Vote campaign, the official organisation calling for another in-out referendum, found that should Labour facilitate Brexit, it would finish third at a general election, with just 22 per cent of the vote, four points behind the Liberal Democrats. The poll was eye-catching but it had one major flaw: under Corbyn, Labour has already fought an election in which it and the Tories both pledged to facilitate Brexit and the Liberal Democrats promised to stop it. Labour did not finish third or anything like it in 2017.
And although the Lib Dems had a very successful year in local elections, that party’s strategists privately concede that their revival flowed through localised discontent rather than opposition to Labour’s Brexitism: they won seats off a radical left council in pro-Remain Haringey and a scandal-plagued middle-of-the-road council in pro-Leave Sunderland.
Yet it’s not as if Remainers are quietly pleased with the Labour Party’s position: one of the many strange trends on social media is that every couple of months people on Facebook and Twitter will get very angry about yet another interview in which Corbyn reiterates that Labour’s policy is to support Brexit, just as the Conservatives’ is. This should be about as newsworthy as the Labour leader announcing his first name is “Jeremy” yet every time it causes a stir. The latest example was in The Guardian, which Corbyn told that Brexit would go ahead even if Labour won a snap election.
So what’s going on? Why aren’t Remainers angrier with Corbyn? Why do many voters appear consciously to forget what Labour’s actual position on Brexit is? The reasons are varied but they all spell trouble for the People’s Vote campaign: and not just because without Labour support for another referendum it is impossible to see how one will happen.
For most voters, whether they backed Remain or Leave, their Brexit vote is not about how they regard the institutions of the EU or the final relationship Britain has with the single market, but a cultural question about the type of country we are. The strongest correlation with how you voted in the referendum was how you felt about the death penalty, the next strongest was whether you had a degree. Those held almost regardless of how well you were doing economically or how much you might have to lose or gain from Brexit. For most Remainers, being pro-EU is about social liberalism. Not all Remainers are socially liberal, just as not all Leavers are socially authoritarian, and it is dubious in any case how far the EU could be said to be a fount of social liberalism, but in the main, the Brexit vote was about more than just Europe.
What sets Corbyn apart from the average Labour voter is not just his Euroscepticism, but that his views are derived from his thoughts about the EU itself, not his sense of what kind of country Britain should be.
Tim Farron, the former Lib Dem leader, was by every measure a more committed European than Jeremy Corbyn — but he also had views on homosexuality that put him beyond the pale for most Remain voters. Corbyn’s Brexit position puts Labour at odds with most of his voters but his social liberal bona fides make up for it — for most voters, at least.
And the fact that support or opposition to Brexit is driven by culture, not economics or policy, is why bad news about the economic impact of Brexit didn’t win the last referendum for Remain and won’t be enough in the event of another one either. It is why both political parties will continue to struggle to win majorities of the size necessary to make the radical changes that both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, in different directions and for different reasons, crave.