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Can Jeremy Corbyn Save Britain From Brexit?

His critics say a better opposition leader could vanquish the Tories and prevent a ruinous departure from the EU. Some even argue that he is complicit in the disaster that awaits his country. Here's why they're wrong.

Louise Haywood-Schiefer/Camera Press/Redux

For most of his career, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North since 1983, has been well respected in activist circles and parodied in parliamentary ones. Between 1997 and 2010, under the Labour governments of first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, Corbyn voted against his party an unrivaled 428 times. Not that anyone really noticed. When Blair reportedly quipped, in a 1996 interview affirming his own New Labour credentials, that “you don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over,” the wisecrack never got published, because the reporter reasoned, quite rightly, that nobody would know who this Corbyn person was.  

All this changed when, in September 2015, Corbyn suddenly did take over. It happened almost by accident. In the general election that spring, five years of harsh and unpopular austerity policies somehow reinstated David Cameron as Conservative prime minister with a larger share of the vote. In the Labour leadership race that followed, Corbyn was allowed to run, not as a genuine candidate, both he and his colleagues implicitly agreed, but as a relic: a melancholic reminder of Labour’s socialist roots as it chose another ex-Blair or -Brown cabinet minister. “It would be good for the left of the party to see just how few votes would be cast,” a senior Labour figure told The Spectator at the time.

But then the relic came alive. Corbyn received more votes from Labour members than his three opponents combined, running on a campaign against Conservative public sector cuts. Against the wishes of 206 of the 220 Labour MPs, Corbyn was declared leader of the Labour Party, with the largest mandate of any modern equivalent. For his supporters, it heralded the rebirth of the British left. For his critics, Labour had just suffered a second death, dooming itself to electoral oblivion.

Looking back at the shock of Corbyn’s victory, the various convulsions that it triggered in the British political establishment seem almost quaint now compared to what was to come a year later, with the Brexit vote. During his re-election campaign, Cameron had pledged to allow Britain to hold an in/out referendum on European Union membership. What’s equally striking is how little the question of Europe came up in the 2015 Labour leadership debate; the membership seemed to assume, like most of the country, that the Brexit verdict would be a mere blip before Britain moved back to more important matters. Labour had actively condemned Cameron’s referendum promise as irresponsible, and the membership was overwhelmingly pro-EU. But on the one occasion that EU membership did come up, Corbyn did not hide that, unlike his three opponents, he had his doubts. The veteran critic of the EU won regardless.

The day after the 2016 referendum, in which Corbyn reticently campaigned for Remain and lost, Labour MPs blamed Corbyn for the result and staged the largest wave of resignations in British history. They also called a new leadership election, and, with 172 Labour MPs saying they had no confidence in him, Corbyn came close to quitting. But he stayed on and, with Brexit now the cornerstone issue of the campaign against him, the membership elected him afresh—by an even bigger margin.

It was an early illustration of what has proved a persistent theme: Corbyn is a magnet for endless Brexit blame in a party that wants to remain in the EU, so much so that his opponents say his rise to power is of a piece with the chaos that Brexit is set to unleash. With the deadline for Brexit negotiations fast approaching on March 29, many in Labour see only Corbyn and the messianic fervor of his supporters standing in the way of a resolution to the crisis. But in seeing such a path, it’s clear that the real messianic view of politics lies elsewhere: in the forlorn hope that some other Labour leader would, by the power of charisma and common sense, save Britain from sinking into the Brexit morass. 

What Corbyn offers instead is a corrective to the kind of politics—pushed by New Labour and the Conservatives alike—that damaged the country long before Brexit and set the stage for the result. As he steps out in support of a second referendum, the question of whether that will be enough to convince Britons to pull back from the brink remains to be seen. 

Until recently, Brexit was simply not a Labour issue. There has always been a small “Lexit,” or left-wing Brexit fringe, to which Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have historically belonged. This group has been liable to the same imperial delusions as today’s Brexiteers—Tony Benn, the late socialist Labour MP and a hero of Corbyn’s, spoke of a “national liberation struggle,” and as late as 2009, Corbyn was railing against a “European Empire” from which Britain must escape. But, as Corbyn’s referendum compromise showed, it was never a defining cause.   

Now, however, Brexit is the issue that defines British politics on the right and the left. Cameron held the referendum solely in a gambit to help him paper over his own party’s troubles: internal divisions, a foundational Euroscepticism, and the looming threat of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage. But rather than address those issues in any productive way, the referendum initiated a stunning Conservative-ization of the British psyche. In 2010, less than 1 percent of Brits named EU membership as their most important concern, according to a British Elects Survey. Now, Brits are essentially talking about nothing else. A crisis of Conservatism was transformed into a crisis of identity—and now Labour must play along.

On the surface, Labour’s task should be easy. After two and a half years of Brexit negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May has failed to build a consensus within her party, let alone Parliament or the country. Her raison d’être now hangs like a noose around her neck. There are reports of possible food and medicine shortages and price inflations if no deal is reached. There are weekly cabinet rifts, monthly resignations, and in January, when May finally, belatedly, put her Brexit deal before Parliament, it was voted down by 230 votes—the largest defeat for a government in history.

For an opposition party, these are surely optimal conditions. And yet, faced with this farce, Labour is either level in the polls with the Conservatives or, on more and more counts, falling behind. Corbyn, whose own approval rating is well below May’s (he has the worst rating of any opposition leader since the 1980s), makes for an easy scapegoat. “The Tory party is falling to pieces and with a decent Labour leader, it could have been finished off for generations,” James O’Brien, an influential talk show host dubbed “the conscience of liberal Britain,” said in one characteristic outburst. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive Jeremy Corbyn for his incompetence and his ineffectiveness.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda is as much an indictment of Tony Blair’s New Labour as the Conservative Party.

This disbelief, edging on despair, is widely shared. And it’s fed by more than just Corbyn’s alleged incompetence and ineffectiveness. Corbyn stands accused of a dizzying array of charges: a lack of charisma, a ruthless will to power, a callous indifference. Corbyn is described, by turns, as being too principled (pursuing a secret personal desire to leave the EU) and too pragmatic (playing party-politics at a time of national crisis). According to one Guardian columnist, Corbyn exaggerates his disagreements with May “for theatrical effect”—ultimately they want the same thing. Another liberal critic, playing on the popular perception that Corbyn’s following is a cult, has suggested that the Labour leadership, Communist Manifesto in hand, is “cheering on our steady descent into the abyss—a process they believe will hasten our arrival at the promised land.”

Corbyn’s supporters are accustomed to such attacks and pin the blame for them on a malevolent press and misleading polling. Most of the media, whether the BBC, the Guardian, or the Daily Mail, have been relentlessly hostile toward Corbyn from the start. A 2016 study by the London School of Economics found that nearly 75 percent of coverage misrepresented Corbyn’s views, and Corbyn’s press profile has fared little better since.

Meanwhile, in the 2017 general election, when Labour was even further behind in the polls and Corbyn’s approval rating just as dismal, Labour defied the doubters as its share of the vote soared by the greatest margin since 1945. May had wanted a “Brexit election” and seemed certain of a “supermajority.” But Corbyn stuck to his usual agenda—assailing austerity, inequality, tuition fees—and May was left with a hung Parliament, forced to form a fragile coalition with the small far-right Democratic Unionist Party to remain in government. Corbyn has confounded his critics before, the argument goes, so why won’t he do so again?

Yet all this back-and-forth fails to address the unique, paralyzing challenge that Brexit poses to Labour. Brexit, for all its Conservative roots, has opened up an elemental rift within the Labour Party that now threatens its future. This quandary, ethical and electoral, lies beneath Labour’s feet, far below questions of Corbyn’s competence and effectiveness, or his popularity in the polls. The referendum vote cut the country in two, traversing traditional party lines, and, for Labour, landed especially awkwardly.

The dilemma is clear. The vast majority of Labour wants to remain in the EU: Only ten of the 230 Labour MPs in 2016 voted to leave, while between 80 to 90 percent of the membership and two-thirds of Labour voters wanted to stay. But partly because support for the EU clusters in major cities, the third of Labour voters who backed Brexit is estimated to account for almost two-thirds of Labour’s parliamentary seats. What’s more, 35 of the top 50 target seats for Labour at the next election—those requiring minor swings to switch to Labour—are Leave constituencies.

Electoral abysses lie on either side. If Labour is seen as “enabling Brexit”—in practice, by not backing a second referendum—polls suggest that it could lose as many as 45 seats at the next election. A small Blairite wing of eight Labour MPs has already split to form The Independent Group, joined by several Conservatives, citing the absence of a second referendum as a key reason. Labour’s electoral prospects thus become even bleaker, which is one reason Corbyn finally came out in tentative support of a second referendum on Monday. 

But on the other side, if Labour pitches itself too strongly as the anti-Brexit party, as these splitters suggest, it risks losing not only the Leave constituencies on which it relies—which won on a manifesto that promised to uphold the referendum result—but also the low-hanging seats it must gain at the next election if it is ever to get back into government. With “Leaver” and “Remainer” now the primary ways that people identify politically in the U.K., far above party allegiance, it’s unlikely that this contradiction can be reconciled. 

In this compromised state, many of the moral tenets of so-called Corbynism are called into question as well: that the principled path should be pursued over political expediency; that the membership should be empowered to decide party policy; that the interests of young people—Corbyn’s most reliable voting base and mostly Remainers—would be at the center of his agenda; that Corbyn’s humanitarianism would counter ethno-nationalism’s resurgence in Britain, so emboldened by Brexit and previously appeased by both Blair and Brown. Corbyn’s leadership also promised to re-ingratiate the party with lost heartlands in the North and in Scotland, as it did in the 2017 election, but now, with the former broadly wanting to leave and the latter to remain, they stand opposed to each other.

There is no easy way out of this. There may be no way out of it at all. But with the Conservative Party still in control of Parliament, with Labour lacking the numbers to win either a second referendum or a general election as it stands, and with Brexit now the key issue on which voters identify, the idea of a Labour leader saving Britain from Brexit is as much a fantasy as the Conservative fever dream of making Britain great again.

For all their differences, Corbyn’s Labour Party enjoys a strange synergy with the Brexit faithful. Within the space of ten months, between his election as Labour leader in 2015 and the referendum in 2016, both of these onetime fringe political forces upended a status quo that seemed set in stone. And both are now energized by similar structures of feeling: a sense that, somewhere along the way, Britain went astray, with similar turning points imagined—either Britain’s neoliberal transformation under Margaret Thatcher or her decision to join the Single Market.

Xenophobia aside, the Brexit campaign could have been a Labour campaign: more money to underfunded public services, overturning an elite consensus, and putting power back in people’s hands. “Take Back Control,” Brexit’s specious slogan, should have been a rallying call for Labour long ago, with its target not Brussels or national borders but social inequality and an over-powerful corporate sector. That this message was instead pushed by Conservatives and the tabloid press, with their own vested interests and rabble-rousing nationalism, only reaffirms just how duplicitous the Brexit campaign really was. But it also represents something of a missed opening for the left. 

The newly established Independent Group includes former members of Labour unhappy with Corbyn’s reluctance to call for a second referendum on Brexit.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

On one hand, this synergy makes Corbyn a target. In this view, Brexit and Corbyn arrived as one, representing a single, ruinous rupture. For the likes of The Independent Group and their sympathetic supporters in Parliament, the press, and the public, Corbyn’s initial election victory broke British politics as much as Brexit did.

Such thinking is also at play in the anti-Semitism scandal that has engulfed Corbyn’s leadership. Anti-Semitism is a genuine problem in Labour and the broader British left (gripes with global power structures fold easily into stories of global conspiracy). But it has also elicited an implausible, totemic response from Corbyn’s critics. According to the resignation letter of MP Joan Ryan, as she left Labour for The Independent Group, all previous Labour leaders “[stood] up to racism in all its forms,” while anti-Semitism “simply did not exist in the party before [Corbyn’s] election as leader.” But both Blair and Brown—not to mention their predecessors—often aped the policies and rhetoric of the right when it came to tolerance and diversity. Blair called Muslim veils “a mark of separation” and came close to banning them in schools and hospitals. “Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain,” Blair said in 2006. “So conform to it, or don’t come here.”

But on the other hand, the shared resonance between Corbyn and Brexit still stands as an opportunity for the left. The quiet nostalgia of Labour’s new slogan—Rebuilding Britain—makes the connection clear, affirming that, in some important ways, things were once better, and so they can be better again. “These streets were once full of spirit and hope,” a recent party broadcast declared over footage of a desolate de-industrialized town. “A proud community, where an honest day’s work could earn you a decent day’s pay. Years of austerity have ripped the heart out of this place, but that’s just part of the story: This has been decades in the making. We lost the factories. We lost the jobs. We lost confidence in our community. We lost control.” 

For some, such lamentations are just further evidence that Corbyn is a throwback figure, as anachronistic as Brexit itself. The founding statement of The Independent Group repeated this line of attack, suggesting that Labour under Corbyn was “locked in the old politics of the 20th century.” But for his supporters, Corbyn represents a break from the past, rather than a return to it. From where they stand, nostalgia for a pre-Corbyn, pre-Brexit era makes no sense. 

Britain was in a bad way before Brexit and it is in a bad way beyond it. Beneath the hollow Conservative boasts that “more people are in work than ever before” and the economy “has grown every year for the past nine years,” a bleak set of statistics tells a truer story: Wage growth is at its slowest since records began, some 200 years ago; childhood poverty is forecasted to reach a record high of 37 percent by 2020; household debt is at its highest ever level; homelessness has officially increased by 169 percent since 2010, though the real number is believed to be much higher, such that one person in every 200 in England and Wales is either sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation; in London the figure is 1 in 53; and life expectancy has either stalled or receded—once again, a historic failure.

The Conservatives’ unwavering, and ongoing, commitment to austerity since 2010—which has starved local councils of funding, depleted essential public services, deepened inequality and resentment, resulted in a reported extra 120,000 deaths, and, according to a recent analysis, shrunk the economy by £100 billion—has played a key part. But between 1997 and 2010, New Labour was also complicit. Its important successes—reducing child poverty, introducing a minimum wage, investing in public services—were, in Blair’s words, “a spoonful of sugar to help it all go down,” as Labour oversaw an unprecedented financialization of Britain’s economy and all but abandoned working-class voters. “They have nowhere else to go,” one of Blair’s senior advisers said. And so nowhere they went. By 2010, when Labour achieved its lowest ever share of the vote, the party had shed 1.5 million voters from England’s three northern regions and some 5 million from the working class as a whole.

So Britain has long been a deeply divided and disillusioned country, home to Western Europe’s richest region—Greater London—and to nine of its ten poorest, making it one of the most unequal countries in the world. This isn’t “Brexit Britain.” This is simply Britain. But while Brexit is not the cause of this condition nor any kind of cure, it also cannot simply be wished away. Corbyn’s hopes of finding unity beyond Brexit appear to be as doomed as trying to find unity through Brexit. “You’re up against it,” he told Leavers and Remainers in January, stressing their shared struggles, “but you’re not up against each other.” But given how Brexit identities have hardened on tribal lines, it’s all too likely that they are against each other. Along with everything else, Britain’s chronic economic failings have been subsumed by this crisis of national identity, with no end in sight.

As to what happens next, nothing is certain. May’s deal is unable to pass Parliament. Each month, she declares she has secured the best possible deal, only to set off in search of a new one. The deadlock must be broken somehow, and so a second referendum seems increasingly likely—not necessarily because Corbyn or Labour’s defectors have taken a stand, but by necessity: a slow exhaustion of alternatives, a stasis with no other escape. Yet there is no agreement on what the question on the referendum would be—the question of the question, as it has come to be called—nor a sense of what a successful campaign to remain would look like. 

One thing is clear: Brexit is not going anywhere soon. For all the resemblances between Corbyn’s movement and Brexit, this is an unhappy coincidence of timing. At the moment when Corbyn arrived to turn the nation’s attention to core issues it had long neglected, Britain decided that it must talk about other things: sovereignty, immigration, the EU. Sometimes, there’s a sense that Corbyn arrived too late, so that he could never really arrive at all.

But Corbyn’s popularity rests on his politics rather than his personality. And that’s not going anywhere either. The ideas he represents, far more than the man himself, have energized a new generation of voters and widened the realm of political possibility. In an interview after the 2017 general election, Corbyn, now 69 years old, was asked if he was in it for the long haul. “Look at me,” he smiled. “I’ve got youth on my side.” In one sense, it’s a good joke; in another, he is exactly right.