A lot of Remain supporters are reluctant – but perhaps none so much so as Jeremy Corbyn.
This morning, the Labour leader stood up to take the opportunity to explain why, after years of Euroscepticism, he has now opted to support staying in the EU. It was a tough gig for a man whose entire political identity is founded on the fact he hasn’t changed an opinion for 40 years.
It’s fair to say he didn’t make a wildly convincing case. There were snippets of Ed Miliband, suggesting the UK wouldn’t choose to combat pollution, and elements of Neil Kinnock, implying that British voters wouldn’t be capable of defending their own employment rights, but the whole tone seemed rather lacklustre, even by his usual standards.
His angle to square the circle of his past remarks with his new opinion was to call for democratic reform of the EU – yes, he had his concerns about how Brussels works, but all that is required is for it to change. The problem is that, over the past 40 years, the EU has demonstrated not only its unwillingness but its inability to become accountable to the people. This is a body whose executive, the Commission, is unelected, the members of which routinely sneer at any signs of disagreement from voters in a variety of nations. It is the organisation whose most prized project, the Euro, requires states to sacrifice control of the most crucial economic levers they possess, and then overrules their elections and referendums when the people who lose out object at the price they are made to pay.
For a Labour leader whose whole pitch is about his inflexibility, the speech involved quite a lot of uncomfortable bending. So why is Corbyn doing it?
There seem to be two reasons.
The first is that even he needed some point of compromise with this unhappy Shadow Cabinet and even more miserable Parliamentary Party. Presumably, accepting the loss of whole tracts of our democracy and vast amounts of money seemed like a reasonable price for scoring some exceedingly rare party management points.
The second is that Labour hope there is a partisan advantage to be gained in the referendum process. Last May, Labour lost more votes to UKIP than they anticipated, and even Corbyn must surely know that his particular brand of Islingtonism is poorly suited to winning that group of voters back. However, agreeing to lend some support to Alan Johnson’s pro-EU campaign might offer an opportunity to talk to them in a different context. I’m told that Labour recently put 100 paid “mobilisers” into the field for the Labour In campaign, answerable to Johnson and with the specific brief of targeting Labour-UKIP switchers. That way, the leadership is offering some material support to the pro-EU campaign, and in return it must hope that it may win back some votes at the same time – also allowing some non-Corbynite messages to be deployed without officially compromising the leadership’s position.
The problem with all this is it leaves Corbyn in a deeply uncomfortable position. The pro-EU campaign may be hoping that his support will help them, but in the Q&A after his speech he showed very little promise of delivering. Asked for his views on the concern that too many EU migrants have come to Britain, he answered directly that no, he didn’t think too many had. It isn’t hard to imagine how that will go down with those very UKIP-Labour swing voters.
And his forced enthusiasm for the topic barely lasted for the whole session. Another journalist asked him how he would respond to criticism that his EU stance was half-hearted. Instead of taking the opportunity to pitch a rallying call for the EU, or even a defence of his position, he instead recited what his leadership was about, and declared “nothing I do is half-hearted”. On this topic, that was visibly not the case.