New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit
by Ian Sinclair
11 July 2016
The message pushed by the Labour Party coup plotters through a pliant media has been relentless: Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted performance in the European Union referendum, likely because of his dislike of the EU, played a key role in the vote for Brexit. This narrative has resonated widely, with a YouGov poll finding 52 percent of Labour members thought Corbyn performed badly, with 47 percent answering he performed well.
However, there are a number of problems with the ‘Blame Corbyn’ story.
Most important is the fact that, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the referendum, 63 percent of Labour voters supported Remain – just one percent less than the 64 percent of SNP voters who supported Remain. There haven’t been, as far as I’m aware, any calls for Nicola Sturgeon to resign as the SNP leader.
Ten days before the referendum vote, Labour MP Angela Eagle – currently busy threatening to run against Corbyn in a leadership election because of his poor performance during the referendum –told the Guardian “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult. This whole thing is about Tory big beasts having a battle like rutting stags”. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – also currently pushing the Labour leader to resign – confirmed in early June that Corbyn was getting a “raw deal” from the media, noting that Corbyn’s many speeches on the referendum were being ignored by the media.
Research by the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University concurs with the pre-coup analyses of Eagle and Watson on the media’s coverage of the campaign. “The dominance of Conservative party representatives… was sustained throughout”, the study concludes. “The coverage was also highly ‘presidentialised’, dominated by the Conservative figure heads of the IN and OUT campaigns.”
“In truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat”, notes John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and the BBC’s polling expert. “The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.”
However, although the ferocious ‘Blame Corbyn’ campaign doesn’t stand up to a cursory look at the actual evidence, what it has succeeded in doing is focusing everyone’s attention on the nine weeks of the referendum campaign itself. This is a huge problem because, as Gary Younge recently noted in the Guardian, the Brexit vote was decades in the making.
“Those who voted for Brexit tended to be English, white, poor, less educated and old. With the exception of the elderly, these have traditionally been Labour’s base”, Younge points out. After criss-crossing the country speaking to the general public for a video series on the referendum for the Guardian, John Harris declared a few days before the vote “England and Wales are in the midst of a working-class revolt… in Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire the same lines recurred… ‘I’m scared about the future’… ‘no one listens to me’… ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.”
Harris noted there was a complete lack of trust in the political establishment. Iraq – along with the expenses scandal and the financial crash – has obviously played a key role in increasing the public’s distrust in those who rule them. Of course, the Iraq war was launched by Tony Blair’s Government, with 92 percent of the Labour MPs opposing Corbyn now who were in parliament in 2003 voting in favour of the illegal and aggressive invasion, according to investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed.
Younge is in no doubt about Labour’s role in the abandonment of large swathes of the country: “The party has been out of touch for some time”, with New Labour’s turn to the right “made with the conscious calculation that its core supporters had nowhere else to go.”
Instead of decisively shifting to a modern social democracy when it was elected on a wave of optimism in 1997, New Labour chose to adapt to the “Thatcherite, neo-liberal terrain” and “set the corporate economy free”, argued the late sociology professor Stuart Hall in 2003. NHS privatisation moved forward with the Private Finance Initiative deals, council house building ground to a halt, tuition fees were introduced, unemployment benefits were kept very low, the benefits system tightened, and claimants stigmatised. At the same time New Labour reduced the ability of working-class communities to resist the increasingly corporate-dominated economy by maintaining the Tories tough anti-union legislation, with Blair proudly stating the UK had the “most restrictive laws on trade unions in the Western world”. Unsurprisingly, income inequality, already sky high after 13 years of Tory rule, rose under New Labour, and the UK continues to have one of the lowest levels of class mobility in the industrialised world.
New Labour also repeatedly attempted to outflank the Tories on the right when it came to immigration and asylum – issues at the heart of the EU referendum debate. Blair used his September 2003 speech to the Labour Party conference to push for a tougher immigration policy – lballed“chilling” by the Immigration Advisory Service. “I don’t want to see footprints left so that the BNP [British National Party] can step into them. I don’t want language used to appease the Daily Mail”, warmed Sir Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at the time.
The year before Home Secretary David Blunkett had proclaimed asylum seekers were “swamping” some British schools. In 2007 Margaret Hodge MP wrote of “indigenous famil[ies]” missing out when it comes to social housing because we “prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have”, a statement cheered on by the BNP. Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeatedly pledged “British jobs for British workers”, criticised by then leader of the opposition David Cameron for using the same language as – yep, you’ve guessed it – a BNP leaflet. Ed Miliband’s party was hardly better. The 2015 General Election campaign brought forth Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs, while the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives”, the Guardian noted.
The effect of all this emotive rhetoric, as Younge notes about Labour’s history of pandering to the Right on immigration, “was not to blunt the rise of organised racism but to embolden it, making certain views acceptable and respectable”.
No matter what he did, Corbyn was never going to successfully turn around these decades-old, arguably now firmly entrenched, social, economic and political shifts in the nine months he had been leader before the referendum.
So, if we are going to start attributing blame in the Labour Party for Brexit, let’s start with New Labour and the Blairite MPs and many of their willing dupes in the so-called centre of the party who repeatedly supported policies and public statements that have effectively led to the abandonment of many poor communities, increased inequality, and shifted national politics to a space that made Brexit more likely.