If last month’s General Election taught us one thing, it was never to write off Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although the local election results earlier this year were appalling for Labour, a combination of an excellent personal campaign by Jezza, along with the realisation that the suicide note the press had talked about was actually in the Tories’ manifesto (and that Theresa May was a crap candidate) turned it all around.
So when it comes to the great challenges facing the country, I’m not going to say that Jezza and his pals can’t do it. But that does not totally assuage my concerns, nor I suspect many millions of others’, over how Labour is going to square its Brexit circle. Thus far, the policy appears to be to support the view that the UK will leave the EU. But how will Labour deliver the benefits it talks about after leaving?
How can access to the Single Market be achieved without being part of it, or indeed, part of the Customs Union? How can Britain regain the confidence of all those financial institutions looking to relocate their head offices out of the country? How will the car manufacturers be persuaded not to pack up their factories and take them across the channel (investment in that sector has declined significantly of late)?
Owen Jones - the insider's view
Regrettably, the response of those most vocal and active Corbyn supporters does not inspire confidence that those questions are being adequately addressed, let alone answered - something which, one might expect, Labour would have in hand in case of another of those snap General Elections. Once again, I remind all concerned of J K Galbraith’s observations on leadership.
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common; it was their willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”.
The major anxiety for British voters, and increasingly so, is their economic well-being - which may be significantly and potentially adversely affected by departure from the EU. Decisions are about to be made - look for the process to accelerate by September this year - on future investment. Those decisions, should they indicate businesses and jobs moving out of the UK, will only serve to increase that anxiety.
With that in mind, let us consider the stance of leading Labour loyalist, pundit, author and activist Owen Jones. No-one can doubt his commitment. Nor is his stance in any way equivocal. But facets of that stance appear less than totally thought through. Also, assumptions are made on the public mood which may turn out not to prove true.
Here is his recently expressed reasoning: “I don't like Brexit but I also think the wishes of the British people must be honoured because I'm a democrat”. This would be easier to understand if we knew what the wishes of the British people were, either at the time of the referendum, or now. But it is an otherwise sound start.
However, under questioning by David Allen Green, a fatal flaw emerges: “Why are you comparing inherently transient parliamentary elections whose transience define our democracy with referendums?” This is an ostensibly coherent response, until it is realised that both the 2016 and 1975 referenda were the result of transient political expediency.
Consider the circumstances of both: Harold Wilson claimed that the 1975 vote was the result of his having “renegotiated” the terms of Britain’s accession to the Treaty of Rome. The amount of “renegotiation” was so minimal as to make no difference to those terms. The real reason Wilson chose to put the membership of the then EEC to a referendum vote was, above all, to hold his own party together. Labour was, at the time, deeply split on the issue of Europe.
The 2016 referendum was also the result of transient expediency: David Cameron was also faced with potential splits in his own party: he would offer a referendum to paper these over, and at the same time see off the Kippers. What he failed to take on board was the thought that, having inflicted six years of needless austerity on the electorate, enough of them might blame the EU for it to turn the vote.
So when Jones tells “A referendum sold by the official Remain side as settling an issue and an election yielding an explicitly temporary result are not the same” he is already batting on a sticky track. Moreover, if we must consider what the Remain side were selling, the same is true for the Leave side, whose offer in response was deeply dishonest.
That much is to sow some doubt; what comes later only darkens the mood. “We held a referendum on a single issue, both main parties said we were bound by the result, a majority voted one way. There's no comparison”. The referendum was not binding, whatever those who Robin Day memorably and rightly called “Here today and gone tomorrow politicians” said to the contrary.
Jones then veers worryingly off course: “And quite frankly *the majority of Remainers* have my position, unlike the poll tax which had huge public opposition”. Has he taken a poll? May we see the results? Public opinion is never, ever carved in stone. It can be as unstable as the shifting quicksands in a broad tidal estuary.
And then comes something beyond worrying: “And quite frankly if your fellow travellers keep behaving like they have on my timeline they'll do nothing but repel people”. At a time when we need level heads and reasoned debate, this, I’m afraid, will not do, something I take no pleasure in writing, as I generally find Owen Jones the soundest of pundits.
“Fellow travellers”, once the preserve of the Thatcher boot boys, transformed into a term of deprecation from the left: how times change. But the problem for politicians when confronted with anything Europe related remains very much the same: to take the divisions that will shape this country’s future for generations to come, against a backdrop always shaped by the momentary interest of a day-to-day domestic agenda.
Yet Owen Jones is as close as any commentator to the beating heart of the Labour Party. So he cannot be dismissed as merely another grandstanding pundit; he has clout, he has reach, and he has inside knowledge of the leadership. And if the leadership is equally unyielding on its drive towards the EU exit door, that has to be a concern to many, not least to younger voters who are overwhelmingly pro-EU.
I’ll go further: the suggestion from the Labour leadership that Britain could achieve seamless, or frictionless, access to the Single Market and not be part of it is a non-starter. We know this as Michel Barnier, heading up the Brexit negotiations for the EU side, has said so unequivocally. Labour can’t have that, so they should not pretend otherwise.
There may be more flaws in the party’s stance; that most glaring is given in example. Also on display is the concern of those voices who might be expected to at least be sympathetic to Labour, if not totally on board with Jezza and the rest of the leadership.
Take Tony Robinson, clearly concerned that the party he supports shows no sign of having a cunning plan: “Immigration, trade, EU membership?- I'm concerned Labour is on the path to becoming a right wing party spouting left wing rhetoric”. He was not alone.
Observing a Comment Is Free piece from Barry Gardiner, that most reliable of Labour talking heads during the election campaign, Jonathan Freedland mused “It means Labour's position on Brexit is now the same as Liam Fox's … It means Philip Hammond's Brexit stance is milder than that of the official opposition”.
Rafael Behr had also seen the Gardiner piece: “In which Barry Gardiner interprets ‘shadowing’ Liam Fox literally as matching his every move”. So had John Harris: “This is the shadow trade secretary. You know, Barry Gardiner. By definition, this is a Hard Brexit position”. They - and Polly Toynbee, who has added her concerns this morning - are all at the Guardian, a paper which backed Labour last month.
It must also be borne in mind that public opinion is likely to have shifted significantly by the time the Article 50 process has completed. Take that thought, add to it the concerns of all those younger voters, and round off with the memory that Corbyn gave the electorate one thing his opponents could not - hope. Hope for easing austerity. Hope of better pay and conditions. Hope for a brighter and more optimistic future.
But, as I said at the beginning, Jezza managed to pull a General Election result out of the fire, so who knows what he might have in store on this issue? That is for him and his party to decide, and then declare. But what I will offer in conclusion is one suggestion.
We are being constantly bombarded by those considering that last year’s vote settles all arguments with the phrase “will of the people”. So let the will of the people prevail on whatever deal comes out of the Brexit negotiations. Demonstrate Labour’s commitment to, and faith in, the democratic process. And commit to put that deal to a vote.
The electorate would be offered the deal - warts and all, properly and honestly presented - with the alternative of remaining in the EU. And in the meantime, work to persuade M. Barnier and his team to allow the British rebate on EU budget contributions to be retained, should the vote then be to Remain.
Otherwise, Labour is doing no more than following the Tories over the cliff edge, with no more than blind faith in either suspension of the laws of gravity, or the cliff being very small indeed. Hope, Jezza. Give us hope. That is all that is being asked.