Corbyn’s September: Reading the Benn Act and Party Conference through the Labour Party’s recent history

by Jerry O’Shea

Corbyn graffiti
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duncan c via Flickr

For more than two years, Jeremy Corbyn has employed a Fabian strategy on Brexit, a term derived from Fabius ‘Cunctator’ (the delayer) – the Roman statesman who refused to engage Hannibal in pitched battle as he advanced on Rome. This has at times been a chaotic tussle of Shadow Cabinet and conference against Lexiteers and the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ MPs (usually from Leave-voting constituencies). Indeed, the conference ‘compositing’ meeting that attempts to produce a consensus motion on Brexit failed on Sunday night, meaning delegates will vote on three separate motions on Monday evening.

The NEC, i.e. leadership, motion proposes a special conference at a later date to decide the party’s stance in a second referendum, while the Remain option states that Labour will ‘campaign energetically for a public vote and to stay in the EU referendum’, which is now backed by Unison. While this of course shows some further disunity, all three motions support another EU referendum, and neither of the two CLP motions challenge the NEC motion’s policy to seek a general election before that referendum.  

Perhaps Corbyn himself thinks he is still sitting on the fence, but he determined his new path at the start of September.

The defections of Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and seven other MPs over antisemitism and the Brexit approach were damaging and revealed severe and deeply ingrained problems in the party and with Corbyn’s leadership, but they came largely from the edges. In contrast, this year’s Labour conference suggests the party is now at risk of an implosion stemming from collapse at the centre. Corbyn’s head of policy and author of the 2017 manifesto, Andrew Fisher, has quit with a damning memo to colleagues, and Momentum’s motion to the NEC to abolish Tom Watson’s post (a ‘drive-by shooting’) was not rejected, but simply replaced with Corbyn’s plan to install a second deputy post to be occupied by a woman, a plan that was abandoned at the 2018 conference due to what Jess Phillips MP and Harriet Harman MP called a ‘factional game’.

Perhaps Corbyn himself thinks he is still sitting on the fence, but he determined his new path at the start of September. The manifold Labour positions on Brexit, despite parliamentary rhetoric to let Labour take charge, had all served to allow the Conservatives to control the Brexit issue until the music stopped, in the hope that the parcel contained a bomb rather than a present. This policy always had the downside of Labour leaking support from its predominantly Remainer voter base, but this was something Corbyn seemed willing to bear.

Although the European elections in May saw a Labour collapse, the Tories fared even worse – losing 15 seats compared to Labour’s 10. Moreover, Corbyn likely took comfort in the fact that, as with local elections, the turnout and voter rationalities for a European election are significantly different. Indeed, Corbyn perhaps considered the attempt to pander to Remainers futile, having already shifted quite significantly the month before the European elections with a three-line whip backing Margaret Beckett’s motion on a ‘confirmatory’ referendum on any deal.

In spring, as outlined in a letter to Labour members, Corbyn’s policy was to have a second referendum before a general election. Now, that is precisely the issue that separates Corbyn from Tom Watson, with Corbyn calling for an election before a second referendum, and Watson vice versa. Corbyn’s second referendum will now be based on his deal, not the Conservatives’ deal. This is a decisive shift to seize the wheel on the Brexit process, rather than to chip away at the government’s credibility. Another crucial shift this September was Labour moving to a position of doing ‘everything possible’ to stop a no-deal Brexit. Words became action in whipping through the Benn Bill to extend Article 50. Indeed, it is here that we find a consistent Watson-Corbyn-Starmer message: ‘no election until we have delayed Brexit’. Now, despite conference shenanigans, Labour will find it much harder to avoid being seen as a Remain party.

Labour now risks not only being blamed for having stopped Brexit throughout 2019, but also for a whole host of other possibilities.

For proof of this, we need only look from Brighton to Bournemouth, where, having judged that their position as the anti-Brexit party was being usurped, the Liberal Democrat conference became an exercise in positioning the party even further against Brexit, in favour of outright revocation.

Whether the change to prevent no-deal at any cost was a failure of nerve on Corbyn's part – an attempt to undermine Johnson’s strategy of achieving a Churchillian-style Brexit against all odds – or is a genuine attempt at claiming credit by taking power and delivering a deal to a public vote, the Conservative’s electoral position could become even stronger based on the impending decision of the Supreme Court, which appears to be swinging to a surprise decision against the lawfulness of Johnson’s prorogation. A gift of an electoral platform for Johnson is: ‘the people’s voice has been betrayed by the elites, led in parliament by Jeremy Corbyn and supported by a cabal of lawyers’. Labour now risks not only being blamed for having stopped Brexit throughout 2019, but also for a whole host of other possibilities: negotiating a bad (or no-better) deal, dividing the country further with another referendum, betraying the ‘will of the people’, and so forth.

The choice of whether to avoid blame or seek to claim credit has plagued Labour throughout its years, primarily because of perennial fears of its economic incapability and profligacy with public finances. Considering the possibility of a caretaker government, we might draw historical comparisons with Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government formed in 1931. However, closer to our own experience, Labour’s recent history in government provides a fruitful comparison of two very different strategies employed by New Labour – one of blame avoidance and the other of credit claiming.

In terms of blame avoidance, Labour effectively weathered the dotcom crash. Overshadowed in popular memory by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the FTSE 100 share index fell by £3,548 between 1999 and 2003, compared to only £3,220 between 2007 and 2009. The FTSE says little about the so-called ‘real’ economy of course, but New Labour’s electoral pitch largely rested on protecting middle class assets and pensions that were invested in FTSE companies. Labour may well have contributed to the dotcom crisis, having slashed corporation tax and supported venture capital- and Silicon Valley-style growth. Certainly, it was easier for Labour to avoid taking responsibility having made the Bank of England independent in 1997, but crucially Labour also narrated this crisis as a problem of the banking and technology sectors. Combining inaction with finger-pointing in order to shirk blame for a severe economic crisis, Labour won a third term with a 66-seat majority in 2005, all despite the then increasing unpopularity of the invasion of Iraq.

Corbyn, whether intentionally or not, has now engaged the Brexit beast, but his future is still very much unwritten.

In contrast, Gordon Brown responded to the GFC by grabbing responsibility for crisis-fighting efforts not just in the UK but worldwide. Of course, this was a far wider and far more severe systemic crisis in which British citizens’ homes and bank deposits were at risk, and thus government involvement was legally, not just politically, unavoidable. Nonetheless, although Brown was hailed by some as having ‘saved the world’ – a phrase that Brown hilariously let slip in PMQs – his actions made it very easy for opponents to argue that he was cleaning up his own mess. It was no surprise then, when 2010 saw Labour suffer the second largest swing to the Conservatives in its history.

The lessons of political history often make for uncomfortable reading; what is best for the politician or the party is not always what is best for the country. Indeed, Fabius’ was restored to power with soaring popularity when Fabius’ successors did engage Hannibal and were duly annihilated. Corbyn, whether intentionally or not, has now engaged the Brexit beast, but his future is still very much unwritten.

About the author

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Jerry is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, working on New Labour’s political economy. His doctoral thesis focuses on John Prescott’s super-ministries and their interventions in regional economies. 

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