14 April 2016

Will voters be won over by Corbyn’s reluctant Remain pitch?

In his first major intervention in the EU debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn finally delivered the pro-Remain speech that many in his party were pushing for, but given Corbyn’s track record of spiky independence, including on the EU question, it wasn’t exactly a quintessential Remain pitch. Although he dutifully referenced some key Remain themes – from investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment – he was most passionate when criticising the government’s EU policies such as not supporting higher tariffs on Chinese steel.

In fact the framing of his Remain message was quite negative (in some ways striking a parallel with Sajid Javid’s reluctant remain endorsement). For example, Corbyn argued that

Over the years I have been critical of many decisions taken by the EU, and I remain critical of its shortcomings; from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services.

Interestingly, a YouGov poll this morning has Corbyn as the most trusted senior politician on the EU with a net positive score of 28%. The risk from the perspective of the Remain campaign leadership is that this ‘warts and all’ approach backfires by giving the public and especially sceptically minded voters on the left reasons to vote to leave – indeed sections of it are already being approvingly cited by various Leave campaigns. In addition, his criticism of the government could further encourage voters to give Cameron and Osborne a bloody nose on June 23rd.

Alternatively, his more candid and nuanced approach amid a referendum campaign characterised on the whole by simplistic, cliched arguments could win voters’ respect. As a former outer who has been persauded that on balance it is better to stay in the EU, arguably he is better placed to win over soft Leave voters than the likes of Peter Mandelson or Alan Johnson who have always been staunchly pro-EU.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of his speech and wider referendum strategy will come down to who exactly he is trying to appeal to – undecided swing voters/soft Leave voters or apathetic remain voters. He may get some traction with the former – though how many of these are on the harder left voters is unclear – but his speech was clearly not a stirring call to action for those remain who are yet to properly engage and who’s decision to turn up or not to turn on on the day could prove crucial.

What is Corbyn’s vision for EU reform?

Corbyn’s general argument was that in an era of increasing globalisation (as opposed to 1983 when he was first elected) it is important for countries to work together to further centre-left and socialist principles including

Democratic reform to make the EU more accountable to its people. Economic reform to end to self-defeating austerity and put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy, labour market reform to strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real social Europe. And new rights for governments and elected authorities to support public enterprise and halt the pressure to privatise services… the EU, warts and all, has proved itself to be a crucial international framework to do that.

Clearly, one factor behind his decision to support a Remain vote appears to be the rise of new insurgent parties across Europe on the left and far-left, most notably SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain. He also appears to have developed a close relationship with the Portuguese PM Antonio Costa (who heads a three-party left-wing coalition), citing him approvingly in his speech.

However, traditional, mainstream centre-left parties are collectively at their lowest ebb since the 1970s – this week the German SPD fell under 20% for the first time in post-war period for example. Although new insurgent parties are breaking through, this is mostly limited to the countries most affected by the Eurozone crisis – in Northern and Central and Eastern Europe populist parties are also growing in strength but in many areas their policies are completely at odds with Corbyn’s vision (though there is also some overlap, including on economic policy). As such, it is not obvious where Corbyn would derive support from for his alternative version of EU reform.

Corbyn’s contradictory message on democratic legitimacy

One thing that stuck out in Corbyn’s speech was his argument that the UK needs to stay in the EU to protect workers’ rights.

Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.

This is a classic argument on the left, but it clearly contradicts his other arguments about the EU not being sufficiently democratically accountable – if the UK left the EU, a democratically elected Tory government would be entitled to pursue such policies (to what extent they would of course remains to be seen). As far as Corbyn is concerned, the parts of the EU that he likes – environmental protection, social and employment laws – are fine without democratic legitimacy but the parts of it that he is less keen on – state aid rules, trade agreements – are not.