The Labour Party “is not wedded” to the free movement of workers within the European Union, nor is it committed to maintaining the program once Britain burns the bridge.
In his first speech of the year new year, Jeremy Corbyn laid out a substantial, but so far unclear and unencouraging, rehash of the party’s official positions on Brexit and immigration. It was the first time that the Labour Party has bended toward the populist rhetoric raging across the country, and it’s not clear how much of this position should be seen as a tactic or as a sincere political persuasion.
Control over immigration proved decisive in settling the outcome of the referendum that resulted in the Brexit, and the debate is still being waged.
The first, most general, debate topic concerns Labour’s position on the how and why of Brexit itself. It is characterized by a rift between northern voters — the impoverished working class forgotten by southern metropolitan elites, a framework established under Blair — who widely favor the British exit and the socially kindred base of the former technocratic leadership, which shares its ideologies and E.U. stance, even though it favors the containment of the free movement of workers.
Corbyn, who last year bested virulent attacks by the party’s liberal right flank, is faced with a sharp decline in the party’s approval ratings. The (questionable) surveys give Labour 26 percent against the Tories’ 39 percent.
The decline is seen by moderates, led by deputy Tom Watson, as a result of Corbyn’s determination not to fall deeply into the adamantine rhetoric that treats the influx of cheap immigrant labor as detrimental to national wages. But it’s actually because of the party’s recent lack of interest in the historical class basis of its support and is directly responsible for the appalling loss of Scottish votes. The effects will be aggravated by Corbyn’s deliberately vague statements on his Brexit position.
On immigration, Corbyn has positioned himself as an internationalist and therefore in favor of free movement, while at the same time favoring leaving the E.U. But his stalling is assuming the tones of wait-and-see syndrome.
Corbyn is guilty of not being a europhile from every pore, because of his reluctance to compete with the eurosceptic right. Since adopting the rhetoric against migrants, the party leader has been pilloried by liberal commentators and meets them with silence, as usual.
In that sense, he is therefore responding to the incessant attacks and transmitting a less equivocal position on both issues, which in his first speech of 2017 Corbyn has sought to carve out a new role as a leftist populist leader.
The beginning of the year has seen the government led by Theresa May continue to play its negotiating cards on Brexit close to the chest. They’re so infuriatingly guarded as to give one a reasonable impression that what lies behind them is actually total indecision about what to do. It’s a dangerous strategy of crippling wait-and-see, whose ultimate aim, domestically, is to divert the worried looks and, abroad, to remove these same cards from under the watchful supervision of the other European players.
Corbyn is now trying to escape similar accusations of immobility, in the worst way.