One thing’s for sure – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will remain resolutely undecided over Brexit in 2018

One thing’s for sure – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will remain resolutely undecided over Brexit in 2018

If you’re hoping to see Labour climb down from its mugwump position over Brexit in 2018, forget it. Labour will stay firm in its indecision. The iron may be rusty but it’s entered Labour’s soul.

It can’t take any firm position because to do so would split a party which has always been disunited on the EU. It took a revolt by 69 Labour MPs to take Britain in, and while Labour stood on a policy of withdrawal in 1983, by 2003 it had stood on its head to become the most Euro-enthusiastic party around. Now the divisions are even worse. Euro-enthusiasts led by Peter Mandelson’s deputy on earth, Chuka Umunna, fight to stay in and many MPs have a romantic vision of an illusory EU which their constituents don’t share. Some trade unions have given up hope of a Labour government and look for crumbs of comfort from Brussels and several Labour local authorities feel the same

The number of MPs who want to withdraw has dwindled, but the leader and his acolytes, having consistently opposed membership, still see it as a capitalist ramp, hostile to socialist economic measures while a substantial number of others want to obey the democratic decision of the people in the least disturbing manner.

The result is a firm decision not to decide. Jeremy Corbyn has taken a lot of flack for this from Euro-enthusiasts denouncing him for losing the referendum by his lack of enthusiasm and MPs who want to cling on to the EU attack him for not demanding that Britain stay in a single market which he thinks will make industrial regeneration impossible. A few who remain loyal to the old policy of coming out urge him to back the people’s decision. Others just want rid of the whole business. This is a party of 57 varieties of Euro-policy.

Yet neither Labour’s MPs nor the commentariat realise that the old serial rebel has grown into a leader, and a Labour Party leader at that. Jeremy is committed to what has been the central aim of every previous leader except Blair and Ramsay MacDonald. He wants to hold a discordant party together to win power. Instead of condemning him for his radical past, they should ask the crucial Labour question: What would Harold Wilson do?

The answer is much the same as Jeremy is now doing, although Jeremy does it with less flair and cunning. In the early sixties, Harold opposed membership of what was then the Common Market. As Prime Minister he attempted to join. He then reverted in opposition to staying out. Finally he concealed Labour’s divisions and his own changes behind a pretended re-negotiation followed by a referendum. This healed the splits and allowed Labour to win power and govern.

As he transforms from protester to politician, Jeremy must ask himself why waste time and expose the splits over something that’s not central to his purpose of winning power and rebuilding Britain? Better to take the Wilson approach: harass government in its difficulties, divisions and EU intransigence, while keeping quiet on what Labour would do, how much it would pay for a Get Out of Jail Card, and what kind of settlement it prefers. Instead of joining the battle, the opposition can carp and criticise the government’s position. Whatever it might be.

That may be unhelpful. It must weaken Theresa’s negotiating position. It will certainly encourage Brussels to be tougher and Lord Heseltine to support Labour but, as Lord Kindersley once said of one of his own dirty deals, “it may be anti-British and derogatory to sterling but it makes sense to me”. As it would for any Labour leader who puts party first.

Of course Jeremy still wants to win power, but not just yet. Labour won’t – indeed can’t – emerge from its bomb shelter until the Brexit war is over and either negotiations fail or Theresa comes away with a settlement which is less than the electorate wants. Why wander onto the battlefield before that? Why sink in mud to be hit by shrapnel, bombs and abuse when you can help a baffled government to fail? Just think what Harold would do.