Prior to the recent Labour Party conference held in Liverpool, Twitter was buzzing with increasing support for a second referendum (dubbed the People’s Vote on Brexit). Prior to the conference, Corbyn was clear that his preferred resolution of the Brexit issues would not be a second referendum, but a fresh general election. But does that speak to the current wants and needs of the party’s supporters?
At the conference, the delegates overwhelmingly signalled to the leadership that they would like all options to remain on the table when it comes to a final vote for the public on the Brexit deal. The Labour leadership missed the mark on connecting with supporters on this issue, and have been unable to articulate a clear stance with one voice. Corbyn offered lukewarm indications that he would support a People’s Vote, if he was not granted a general election, in a somewhat meek promise that he would be “bound by the democracy” of the party. Deputy Leader Tom Watson echoed this with the same limp assertion a week later, post-conference. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell indicated that, in the absence of a general election, he would back a People’s Vote, but that it must not include the option to remain in the EU. In contradiction to this, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Stammer addressed the conference with the message that the option to remain was not being ruled out.
Corbyn is currently powerless to stop Brexit, but that’s not the biggest problem he’s facing when it comes to winning — and keeping — hearts and minds. He’s watery in his commitments, uninspiring in his messages, and seems completely unable or unwilling to unite his party on the issues his supporters care about the most. In other words, he’s become just like other politicians that we’ve distrusted for years.
Let’s rewind a year. A little more than a year, to be precise. In the spring of 2017, the Labour Party had helped to ensure that May’s plan to gain a more substantial majority in the snap general election was scuppered entirely. Corbyn appeared a couple of weeks later onstage at the Glastonbury festival. Members of the crowd could be seen holding banners in support. One read ‘JC Hope’ – huge white letters within a red heart. The support for Corbyn felt fanatic, and intensely loyal. The topic of Corbyn’s speech turned to EU nationals living in the UK; Corbyn declared that ‘they all must stay’, and the crowd erupted in applause.
The mood among Labour voters post-election was jubilant, almost as much as so as if the party had been victorious. Because, in a sense, it felt as though they had been. The party had gained seats, including stealing 28 seats from the Tories. Support for Corbyn seemed to be at a high. Senior party members who had previously been vocally dismissive of his leadership admitted that the election result showed great promise for the party, and that Corbyn’s place as its leader was safe. However, Corbyn’s popularity has recently seen a decline over Brexit. In August, Corbyn’s approval rating fell to the lowest level since before the snap election.
“Corbyn-mania seems to have died a death under the black cloud of Brexit, and reviving it seems a pipe dream.”
May’s Brexit negotiations seem to be reaching stalemate, with relations between the government and the EU chief negotiators turning evermore terse and sour. The daily news feeds on the matter seem like a stuck record, and obtaining a favourable outcome for the UK by the 30th March deadline seems increasingly unlikely. Can Labour help to turn things around, or has faith in the party evaporated? I spoke to some current and past Labour supporters to find out more about how the mood around Corbyn and his party has shifted.
Sarah, a 29 year old graduate from Milton Keynes told me that she joined the party recently, but that she doesn’t support Corbyn’s leadership anymore. “When he was running for leader in 2015, he made a lot of promises about listening to the membership, and he’s broken those promises on Brexit. He’s basically turned out to be the same as any other politician who lies to get ahead”. She explained that there are a few discussions going on which suggest Labour would gain many supporters if they backed the People’s Vote on Brexit directly. “They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by opposing Brexit more forcefully! Corbyn is putting his own personal gripes with the EU ahead of what the membership wants, which is outrageous.”
Roy, a retired engineer in his sixties, is another voter whose support for Corbyn has recently waned. He told me that he had joined the Labour party as a member so that he could vote for Corbyn in both leadership campaigns, explaining that Corbyn’s left-leaning politics appealed to him. “I’m appalled by his pro-Brexit stance. It shows just how shallow his ‘for the many’ remark was. I doubt I can ever trust him again when he is clearly willing to allow Brexit to harm the many.” Roy makes an important point; some polls suggest that a majority of voters who backed Labour in the 2015 election voted Remain in the referendum. If the party is truly the voice of its voters, then they should indeed be more vocal in opposition, not just to May’s current Brexit plan, but to any kind of Brexit at all.
Roy isn’t the only one who feels betrayed by Labour. In many cases, lifelong Labour voters are turning against Corbyn and the party over Brexit. One such is Paul, a retired local government officer from Swindon, who has backed Labour for 40 years. He explained that it was Corbyn’s stance on Brexit that had alienated him.“The polls show most Labour supporters are Remainers, I just don’t get why he doesn’t come right out and say Labour oppose it. Brexit will do huge harm to workers in many industries.” Paul told me that he felt he could no longer support the party with Corbyn at the helm.“With a different leader, such as David Lammy or Yvette Cooper, and opposition to Brexit, I’d be back.”
In a recent statement filmed in Brussels, Corbyn stated that ‘crashing out of the EU with no deal would be a national disaster’. And yet, if Labour party members vote against May’s deal in the Commons, it is an outcome which seems increasingly likely. In any case, Corbyn-mania seems to have died a death under the black cloud of Brexit, and reviving it seems a pipe dream. It’s time for Labour to evolve – again.