For those not keeping track, we are now at the stage of Brexit when parliamentary sketch writers posit that “not even hallucinogens” are enough to believe the latest Conservative fantasies over an exit deal with the EU. This is about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s just revealed—and entirely unworkable—Brexit proposal. Put simply, it gets around the perennial problem of avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland—which would violate the Good Friday Agreement and is therefore a no-go—by putting two borders there instead. While Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed the idea as a “Trump deal Brexit” that could crash the economy, EU negotiators are currently going through the necessary steps of pretending to take this seriously.
Weeks earlier, the twists and turns of this chaotic Conservative government were weirdly well timed for Labour. The party’s annual conference in late September, in the seaside town of Brighton on England’s south coast, had been fractious and confused. The gathering had been rocked by attempts to oust Labour’s deputy leader, the resignation of one of Corbyn’s closest advisers, and a heated clash over the party’s Brexit position. But all was eclipsed on September 24, when the Supreme Court announced its unanimous verdict on Johnson: His decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks, at the height of the spiraling Brexit crisis, was unlawful.
The court’s decision gifted Corbyn the opportunity for a rousing and blistering attack on Johnson, who “broke the law when he tried to shut down democratic debate and accountability at a crucial moment for our public life,” the Labour leader said. Alongside policy pledges to share wealth and power to end years of brutal economic mismanagement, the speech was met with rapturous applause and became a unifying moment. Party resolve to topple the reviled Johnson government took on strength when, forced back to a reopened Parliament, the prime minister used his office to lash out in appallingly divisive, threatening language and accuse the highest court in the land of political motivations.
Johnson is goading the opposition to launch a vote of no confidence against him, triggering a general election. Labour and the other parties won’t risk that until he secures from the European Union an extension of Britain’s deadline for departure—which he refuses to do, even while the recently passed Benn Act compels the prime minister to do exactly that if he has not secured a deal with the EU by the end of the European Council summit in mid-October. Opposition groups are acting to avoid a “crash-out” or no-deal Brexit, with all the damage it would unleash, according to the government’s own reports. Yet at the same time, every day the irresponsible Johnson stays in office is another day he uses his powerful platform to pump poison and incendiary language into the public conversation. Meanwhile, Labour is currently flailing in the polls, with Corbyn’s rating the lowest of any opposition leader in decades.
The party conference in Brighton was a far cry from the one held in the same city two years ago, after Labour, campaigning on a transformative socioeconomic program, claimed a historic share of the vote in a snap election. Had that 2017 election taken place just a few weeks later, Labour likely would have won. But now the Corbyn-supporting camp is divided: Should the party support the Remain side in the country’s interminable Brexit battle, as the bulk of its membership and its MPs want? Should Labour vocally champion immigration and freedom of movement or stay quiet because it might upset some of the party’s more Brexity voters? Should the founder of Momentum, a grassroots Corbyn support group, have tried to topple Labour’s divisive deputy leader by abolishing the post, or was this an ill-advised act of self-sabotage?
With Johnson’s government vowing to take Britain out of the EU, “do or die,” by the end of October, Corbyn has committed the party to a referendum on any Brexit deal. But he wants Labour to stay neutral in a general election on whether it would side with Remain or back its own Leave deal negotiated with the EU. Campaigners who want Labour to go to the polls as a Remain party lost a conference vote on the issue. It’s clear to me, after speaking with delegates—representatives of constituency Labour parties mandated to vote on policy issues at conference—that there is some agreement with Corbyn’s strategy. But it’s not certain that this would have carried a majority on the conference floor had it not been turned into a loyalty test. One delegate, describing the pro-Remain motions, said, “They were all coming from the left of the party, from Corbyn supporters who are internationalist and socialist. I was so disappointed that by the time this came to the [conference] floor, it was seen as an anti-Corbyn position. I can tell you from the heart, that’s not what it was.”
In a party in which members can shape policy at conference, such manipulations from the leadership aren’t unusual. As one Labour organizer said of the party under Prime Minister Tony Blair, “They used to do this massively. They’d do it more, and they’d do it better.” The trouble for Corbyn is that he has also made party democracy—building engagement and participation—a core part of his brand. In this context, loyalty tests may dampen enthusiasm among the grass roots. That much was already in evidence after Corbyn’s conference speech, when some noted the hollowness of his saying that good leaders, while having strong principles, must also “listen and trust others to play their part.”
While it is widely acknowledged that Labour, with its voter coalition split over Brexit, has complex difficulties with the issue, polling has for some time shown the party losing more votes from its Remain flank than from Leavers. Labour has been trying to avoid coming down on one side or the other on Brexit, but however sensible in intent, the strategy has had the effect of annoying all sides. The party is keen to get back to a policy platform, announcing at conference new ideas that are designed to raise the quality of life, tackle the climate crisis, and level the playing field in one of the most unequal countries in Europe. Some of these policies are a result of the grass roots pulling the party to the left, committing it via conference motions in Brighton to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, abolishing private schools, and supporting immigration while shutting down all migrant detention centers.
But can Labour keep skirting Brexit in order to showcase these policies? “The Leave/Remain story, however you analyze why we have got to this point, is the biggest story, certainly in the 20 years since I’ve been in politics,” said Labour MP David Lammy at a conference event. “And very sadly, we have to accept that it is a bigger immediacy than the issues that we want to talk about. So deal with Brexit. Pick a side.”
For some in the Corbyn camp, the thinking is that the more Johnson goes full Donald Trump, the starker the choice will be between this reckless Conservative leader and the sensible head-teacher manner and better policies coming from Labour. It’s already the case that voters, including business figures, are seeing shadow chancellor John McDonnell as a safe pair of hands. A Labour Party that champions a left-wing social and economic program has rehabilitated these long-derided yet decidedly popular policies. Even the financial establishment thinks Labour economics are better than the Conservatives’ no-deal Brexit. All that—and experience of the polls getting everything wrong—is why several in the leadership’s office are counting on the party’s advancing as soon as an election campaign gets underway. It is hoped that Johnson’s attempts to depict Parliament as being against the people (where “the people” are those demanding that Brexit be delivered by any means) will fall apart once Labour gets to boost policies that highlight the entitlement and privilege of a Conservative cabinet claiming to be antiestablishment.
But by dodging the Brexit issue and refusing to locate racism or hostility to immigration as a key force animating the Brexit project, Labour has ceded political ground to the right while demoralizing some of its own ranks. Since the 2017 election, when it won the popularity argument on left-wing policies, the Corbyn leadership has hardly been generous or expansive in victory; even sympathetic MPs still aren’t in the loop, and control of his office is centralized and narrow. On both counts, this means party strategy isn’t getting properly stress-tested, which is facilitating unforced errors. Having horribly mismanaged its anti-Semitism problem and unnecessarily alienated many Remain voters, the party is now asking that some people hold their nose and vote Labour. Facing the option of five more years of a nativist, hard-right, Trump-friendly Tory government willing to crash the United Kingdom out of the EU, this might seem a no-brainer and may well secure a comfortable Labour win. But it’s still one hell of a gamble.