Dr Lee Rotherham is Director of The Red Cell.
A Shadow Chancellor who forgets he’s a Marxist. A Shadow Home Secretary whose policing pledge only adds up if she buys cardboard cut-out cops (£27.99 online). And now a leaked draft manifesto. This has not been a fortuitous few days for Labour High Command.
Leaked documents at this level tend to suggest that someone wants to block the proposals contained in them. Either you leak to prevent policy happening; or you leak to pre-empt somebody trying to stop it. Unless you leak because you genuinely forgetfully left the file on the bus or really are a klutz with the photocopier, of course: that’s more Home Office territory though.
The most tragic (in a Greek sense) part of this mess lies in the sections over the EU. The irony is that Jeremy Corbyn should by rights be able to revel in Brexit, and use it to win over his party’s long disabused grass roots. When ConservativeHome generated a hit list of who made Brexit happen, Corbyn (and Seumus Milne) were on it. It was an astute addition.
During the referendum, while working at Vote Leave, I compiled a list of every anti-EU Parliamentary Early Day Motion that Corbyn had signed. The combined texts ran to some 130 pages – and that was just looking at what was digitalised. It was quite clear that here was somebody who thought the EU was a corporatist racket. And during the campaign, his lack of enthusiasm for the Project duly trickled out each time he was arm-twisted by colleagues into an endorsement for Remain. The EDM list never had to be deployed.
The problem for Eurosceptics in the Labour Party – whether motivated by hard left aspirations, the democratic deficit or the EU’s direction of travel – is that they are still a minority in the Parliamentary Party. Some, like Kate Hoey, are now being crassly targeted in the literature of their opponents. Critics in more entrenched seats, such as Corbyn himself, are instead forced to temper their views to the point at least of hearing the second cock crow. But that, in turn, now makes it impossible for Labour to win back traditional Labour voters – betrayed over an immigration policy which still remains unadjusted, and now quite justifiably concerned about rearguard action to stymie Brexit.
Labour’s leaked manifesto is a strange creature as a result. When it comes to their own leadership’s aspirations over Brexit, the Liberal Democrat one next week will probably prove to be the Bonnacon of the Bestiary. Labour’s, by contrast, portrays a party still struggling with its intellectual metrosexuality.
The observant could already have predicted this, judging merely by the choice of big backdrop logos to Corbyn’s recent stage appearances. Any pledge to renationalise the railways hits buffers as soon as you agree to the principle of staying in the Single Market – which seems to be Labour’s position, as appears to be remaining in the EEA. But rail liberalisation is being extended into the EEA agreement. The Fourth Railway Package is set to increase competition further by generating a “Single European Railway Area”: the EEA is already engaged in processing legislation on the pillar relating to technical measures and negotiating over new elements on the market side. While not as integrated as aviation, anyone seeking radical policy-making on rail within the EEA will face many of the same frustrations that would be currently faced under EU rules. Meanwhile, dropping reference to migration targets appears to confirm that this remains the direction of travel for Labour.
There are a number of possible interpretations of what is going on. It is possible that Labour frontbenchers simply do not understand how their briefs are constrained by the various potential post-Brexit scenarios (quite plausible). It is possible that they do understand – but are throwing down policy aspirations they know they won’t themselves ever have to fulfil (also quite plausible). It is also possible that, with juicy cycnicism, the Labour leadership itself knows its limits: unable to push an robustly left-wing manifesto, Corbyn’s team are setting up a series of paradoxes that inevitably drive the party into accepting a genuine Brexit in order to deliver on pledges. We might style that the ‘crashing through brick walls’ approach.
Such deception is a dismal state of affairs for a party with a strong grassroots tradition. It is, perhaps, an inevitable consequence of a wider elite yet to lose its besotment with a forlorn continental love. But it is also a first step towards reinvigorating our democracy.
Whatever one’s view of Corbyn’s politics, or indeed of those of any other potential Prime Minister, a democracy preserves its integrity by allowing the public the opportunity to review, reflect on, accept or reject the policies being offered. Those who are opponents of his politics should seek to exploit the freedoms that will be generated by Brexit. Because it is only by constantly making the argument afresh that a nation and a democracy retains its vitality, rather than slipping (as the EU more widely is doing) into untested assumptions that lose the loyalty of fresh generations of electors.
That still leaves us with this strange hybrid creature of a manifesto, unclear on its identity and uncertain on its lifespan. I suspect that, whether embraced in Government or in Opposition, it will prove to be the biggest fraud on the British public since Piltdown Man.