LONDON — Britain’s pro-EU voters face a choice in December’s election — how much do they care about remaining in the European Union.
Jeremy Corbyn has been dragged by his party into backing a second referendum on Brexit, to avoid alienating his membership and many Labour voters who want to overturn the 2016 result.
He has promised to negotiate his own deal with the EU before putting it back to the country for the final verdict — although the Labour leader has kicked into the long grass the issue of whether, come a second referendum, he would back his own renegotiated deal or campaign to Remain in the EU.
Jo Swinson, meanwhile, has staked her pitch on being the only party which is “unambiguously about stopping Brexit.” The Liberal Democrat leader wants to turn the December 12 general election into a referendum of sorts by saying if her party wins a majority, it will take the result as a green light to cancel Brexit outright.
The bad news for Labour is that the latest polling suggests the Lib Dem message on Brexit is cutting through to their Remain-backing targets. According to a survey for Queen Mary University’s Mile End Institute, the Corbyn lead in London — a strong Remain city — has halved since the 2017 general election, while support for the Lib Dems has almost doubled. However, the poll puts Labour on 39 percent and the Lib Dems on 8.8 percent, so Swinson still has a lot of catching up to do.
“Jeremy Corbyn will not give you a straight answer on the biggest issue facing this country” — Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat leader
Meanwhile, analysis of recent council by-elections by psephologist Robert Haywood said Labour was doing “remorselessly badly,” while he suggested the Lib Dems would not make significant gains until they were polling at around 20 percent.
Swinson launched her campaign at an event in Westminster on Tuesday with a prolonged attack on the Labour Brexit policy.
She said Remain voters “cannot trust” Labour with their vote. “Jeremy Corbyn will not give you a straight answer on the biggest issue facing this country,” she said. “A vote for Labour is a vote for Brexit.”
Labour, on the other hand, will hope that as the election campaign ramps up and voters focus on which party they want to run the country in the coming years, they can widen the focus to be about more than Brexit.
UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
Speaking at a campaign event in Essex Tuesday, Corbyn pitched himself as a unifying figure.
“People sometimes accuse me of trying to talk to both sides at once in the Brexit debate; to people who voted Leave and Remain,” he told the activists in Harlow. “You know what? They’re right. Why would I only want to talk to half the country? I don’t want to live in half a country.”
A Labour official said the Lib Dem approach would “only divide the country further.”
“As Jeremy said in his speech today, most people who voted Remain want a final say referendum, they don’t want to just wipe out the result of the 2016 referendum without a new democratic mandate,” the official said.
The Lib Dems might be eating into the Labour vote, but a protest position may have a limited ceiling of support.
Lib Dem party officials say all they need to do to attack the Labour Brexit policy is explain it. Polling by YouGov published Tuesday suggested two-thirds of Britons think the Corbyn position is muddy. Just 21 percent of those polled thought Labour had been clear about its Brexit plans, compared with 56 percent for the Liberal Democrats and 57 percent for the Conservatives.
But at the Harlow campaign event, which took place at the same time as the Lib Dem bash, Corbyn insisted his position was straightforward enough.
“Despite what some commentators want you to believe, Labour’s plan for Brexit is clear and simple,” he insisted. “It’s time to take the decision out of the hands of politicians and trust the people to decide. It won’t be a rerun of 2016. This time the choice will be between leaving with a sensible deal or remaining in the European Union. That’s the policy. It really isn’t complicated.”
“It’s very clear when I’m out on the doorstep that people want clarity at this moment in time” — Luciana Berger, Liberal Democrat candidate
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems want to use the ease of their own position to their advantage.
“It’s very clear when I’m out on the doorstep that people want clarity at this moment in time,” Luciana Berger, who quit Labour in February and is standing with the Liberal Democrats in north London, told POLITICO. “They don’t want prevarication, they don’t want fudge, they want a really clear position, and ours has been consistent.”
But the Liberal Democrats have never before won more than 62 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, and despite positive poll ratings are unlikely to emerge as the largest party from this election.
The more likely outcome with any chance of stopping Brexit is a Labour victory — either as an outright majority or in some form of coalition with smaller parties.
Both party leaders insist they will not form deals in the wake of the election result. In Harlow, Corbyn said Labour was campaigning to govern alone, while in Westminster, Swinson insisted she was “absolutely, categorically” ruling out propping up Corbyn in No. 10.
More than Brexit
Many supporters of Corbyn who want the Brexit vote overturned are staying loyal.
Activists who turned out to see Corbyn speak in Harlow were pro-Remain, but were willing to countenance a Labour Brexit rather than risk, in the words of one, “the unfairness” of a Tory government.
The Labour top brass took a similar view, insisting at the event that the party wanted to talk about other issues. Shadow Minister Laura Pidcock said she didn’t get into politics to “discuss amendments, sub-clauses and one piece of legislation over and over again.”
She and Corbyn — as well as Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, who was also speaking at the event — insisted the NHS, housing and job security would be major issues in the election.
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