Jeremy Corbyn is the ‘out’ campaign’s secret weapon

It’s not that secretly he wants to leave the EU. It’s that he obviously doesn’t care

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

Europe has opened up an unbridgeable chasm in the Conservative party. Labour remains, near as dammit, united. On the EU referendum, an opposition accustomed to defeat has a rare chance of victory.

Yet when Jeremy Corbyn makes the case for staying in he speaks without conviction. Like a man called into work on his day off, his weary expression and dispirited voice tell you he would rather be somewhere else. Tory MPs, so divided that it is hard to see how they can stay in the same party, unite in laughing at him.

The Labour leadership and most of the unions seem unaware that this is a fight over the future of Britain. Their strange indifference may help the opponents of the EU prevail.

The ‘out’ campaign offers a simple explanation for the left’s lethargy: in their hearts Corbyn, Unite and the rest do not want us to stay in the EU. As one Vote Leave spokesman said, ‘It’s extremely sad to see that Jeremy, who is for all his faults a conviction politician and a lifelong opponent of the EU, has been gagged by the clapped-out Blairites rejected in the Labour leadership contest.’

But Vote Leave fails to understand the Labour party as it fails to understand so much else. It is not that Corbyn secretly wants Britain to withdraw from the EU. It is that he all too obviously does not care about it.

When Corbyn asked moderate Labour politicians to serve in his shadow cabinet, many found the idea of working for him repugnant. Those who agreed — for the good of the party — insisted that Corbyn commit to campaign to keep Britain in Europe.

‘It was like pinning jelly to a wall,’ one told me. ‘I kept telling him, “It’s a yes or no choice, Jeremy, in or out. There is no ‘maybe’ or ‘Only if the EU does what I want’ on the ballot paper.” He kept wandering away from the subject, and I kept having to drag him back.’

You must take a crash course in the biases of the far left to understand its sins of omission and commission. David Cameron got close to the truth when, in a voice full of fake pity, he told that Corbyn his pro-EU stance may cause his allies to accuse him of ‘being a member of an establishment’. Just so. The far left calls all who deviate from its sacred texts ‘red Tories’, ‘Blairite-Tories’, ‘Tory-lites’ or even — brace yourselves — ‘Tories’. Treason, a charge Corbynistas have thrown at so many others, will be thrown back at them.

In foreign affairs, this commitment–phobia explains the willingness to go along with any anti-western movement, however racist, sexist or genocidal it might be, which has disgraced my generation of leftists as surely as support for Stalin disgraced left-wingers in the 1930s.

In domestic policy, however, the instinct to find fault with those who say, for instance, that Britain’s justice system is the best in the world, or that our future can only be in the European Union, is not a bad reflex. Without the urge to unravel such complacency, faults are never exposed and reform is never attempted.

But such a tendency can easily develop into nervous tics and then compulsive disorders. If left-wingers and union leaders could bring themselves to think strategically, they would be scared out of their skins by the prospect of Britain withdrawing from the EU. ‘Splendid isolation’ would be anything but splendid for them. The Tories would oust Cameron and his replacement would be even more right-wing. The social and economic protection provided by EU membership would vanish.

Yet the left cannot bring itself to campaign wholeheartedly for Britain to stay in. For that would mean accepting that the EU had values worth defending — despite its disgraceful treatment of southern Europe and its attempts to promote a free-trade area, from which left-wingers instinctively recoil. And so Unite spends most of its time worrying that the mooted free-trade agreement between the EU and the US will lead to the privatisation of the NHS. And Frances O’Grady, the current TUC general secretary, does not share the enthusiasm for the EU of her predecessors.

In Labour circles, the conventional view is that the far left’s commitment-phobia does not matter. Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn are leading the Labour campaign for ‘in’ and they are politicians with open minds, skilful in debate, who can secure the Labour vote.

I am not so sure. Corbyn may be an electoral disaster waiting to happen but he has the support of the two or three million people in Britain who define themselves as leftists. Their votes will matter, and if the EU referendum doesn’t bother their leader, they may wonder why they should bother to vote at all.

The trade unions may not be what they were, but they can still run an effective campaign. Yet with a few exceptions, they are refusing to think strategically. How can they? If the unions and the wider left were to think strategically, they would have to accept that the leaders they have helped to impose on the Labour party — first Miliband and now Corbyn — have benefited no one except the Conservatives.

They would have to accept that they should remove Corbyn from office before he loses Labour another election. They would have to accept, in short, that the willingness to compromise is not the same as the desire to sell out. And this they show no signs of doing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Nick Cohen, who writes this week’s politics column, is a columnist for the Observer and blogs at spectator.co.uk/nickcohen.

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Show comments
  • WookieInHeat

    europe’s lurch to the right and the collapse of the EU have already been set in motion by merkel. britain leaving the EU would obviously help expedite this process, but the eventual outcome is looking the same one way or the other.

    • Mary Ann

      If Europe is lurching to the right it should mean the right wing press would approve, so what do the press hope to gain from leaving, you can bet your bottom dollar that they don’t care about the ordinary men and women in the street, less workers rights, no working time directive …….

      • WookieInHeat

        what right-wing press are you referring to?

        breitbart is the only right-wing media outlet that exists today, e.g. they broke the cologne NYE attacks while all the liberal, PC beholden press were colluding to sweep it under the rug. judging by that measure, they at least appear to care about “ordinary men and women in the street,” which is more than can be said of any pro-rape liberal media.

    • Hamburger

      Right and left. It is the middle which is emptying.

      • WookieInHeat

        the mediterranean economic backwaters of greece and spain – whose populations have long been cliched as lazy, unproductive and living off government handouts – are moving further left. every other european country is shifting to the right.

        also i would argue that authoritarian progressivism, PC censorship of the media, etc. have pushed european governments so far to the left, what we are witnessing is more of a correction back to the centre rather than a stampede away from it. germany and sweden perfectly illustrate this, where the traditional “centre-right” parties are in coalitions with progressive parties whom they’ve become virtually indistinguishable from.

        • Discuscutter

          People like the PVV, Le Pen’s, the Swedish Democrats, a growing tendency of the AfD would owe a lot to the left economically.

          Certainly the first three would be left of Labour. Wilder’s views on how society is organized would be unrecognizable to a modern Tory.

  • polidorisghost

    “It’s not that secretly he wants to leave the EU. It’s that he obviously doesn’t care”

    Maybe he realises that there won’t be an EU to leave. Nick is obsessed with a fantasy that is melting away as fantasies always do.

    • Mary Ann

      The EU will continue, it’s the way forward and with the pound still falling against the Euro it’s clear to see the money men think the outers are nuts.

      • WookieInHeat

        naturally corporations are going to oppose brexit which threatens to end uncontrolled EU immigration, just like the wall street/republican establishment oppose clamping down on illegal immigration in the US. they want the continued flow of cheap foreign labour into britain to drive down wages and increase profits.

      • Oliver Goatley

        What better way to enter a world of free trade if not with a more competitive pound?

  • Mary Ann

    Farage is one of the in campaign’s weapons with his “we could be worse of outside Europe, but it’s not important,” with his 20 million in the bank and and his German wife, it doesn’t matter to him, he can get us out to get his place in history and still enjoy all the advantages of the EU through his wife.

  • Boris Johnson, who will certainly replace Cameron if the no vote wins, is more right wing than Cameron?! Seriously?

  • When Tony Blair pronounced for the “in” campaign, I’m sure he convinced far more people of the virtues of Brexit than Corbyn ever has. Blairites and Blairite pundits in particular have been electoral poison since 2007.

  • Liberty

    Your point that Corbyn doesn’t care whether we are in or out of the EU seems to be having an effect on the likelihood of the Outers winning the referendum. Young idealists make up a good proportion of Corbyn’s support, the latest brexit poll shows that the young overwhelmingly will not vote even though they are overwhelmingly Inners and the old are overwhelmingly Outers and most likely to vote, so if this difference persists until the referendum, it will swing the vote significantly towards out.

  • paulthorgan

    The reason Corbyn cannot campaign for Leave is that it would decisively split his party and alienate moderate Labour voters, who would migrate to the Lib-Dems.

    However, the Left do want to leave as this would meant that a future socialist UK government would not be tied by EU law and could do what they wanted.

  • John

    Tell your MP you want to know how he intends voting. Method:-
    Google …. ‘vote leave take control ‘ website
    Top bar menu ….. Click news
    Move down to … Campaign News – It’s crunch time February 18, 2016 4:51 PM
    Click ‘read more’, enter your postal code and auto email your MP.
    Your MP is compelled to reply.

  • John

    It is the Labour voter who have suffered migrants from the EU. Labour voter will be voting Brexit. The EU open door policy allows unlimited EU migrants to come into the UK. The working man suffers whilst the wealthy are shielded.
    We all realise the new minimum wage will become a even greater magnet to attract more migrants into the UK from Europe. The UK wealthy is shielded from the influx of migrants, the wealthy are not effected and they benefit from cheap imported labour. The working man suffers – lack of housing, depressed wages, overcrowded schools, NHS, GP surgeries, housing estate turned into EU ghettos. The man on the street witnesses a breakdown of UK society. It is the working man that has suffered the consequences of EU directives that have closed coal mines, steel industry, ship building and fisheries. Brexit will be the result of Brussels’s arrogance and failure to listen to the working man.

  • Georgina Kerr

    spot on as always. Jihad Jez is not the least interested in Europe,,, just socialism.

  • Farages 16ucked Face

    Nick Cohen’s secret weapon is no-platforming, which he uses against anyone who believes in Free Speech. The question isn’t whether Britain should leave the EU, it’s whether Nick Cohen should leave Britain.

    And the answer is yes, he should leave Britain and go live in North Korea if he loves Stalinism so much.

    • TatR

      I really do think you might be confusing Nick Cohen with someone else here.

  • dourscot

    A once-in-a-generation referendum and Corbyn just seems to be irrelevant.

  • Ian Young

    As a Labour In campaigner Nick’s article strikes a chord. I think Jeremy’s EU views were forged in an era of Bennite economic dirigisme and a trite analysis that the EU was a barrier to Cold War non-alignment. The issues for me are about international security and maintaining peace in Europe. I think backbench shire MP David Cameron was equally as Euro-sceptic as Corbyn but his experience in international relations as PM have crystallised the big picture for him. Corbyn I believe in on a slower road but given his interest in international conciliation in a post Cold War world his interest in staying in is stronger than it once was.

  • Patrick Villiers

    Corbyn was most certainly for `IN´ when he partook of the favours of the German Democratic Republic during his jaunt through Eastern Europe. Freedom from currency restrictions was just one of the many advantages that `sympathisers´ enjoyed. The downside was a mention in the infamous `Rosewood´ dossier that later turned up in the hands of the CIA …. who now have the means to ensure that our future leader (and a fair number of other left leaning MPs) conform to their every desire.