Three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn has officially situated itself in support of a second referendum under any circumstances, in which they will campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal. This is a big step, and its consequences are two-fold. First, a second referendum – and remaining in the EU – seems to be closer than ever. Second, the move will make the Labour Party a competitive party again, especially on the verge of Boris Johnson becoming the next British Prime Minister.
When the ‘Leave’ campaign won the 2016 referendum on British EU membership, the leadership of both the Labour Party and the Tories accepted the result. However, there was a major problem with it: nobody knew what ‘Brexit’ meant in practice. ‘Hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit? Canada or Norway style? Despite these uncertainties, all along the Brexit negotiations Corbyn’s Labour Party kept advocating for a general election that would allow Labour to negotiate a ‘good’ deal, while arguing that any Tory deal would be ‘bad for jobs’ and labour and environmental standards. This complicity of the Labour Party was crucial for any type of Brexit to happen: a 52-48% majority was not enough to justify Brexit, it also needed the support (or at least the passive consent) of the leader of the opposition. With Corbyn’s Labour (reluctantly) accepting that a ‘left-wing Brexit’ is nothing more than a ‘socialism in one country’ fantasy, the UK remaining in the EU is currently the most likely outcome.
Remaining in the EU is partially possible due to the extreme right takeover of the Conservative Party. In a few weeks, Boris Johnson will become the British Prime Minister. Johnson and his extreme right-wing friends of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party successfully managed to frame Theresa May’s Brexit deal as ‘not a real Brexit’. This meant that the only ‘real Brexit’ is the catastrophic alternative of ‘no deal’. There are many ‘hard Brexiteer’ activists within the Conservative party and in extreme right-wing circles, but not enough to achieve a social majority. Boris Johnson’s takeover of the Conservative Party might have killed Theresa May’s deal (and her premiership), but is unlikely to achieve Brexit. Especially if it confronts a left-wing Remain party.
Framed by the mainstream media as a ‘radical leftist’, Corbyn has one last chance of surviving as Labour leader and becoming Prime Minister: making Labour the ‘Remain’ party. By doing so, the Labour Party could be the house of left-wing activists of Momentum all the way to centrist liberals that despise both Brexit and Johnson. The 2019 EU elections indicated a shift towards ‘hard Brexit’ on the right with the Brexit Party coming on top, but also a shift towards ‘Remain’ in the centre and in the Left, many traditional Labour votes travelling to the Liberals and the Greens. There is still enough time for the Labour Party to change direction and become the party for those that want to Stop Brexit – and austerity. The fight against Brexit and austerity is the same one: Labour can’t stop austerity without stopping Brexit.
Corbyn was elected as Labour leader in 2015 on the premise that, after a years long ‘Tory light’ Labour leadership, there was an alternative to austerity. While inspiring a lot of young people to become part of the Labour movement, Corbyn’s poor campaign in support of ‘Remain’ during the 2016 referendum, and its later support for Brexit, disenchanted many Labour activists and voters, who shifted towards Liberals and Greens. The argument for Corbyn to support Brexit was that Labour should focus instead on public services and other social justice issues. But Brexit is, and always was, a right-wing project, incompatible with values such as international solidarity and social justice – as has long been argued by the left-wing Remain campaign Another Europe is Possible.
Labour’s latest commitment to support a second referendum and campaigning to Remain is not only about stopping Brexit. If Labour does not credibly take this step, Boris Johnson and the Tories might well rule the UK for the years to come. If instead Labour continues its path to Remain, the continuity of the UK in the EU is closer than we think – as well as a Labour government.