Jeremy Corbyn says he is 7/10 for Britain’s EU membership. But his campaign effort on behalf of the Remain cause has been 2/10.
What’s the leader’s problem with our EU membership?
The problem is he is attempting to straddle a deep divide with Labour – one that the referendum has exposed more sharply than ever. And it isn’t really about Europe.
Labour’s divisions are between the bulk of its MPs, its core working class supporters and the overwhelming majority of its activists. The differences are both wide and deep. They are manifest in a range of policy differences, but stem from cultural, even doctrinal, roots.
They are not new. As trade unions have weakened, and as more middle class youngsters started going to universities and getting professional jobs, Labour’s political representation has changed. You only have to contrast the leading figures of the Attlee/Wilson cabinets with those of Blair/Brown to see the difference. The centre of gravity amongst Labour’s political representatives has shifted decisively to the middle classes and to left-centrists.
The Blair years represented the zenith of their time. The mantra from the senior figures was centrist, reformist, pro-market, pro-Europe. It was social liberalism with economic pragmatism.
It delivered power. But the foot-soldier activists were not at ease. To them, government was compromise. Traditional working class voters were not that impressed either. In particular their steadily growing anger about immigration was ignored. As asylum numbers mounted, and then as EU accession state workers arrived in large numbers, heads shook even more, and votes started to drift away.
There was a break on the erosion of course: the dreaded Tories. For as long as the choice was framed in the context of a general election, the drift could be stemmed to some extent, by rallying votes against ’ the enemy’. Even so, Labour’s working class vote was eroding. And when UKIP arrived on the scene, there was somewhere for it to go.
The core activists are left-idealists: anti big business, pro punitive taxation, anti-nuclear. This is not where the vast majority of Labour MPs are – almost all of whom were selected by members before the activist insurgency arising from the Miliband reforms.
The core working class supporters are primarily nationalistic, anti-immigration and anti-EU. This isn’t where the majority of Labour MPs are either.
Labour has a triangular split. General elections have offered a degree of binding tape to hold the pieces together. There is no binding tape in a referendum. It’s an issue choice, not a government choice. And voters can – and will – choose the issue, regardless of the question on the ballot paper.
Many of Labour’s core voters have decided that the issue is immigration.
Corbyn knows this. He is there because of the left activists – that’s his power base. His EU stance reflects the reality of his position – in line, as much as possible, with his activist power base, and not too much out of line with the working class support. But completely out of line with the majority of his MPs.
Whether the result is Remain or Leave, Corbyn’s leadership is not at risk. Labour’s internal structure ensures that. The 2020 Leader will either be Corbyn or Corbyn Mk2.
But if the result is Brexit, a large number of Labour MPs will blame Corbyn. The party will fracture even further.
A narrow Remain win may be less critical – but there are more reasons for fracture coming down the track, as defence and economic policy options begin to firm up.
The political left will also be part of the post-referendum realignment.