Those who attack him over the second referendum wilfully ignore the party’s roots, plus the many defects of the EU
In his essay on the 1951 Festival of Britain, Michael Frayn drew a contrast between the carnivores and the herbivores. Carnivores were the better off: those who looked after themselves even if it meant preying on the weak. The herbivores were the gentle ruminants of the middle classes, guilty about their advantages and with eyes full of sorrow for the less fortunate.
Although founded to give a political voice to the industrial working class, the Labour party has always had its herbivore wing, and when enough white-collar workers and intellectuals have lined up alongside the party’s blue-collar contingent it has proved a winning formula. Labour’s big election victories – 1945, 1966, 1997 – were all examples of successful coalition-building.
But the marriage, never entirely comfortable, has come under increasing strain in recent years and looks like breaking down irrevocably over Brexit. The partners have not really been talking to each other, have taken to sleeping in separate beds and are now heading straight for the divorce court.
Jeremy Corbyn has been doing his best in the marriage guidance counsellor role, but the limitations of his approach were illustrated in the European elections, where Labour performed poorly. The party’s share of the vote was less than half what it secured in the 2017 general election, with Labour-leaning remainers opting for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or nationalist parties, while Labour-supporting leavers went with the Brexit party. His tactics will be further tested today in the Peterborough byelection, where Nigel Farage’s startup is expected to emerge victorious.
Corbyn has edged closer to backing a second referendum in certain circumstances, but it is clear that he still has reservations about going “full remain”. That’s not a particularly comfortable position, and it is strongly opposed by plenty of Labour members. However, it is still a defensible one.
Labour will never form a government if its remainer and leaver wings become permanently estranged. While it is certainly true that the majority of Labour voters back remain, a significant minority voted to leave the EU. It is not enough for Labour to pile up votes in the pro-remain big cities: it needs to win marginals in the north, the Midlands and south-east as well – constituencies that voted leave in June 2016 and for the Brexit party last month. Labour’s remainers believe departure from the EU will make those who voted to leave worse off. Labour’s leavers think the remainers are subverting democracy.
In these circumstances, Labour is right to try to move on from the referendum and focus on healing the country. There has been plenty of armchair psephology since the results of the European elections, designed to show that remainers won when all their votes were added together. All that can really be said is that a second referendum would be as close as the one in 2016 and confirm that Britain is deeply riven along age, class and geographic lines. London, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, is a separate country.
It’s worth noting that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism – for which he takes a lot of stick – was widespread on the left before the referendum. There was opposition to the pro-banker austerity imposed on Ireland and Greece; to the pro-employer and anti-trade union judgments handed down by the European court of justice, and nobody was especially impressed by years of sluggish growth and high unemployment. None of this seems to be relevant any more to Labour’s hardcore remainers. To the extent that they admit to any problems, it is with the euro rather than the EU, and since Britain is not part of the single currency it can have the best of all worlds.
Even putting to one side the fact that many of today’s remainers were gung-ho for the euro in 2003, this is still a curious argument. Because if you’ve got doubts about the euro you should have doubts about Europe’s entire direction of travel. The euro is Europe’s single biggest project. It was intended to be a symbol both of progress towards ever-deeper union and the means of achieving still further integration. This is not some add-on extra, it is what Europe is all about.
Yet the design flaws that were obvious from the outset have become ever more apparent, and there’s no immediate prospect of fixing them. French president Emmanuel Macron thinks more integration – a banking union and a European finance minister – is what’s needed to make the euro work. This would mean German taxpayers writing cheques for the rest of Europe, and there is not the slightest possibility of that happening.
The reality is that Europe has a currency that doesn’t work, an economy that doesn’t work and a political process that doesn’t work. Corbyn is often accused of being starry-eyed about the possibility of creating a socialist utopia in Britain and forever harking back to his formative years in the 1970s. But he is not nearly as starry-eyed as some of his critics, who seem to think either that an earthly paradise already exists on the other side of the Channel, or that with a few judicious tweaks there will soon be one.
On most issues, Corbyn is clear about what he supports: renationalisation, extra borrowing for public investment, higher taxes for companies and the better off. On Brexit it is different. Labour is now more a party of the gentle ruminants than a party of the industrial working class, and over Brexit the gentle ruminants are proving anything but gentle. They should, however, cut Corbyn some slack. From the Maastricht treaty onwards he has got the European Union a lot more right than they have.
• Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economics editor