When Jeremy Corbyn entered the EU Referendum campaign at the Ministry of Truth and told his audience, with a wry smile, “We shall see,” the joke was that he and everyone else knew that for a lifelong Eurosceptic to commit to the Remain cause would require a certain economy of honesty.
Two months later, and two days out from the referendum, the problem is the opposite. From start and presumably to the finish, Jeremy Corbyn has been absolutely honest at all times with his views on the European Union. An admirable trait in a politician, but it may yet cost Remain the referendum.
Take Channel 4’s The Last Leg. When Corbyn stepped out of a white Bentley wearing a tux and fur coat on, his personal Head of Media, Kevin Slocombe, wrote on Twitter: “You can’t say our media strategy is dull.”
It would be unkind to suggest this was the first hint the Labour leader’s team has given that they were even aware of that word – “strategy”; and Jeremy Corbyn being no stranger to unkindness from large swathes of the media, this suggestion was duly made, many times over.
To Corbyn’s credit, The Last Leg was a smart move, and – at least in my opinion – his send up of his much derided dress sense was funny. It worked. More to the point, he correctly deduced that the predominantly young and largely undecided audience of the show were there for persuading. Yet when he was asked to rate his passion for staying in the EU, he told them: “Oooh, seven and half out of 10.”
A week before, he had given a speech in which he attacked George Osborne’s claim that leaving the EU could trigger a recession as “hype and histrionics”. Also, no doubt, in his view, the truth – but the referendum debate boiled down to immigration versus the economy long ago, and seeking to dismantle your own side’s most important weapon is not the way to win the battle.
In the white heat of this referendum debate, Labour’s foot soldiers have a right to be reassured that their general is more than “seven and a half out of 10” on their side.
It comes back to that word: strategy. In politics, strategy is working out where you want to get, and then planning out the many intricately counterintuitive moves it will take to get there. Tony Blair was good at it. You could argue, too good.
Jeremy Corbyn’s “new kind of politics” – to waste no opportunity to say precisely how you feel, however damaging to the cause you’re meant to be supporting – is no strategy at all. It is not a new kind of politics. It is politics with the politics stripped out. It’s the politics of losing.
Forced to make a positive argument against an institution he has spent four decades deriding as “undemocratic”, the best Corbyn has been able to come up with is that it is currently preventing the democratically-elected Tories from doing as they please. On Sky News, he bravely sought to explain how it was not immigrants, but Mike Ashley, TTIP and tax havens that were undercutting working class life, a range of arguments that just about combine to form coherence, but scarcely represent a march up the EU see-saw and across its tipping point.
Meanwhile, Alan Johnson, the leader of the Labour In campaign, which arguably peaked at its launch in a deserted side concourse of a Birmingham conference centre in December, has been all but irrelevant.
Johnson himself has complained of the media’s obsession with the “blue on blue stuff”; that impassioned interjections from the likes of David Miliband, Sadiq Khan and Hilary Benn are going ignored. Clearly, the media has been more interested in a brutalising internal Conservative war from which it is hard to see recovery. But Jeremy Corbyn has had his chances and they have not been taken.
In the Labour leader’s defence, his is not a straightforward position to hold. It’s well known he fears “Scottish disease” creeping south into Labour’s northern heartlands, and many of his northern MPs have told him as much. Being seen to be too close to the Conservatives, as was the case in the Scottish Independence referendum, could have disastrous consequences.
He knows Labour is already bleeding millions of voters to Ukip in general and local elections, and that even larger numbers of still loyal Labour voters will vote to leave the EU, motivated by concerns over immigration that will necessarily be addressed even in the event of a Brexit vote.
Whatever the case, all economic forecasts predict at least some degree of shock and uncertainty in the event of Brexit.
Yet on Thursday, men and women in working class communities will walk in to the polling booths and vote to leave the EU, entirely unshielded from the economic dangers it will bring upon them. If there are enough of them, it will cost them their jobs.
How much does the Labour leader care about this? “Oooh, seven and a half out of 10.” You won’t find anyone, on any side, that will argue they are the numbers to win you anything in politics.
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