SEDGEFIELD, England — Jeremy Corbyn wants everyone to shut up about Brexit and focus on “the real stuff.” But he risks leaving his party stranded without a clear position on the only issue that matters for many — perhaps most — voters.
Even as the Labour leader prepares to rally his troops at the party’s annual conference in Brighton next week, the political space on both sides of the Brexit divide is being staked out by his rivals ahead of a possible general election later this year.
On one flank, the party faces a fight in its largely Leave-voting former industrial heartlands, from both Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit Conservatives, and from Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party, which is deliberately targeting northern Labour seats with a series of pre-election rallies.
An even greater danger lies on the Remain flank, where according to polls, Labour could lose legions of Remain voters — who make up the majority of its support across the country as a whole — to the Liberal Democrats, thanks to new leader Jo Swinson’s unequivocal pledge at the party’s own gathering in Bournemouth this week to cancel Brexit, without a referendum, on day one of a Lib Dem government.
That leaves the Labour leader — a longtime radical — occupying unfamiliar territory: the middle ground. Labour, as Corbyn wrote in the Guardian Wednesday, will attempt to stay neutral by promising to negotiate a softer Brexit deal with the EU and then putting that deal to a public vote.
The political space on both sides of the Brexit divide is being staked out by Corbyn’s rivals ahead of a possible general election later this year.
Corbyn will use the Labour conference, according to senior aides, to redefine the pre-election debate and get it back onto the party’s preferred playing field: class, society, economics and proposals for a major redistribution of wealth, more public spending and bolder action on climate change — “the real stuff,” as one Labour official put it.
It is a strategy that worked well for the party in 2017, when it defied expectations and robbed the Conservatives of their majority. But will it work again after nearly three more years of intensely divided Brexit debate?
“We are now Leavers or Remainers — they are the divisions in British politics,” Farage told a rally in Labour-voting Doncaster last week. Corbyn’s job now is to prove him wrong.
Farage in Blair Land
Advocating what he calls “a clean break” Brexit — in other words, no deal — Farage has eschewed the traditional one-off party conference in favor of a series of rallies held on weekday evenings in parts of the country that don’t often fall under the political spotlight.
After Doncaster, the Brexit Party leader headed last week to Sedgefield in northeast England, a former coal-mining area that was once the seat of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. There, he struck on the key message with which he thinks he can win in such areas.
“You know there’s something very important here,” he told the crowd of 500 or so in a marquee at Sedgefield racecourse. “It’s a word called ‘trust,’ and when trust breaks down people can migrate to different political parties, to different opinions, very, very quickly.”
A murmur of approval rippled through the marquee.
Brexit Party rallies provoke passion in their attendees, and the boos for Labour are heartfelt. Years of having career politicians parachuted into safe Labour seats in the northeast of England has bred mistrust and a sense of being taken for granted. The decline of the steel industry in nearby Scunthorpe is another live nerve. Farage told the crowd that EU state-aid rules meant the U.K. was “banned from saving British Steel.”
“They’ve taken you for a ride in the North East by parachuting in people like [former foreign secretary] David Miliband!” he said during his speech, which was one-part political argument, one-part stand-up comedy routine. The crowd booed. “I’ve got worse than that. They sent [former European commissioner Peter] Mandelson to Hartlepool!”
Phil Wilson, the local Labour MP in Sedgefield who succeeded Blair in 2007, said he is not perturbed. In 2017, his seat, because of its pro-Brexit sentiment, was considered a potential target for Theresa May’s Conservatives. But the mood is changing as the threat of a no-deal exit from the EU intensifies, he said, speaking on the phone ahead of Farage’s rally.
Farage has eschewed the traditional one-off party conference in favor of a series of rallies held on weekday evenings in parts of the country that don’t often fall under the political spotlight.
A no-deal Brexit would, over time, risk the departure of major multinational employers in the region like Nissan and Hitachi, he said, comparing the impact of such an outcome to “the closure of the pits in the 1980s.” Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost, he fears.
“The Brexit debate has moved on now … People were promised all kinds of things in 2016, and now three and a half years later people can see that what they were promised is not going to come to fruition,” he said.
“We have had nine years of austerity … over £6 billion taken out of the region through cuts to public services in the North East. It’s not Brussels that has done that, it’s governments elected by the British people in Westminster,” said Wilson, in a foretaste of some of Labour’s arguments if and when an election is held.
Lib Dem ambush
But while Farage and his targeting of Labour heartlands is eye-catching, it is far from the greatest threat facing Labour.
Farage wants an electoral pact with the Tories, in which he would be given a clear run at Labour Leave seats in exchange for standing down his candidates in constituencies where Tories hold the better chance of winning.
If it came to fruition, the pact could be deadly to Labour. But so far Downing Street has shown no appetite for the pact. “If Farage is talking to anyone, it’s not anyone sanctioned to be suggesting a pact,” said one senior Conservative official.
While Farage and his targeting of Labour heartlands is eye-catching, it is far from the greatest threat facing Labour.
In the absence of an agreement, polling suggests the Brexit Party will drain more Conservative votes than they do Labour ones. As long as the pro-Brexit vote remains split, Labour should be comfortably safe in seats like Sedgefield.
So for Corbyn, it’s Swinson who represents the greatest danger.
On Sunday at the Lib Dem conference, the party’s members endorsed her policy of revoking Article 50 and canceling Brexit without a referendum, immediately after an election. It has taken Labour three years to unequivocally pledge to put Brexit to a second referendum — and already the party has been outflanked.
Swinson has relentlessly highlighted this point, hopeful that her clear- cut position will win over Labour Remainers — around two-thirds of its voters — who worry their party might end up delivering Brexit after all.
In her first conference speech as party leader, Swinson promised Tuesday that a Liberal Democrat government would stop Brexit “on day one,” criticizing Johnson and Farage but pulling no punches about Corbyn’s stance.
“Even now, when faced with all the clear and obvious dangers that Brexit brings, Jeremy Corbyn still insists that if Labour win a general election, they will negotiate their own Brexit deal to take us out of the EU,” she told the Lib Dem faithful. “Nigel Farage might be Brexit by name, but it is very clear that Jeremy Corbyn is Brexit by nature.”
No escape from Brexit
Polling suggests Corbyn is taking a huge gamble. A snap poll for POLITICO by Hanbury Strategy earlier this month found just 8 percent of voters said their vote at the next election would be motivated by investment in public services. In contrast, 17 percent said their primary focus will be delivering Brexit on October 31 and 11 percent on revoking Article 50 and remaining in the European Union.
According to Chris Curtis, research manager at YouGov, polling suggests Labour could lose three times as many votes to the Lib Dems as to the Brexit Party. In one poll earlier this month (a particularly dire one for Labour which had them at 23 points, behind the Conservatives at 34), 21 percent of those who voted Labour in 2017 now say they will vote Lib Dem, versus just 7 percent who would vote Brexit Party and 5 percent who would vote Conservative. Nine percent of 2017 Labour voters said they would shift to the pro-Remain Green party.
“It is undeniably true that the biggest threat to the Labour Party at the moment is their Remain flank, not their Leave flank,” Curtis said.
At the Labour Party conference, the message will be repeatedly made that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems together — in coalition from 2010 to 2015 — were responsible for nearly a decade of austerity policies that has led to multiple crises in British public services, from policing, to social care, to schools.
The party plans to brand its rivals as “anti-democratic” for their stances on Brexit; the Lib Dems for wanting to reverse it without a referendum; the Tories and Brexit Party for advocating a policy—no deal—that has no majority support in the country or in parliament.
Senior Labour officials remain confident that, like in the 2017 election, when the country does go to the ballot box, other issues will come to the fore. Then, Corbyn managed to pull off an electoral coup, denying then-Prime Minister Theresa May a majority and taking 40 percent of the vote, despite an equivocal Brexit stance.
Election 2019, if and when it comes, will show whether he’s right to believe that lightning can strike twice.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email email@example.com for a complimentary trial.