Jeremy Corbyn has dashed the hopes of certain members of his shadow cabinet this morning with a Guardian op-ed in which he sets out his party’s Brexit position in any forthcoming general election. Rather than explicitly back remaining in the EU, Corbyn says a Labour government would pursue a softer Brexit deal with Brussels before letting the public decide between that deal and Remain in a second referendum. He goes on to say: ‘We would then put that to a public vote alongside Remain. I will pledge to carry out whatever the people decide, as a Labour prime minister.’ This is being read as Corbyn saying he personally would not take a side in that referendum.
The Labour position attempts to find a Brexit compromise which will keep figures in the parliamentary party and Leave and Remain Labour voters on side. There had been a hope among Corbyn allies that Corbyn would say his party now backs Remain in a second vote. That has not happened and there could be attempts at Labour conference by pro-EU members to push the party to such a position.
With the Liberal Democrats moving to a revoke position and thereby establishing themselves as the clear party of Remain, members of Jeremy Corbyn’s top team see a virtue in retaining a level of Brexit ambiguity. With a general election expected before Christmas, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are positioning themselves on the premise that voters now pick parties on a Leave/Remain axis rather than a left/right axis.
As I say in this week’s Spectator cover piece, internal Labour party polling has been carried out in the Midlands and north of England into whether Brexit moves traditional voters to another party. They found the results to be in part encouraging. Labour-leaning Leave voters — nicknamed ‘Dennis Skinner voters’ — struggle with the idea of the Tories and see Johnson as little different to other Tory leaders. Labour voters moving to the Brexit party can be an easier leap than moving to the Tories. However, there is still a distrust of Nigel Farage and his Thatcherite views.
But there is one group more easily turned by Brexit that could be decisive to the election result: non-voters, the ones credited for the shock Leave result. On the day of the EU referendum, Labour MPs say they began to get a sense that something was adrift when they saw people who lived in council estates with historically low turnout coming out to vote. In the 2017 election, this group were seen as crucial in Labour circles to Corbyn’s surprisingly good result.
Current polling and prediction systems struggle to take this group in. There is a worry among the rebel alliance that Boris Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings — the campaign director from Vote Leave — has managed to find a way to factor these voters in and is looking at very different electoral modelling to everyone else.