Timely Meditations: Comrade Corbyn's Brexit
There are times in politics when being in opposition isn't a bad thing. With Brexit tearing the Tory Party, and with it, politics as usual, apart, Jeremy Corbyn feels lucky to be sitting on the opposite side, watching the hapless Prime Minister trying to achieve the unachievable. So far, he has played the usual political game of obfuscation, never really taking a stance, letting the Tory Brexit fall apart on its own. Self-consciously, he stood up every day at the PMQs and got through it never really challenging the Prime Minister on the subject, almost making the point that her incompetence is self-evident.
It was a clever stance. It is hard to do what-ifs, but one can possibly argue that Corbyn's lack of stance unleashed the Tory civil war in full view. The political calculation of the Labour front bench was perhaps to enjoy a period of calm, after all the Blairite sniping of the past couple of years, and keep everyone guessing. Without this, Jacob Rees Mogg's antics would not have been so visible and Tony Blair's irrelevance wouldn't be so obvious. One can understand it was totally unnecessary for Labour to start a new civil war - or create grounds for all those 'new Labour' MPs who are ready to start one - on an issue which they are not in charge of.
But Corbyn is supposed to be a 'conviction' politician rather than a conventional one. For his core voters, his appeal is based on his authenticity. Authenticity is indeed what differentiates him from the ultimate reed-in-the-wind Prime Minister across the aisle, who only stays in the job by promising not to linger around for too long. The question, however, is - can Corbyn remain authentic while playing to his political advantage?
One way of looking at it is that Brexit isn't the biggest issue for the millions of people Corbyn intends to serve. House prices may fall, but they are not on the housing ladder. The banking industry may suffer, but they may have been refused credit a long time ago. London's economy may fall apart, but they are not in London: In fact, they may be able to pick up the pieces when London stopped sucking up all the opportunities and all the best people. When your house is about to be repossessed, or you are desperately looking for the next dole or waiting endlessly at an A&E, you don't care about Brexit. And, Corbyn, at the PMQs which sounded lame to the middle classes desperate to catch a hint of his Brexit stance, repeatedly reached out to those who had more urgent, and if you call it that, more mundane, concerns. He remained authentic, one could argue, even in the middle of the biggest political issue of the time.
However, there is another way of looking at it. In the middle of the biggest political issue of the time, Corbyn remained disengaged, failed to rise to the occasion and obsessed himself with everyday concerns of his voters. He is indeed being a good MP, but is that what the Leader of the Labour Party should do? Is he making the mistake, if a historical parallel must be drawn, after the German SPD, which remained legalistic and focused on their internal constituencies even when the Nazi danger was quite clear? Lenin, who Corbyn may pay some heed to, said the German SPD was so obsessed with rules that when they go to make a revolution, they would dutifully queue up to buy railway tickets first. Is Mr Corbyn thinking about the railway ticket too much, and about the purpose of the journey too little?
The problem indeed is that a bad Brexit would hit the little people first. House prices would indeed come down, but that wouldn't make it easy for anyone to get a mortgage. Boris Johnson was lying: There would be less money for the NHS and the A&E problem is not going to go anywhere. That one wants a Brexit which protects jobs is a good soundbite, but perhaps both Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor know very well that there are no silver bullets here. Indeed, they could calculate that exiting the EU may actually be a good thing - it would allow them to nationalise industries etc - but they are also aware how difficult to turn the clock back within a global economy. Last time, socialism in one country was tried, it failed.
And, here is the final problem: Brexit comes with a racist paranoia, a desire to return to little England. No one voted for Brexit wanting to create nationalised industries: The Brexiters played the anxiety about racial and cultural purity quite upfront. It is an illusion that Brexit would enable a different economic dynamic but leave the society untouched. Corbyn may get a free hand to create a Command state, but that would come with a deep betrayal of the socialist internationalism that Corbyn is undoubtedly committed to. And, besides, a society in the middle of a racial nostalgia may never give him the chance.
As the House of Commons reconvenes in 2019, Labour may indeed have to show its hand. The crisis is too immediate and too obvious, and one can't hide any longer in the shadows. And, this would be the trial by fire of the promised politics of authenticity. Corbyn has been tactically astute so far, but history calls.