Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a showdown as the party prepares to vote on its Brexit stance. Corbyn's equivocation on the issue could be a recipe for disaster for the party and the UK
Just a few weeks ago, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn cut the increasingly forlorn figure that seems to have become his trademark ever since he pulled off the unexpected coup of reviving his party's fortunes in the 2017 general election.
Many of his most loyal supporters had to concede that Corbyn had, by all accounts, lost the plot on Brexit, dilly-dallying over which course to take and unable to cash in on the way former Prime Minister Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson are dealing with the Brexit saga.
But what a difference a prorogation can make. In the wake of Johnson's move to suspend Parliament, Corbyn seemed to grow in stature, coming into his own as the defender of British democracy. The prospect of a Labour government under a Prime Minister Corbyn was no longer dismissed as preposterous.
Labour at a crossroads?
The question is whether he will be able to take that impression into what could arguably be the most important Labour Party Conference in years.
"I don't think it's make or break for him as such," says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham who specializes on the Labour Party. "The wider membership and leading trade unions are all backing his domestic program that is going to take back privatized industries into state hands, and that aims to redistribute income and give workers more power. But it is going to be a potentially tricky one for him on the critical issue of the day, which is of course Brexit."
To put a positive spin on it, you could say that Corbyn is caught between a rock and a hard place. Or you could simply accuse him of kicking the can down the road once again.
"It is very strange to see a political leader who decides to sit on a fence on the most important issue facing the country," says Eunice Goes, professor of politics at Richmond University, where she focuses on British party politics. "It's not reflective of a leader who [says] he is ready to become prime minister. Many Labour supporters would see this either as cowardice or simply as a reflection that at heart he is a leaver who supports Britain's withdrawal from the EU."
Labour's Brexit position
Labour is currently committed to going into a general election pushing for a new referendum, which would include a "credible" leave option — possibly a deal negotiated by Labour — and an option to stay in the EU.
Ahead of the conference Corbyn laid out his Brexit approach in which he pledged to remain "neutral" and carry out, as prime minister, whatever the voters decide in a second referendum. Will this type of equivocal position win over the Conference and the public?
"I'm not at all convinced it's going to please everybody in the party. There's a group of Corbyn supporters whose position is for Labour to be remain and reform and be very explicit about that," says Fielding.
Polling has indicated that the mass Labour membership is more remain-minded than the party's official policy, with one survey from January saying 72% sought a second referendum, and 88% saying they would back remain if one was held.
Labour has struggled to take advantage of the Brexit crisis and is unlikely to win a majority in a snap election
On the other side of the divide, there are those Corbyn supporters, especially in the leader's office, who are in favor of a left-wing Brexit — the so-called Lexiteers who want to be free of the EU's shackles to be able to implement Corbyn's domestic agenda.
Hanging over the conference like a Damocles sword is the threat of Boris Johnson's government taking Britain out with a no deal, which is keeping Labour members on board and quiet — for now.
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So in a way, Corbyn's tactics could pay off, says Fielding. "[Supporters might be thinking] in the full package of everything we might not quite like what Jeremy is offering us but we've got more than anybody else will ever offer. And within the Labour Party there is no credible opponent to Corbyn who is saying something that the members want on Brexit but also what they want domestically."
While many of Corbyn's supporters may like what they're hearing, the general public will need more convincing as the country prepares for a possible general election. Both Goes and Fielding agree that, as things stand, there is little to no prospect of a majority Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. The same applies to the Conservatives under Boris Johnson.
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"I would say that we'd probably end up with a position roughly similar to to what we have now. No party will have a majority or even if they do they won't have a majority that's sufficient to carry them through to the position they want to be with Brexit," says Fielding.
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Labour's established tradition has seen party leaders trying to triangulate the various factions within the party. More often than not that has resulted in internecine warfare, stalemate and unpredictability — not exactly the attributes needed for a government that faces the Herculean task of healing the rifts of a divided and damaged country.
But according to Goes, Corbyn is merely following a well-rehearsed party political script. "When we look at it from the perspective of party politics, to a certain extent Jeremy Corbyn is doing what all the other party leaders are doing, which is to put the interests of their parties ahead of the national interest. This is what the Conservatives have been doing well since [former Prime Minister] David Cameron announced the referendum on EU membership."
While Corbyn's position may have bought himself and the party a little more time, the Labour leader will be judged on whether he puts that to good use. As Labour's post-war prime minister, Clement Attlee, credited with creating modern Britain, once put it: "A lot of clever people have got everything except judgement."