The big news of this week was Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to the Prime Minister. Released alongside a shameless Prime Minister-in-waiting photograph, the Labour leader offered five demands which May must accept should he fall behind her ailing deal.
The changes need not reopen the withdrawal agreement, but would require Theresa May to fall firmly behind aspiration to a soft Brexit in the political declaration – something all but certain to irrevocably split her party.
So what are the demands? In return for his support, Corbyn’s wish list includes a permanent customs union; closer alignment on the single market; participation in European-wide funding schemes and EU-wide security programmes.
Given that commentators have well and truly exhausted references to the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which a regional news reporter wakes up on the same day for weeks on end, what can we possible call Corbyn’s latest shopping list? There is scarcely anywhere to turn for creative relief from what appears a hapless rehash of Labour’s infamous ‘six tests’ proposed in the party’s manifesto in 2017.
Except these demands are substantively different for they could, in theory, be met. When Starmer set out Labour’s six tests they were so clearly impossible for Theresa May to countenance. To enjoy the ‘exact same benefits’ of the customs union and single market while being outside of these arrangements is, of course, an oxymoron, and a political jibe to David Davis’s much mocked claim. But a commitment to customs union membership and enhanced labour market rights are within the realm of the possible. So has Corbyn offered May a lifeline for the deal we’ve been proclaiming dead for months? And is Corbyn, by doing so, enabling a ‘Tory Brexit’?
Don’t be so sure – the stalemate continues
Labour will want to avoid facilitating May’s Brexit at all costs. May, similarly, will seek to avoid a softer Brexit and the inevitable split of her party which would follow. So Corbyn’s team could well be making the calculation that May simply could not countenance these demands – but they can still claim to have at least tried.
We are still gridlocked. May’s priority has always been the survival of her party above the interests of the nation. Instead of reaching across the house to find a solution, she reasserted her red lines time and time again. Instead of putting the vote to the house to find out where a majority could lie, she pushed it back and forced us closer to March 29th without a solution in sight. And instead of exploring Labour’s latest offer, she will most likely continue to favour the unworkable ‘Malthouse Compromise’ to keep her party’s tentative truce intact for sometime longer.
The time is fast approaching where Corbyn will need to accept reality too. It is easy to mistake this latest gesture as a desire to work together to find a solution. But there is nothing collective about Corbyn’s current policy at all. The overwhelming majority of Labour party members and voters back a people’s vote on Brexit. The party’s official policy – agreed at conference – is that Labour will move to backing a public vote should their push for a general election fail. They lost their confidence vote weeks ago and yet they are still wedded to a fantasy ‘jobs-first’ Brexit which will make their constituents poorer and make it far harder to achieve the radical economic and social change they so desire.
So when May inevitably shows little sign of accepting these proposals, Corbyn has a duty to honour the wishes of his members and supporters and back the only option left. Given Parliament is incapable of making a decision, it must be handed back to the people for them to decide. This is not just the democratic duty to his members but the only way to avoid electoral defeat: a TSSA report surfaced on Tuesday which showed Labour would lose an additional 45 seats in a snap election if it failed to take an anti-Brexit position. This was interesting not just for its findings – which specifically suggest under-30s would turn away from the party in high numbers – but also for the source: TSSA are, of course, affiliated with the Labour party. The Guardian picked it up despite the report marked ‘strictly confidential’, and it poses a grave reminder to Corbyn that facilitating any form of Brexit can only take him further away from Number 10.
No clarity, no closure
In spite of the deadlock, I am optimistic. I still believe Labour can and will come to their final stage of policy and back a people’s vote. As a young person, I believe this would be the only option which can protect my future and the future of my generation from the inevitable fall of living standards and fewer opportunities which Brexit will ensure. And I believe the Labour party will stick by its commitment to honouring the wishes of its members and supporters and give the people their say.
In fact, since Corbyn’s late night letter the shadow cabinet have been out in force to repeatedly reaffirm that a public vote remains on the table. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the Today program in no uncertain terms that, failing a compromise, ‘we have to go back to the people’. Kier Starmer also assured those in his party that it remains a route out of the gridlock, and a junior minister of his, Matthew Pennycook, did he same.
For all the bluster and noise of the last two days, then, we remain in much the same place. Hopefully Corbyn’s offer will accelerate the process toward a people’s vote. Even if Labour get their way and achieve primary legislation for their proposals, the political declaration would still be a leap in the dark for our country and one we cannot afford – with greater protections for workers or not. We are being asked to commit to leaving the European Union with no idea where we might end up. I’m not willing to take that risk, and I hope the 432 MPs who voted against May’s deal just a few weeks ago aren’t either.