Responding to Tony Blair’s latest intervention on Brexit, polling expert and Tufnell Park resident Keiran Pedley wrote: “Interesting that Blair and Corbyn’s roles have almost reversed. Blair going all out on a policy position regardless of public opinion, Corbyn triangulating [because] he has to. Almost as though leadership is different to being on the outside…”
Blair had written of his belief that Britons need to “claim the right to change our minds” about leaving the European Union once the Brexit deal has been agreed and of his wish that Labour would dump the “cake and eat it” stance on Brexit – supporting it, but softly – that seems have helped it lose the general election less badly than expected. Pedley’s observation was astute: while Corbyn, the Outer Left’s paragon of undivided principle, tries to have it both ways to hold Labour’s vote together, Blair, their sell-out Satan, is railing against the leader’s equivocations.
Where is this all going? Blair’s article was published a week after Labour peer Andrew Adonis’s blistering resignation as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, in part to give his full attention to sabotaging Brexit if he can. And before that, straight after Christmas, came what now looks like an increasingly significant local ripple before the bigger national splashes that were to come.
An open letter to shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, signed by 70 Labour councillors on Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham Councils, urged “a further shift” in the party’s position. “In the boroughs we represent, the reality of Brexit is bleak,” they said, citing unhappy foreign EU residents, NHS staffing shortages, business uncertainty and impediments to building new homes. And they concluded: “On the biggest issue facing the country since the Second World War, Labour should be committed to providing the opportunity for people to change their mind.”
No, I’m not suggesting any co-ordination or collusion. But the similarities between Blair’s analysis and that of the south London Labour councillors is very striking. And while neither the Blair article not the councillors’ letter, which was drafted by Southwark’s James Coldwell, explicitly asks for a second referendum whereas Adonis does, their bedrock view is shared – Brexit is monumental, a disaster, and Britain’s voters should be given a proper chance to change their minds.
There might be a lot more of this to come and, if so, London, which voted 60% to remain in the EU, could well continue to be its primary source. If so, it will highlight a great deal about the mood of Labour politicians in London, the issue of London in the national political landscape and the fragility of Corbyn’s Brexit fudge.
On the first point, the councillors’ letter exposed a seam of Labour opinion that has gone largely into hiding since Jeremy disciplines began signing up as members in large numbers. Among councillors, at least in some parts of the city, criticism of the party leader has been seen as risking being sized up for deselection by that happy clappy band. In the event, only in Haringey has it occurred on a significant scale. But plenty of what we might call Inner Left councillors have been watching their step.
This includes some in Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham, those three boroughs being noted for working with private developers and receptive to regenerating their own housing estates – tendencies Corbynites decry. It is interesting that outgoing Lewisham Mayor Sir Steve Bullock is a signatory of the letter to Starmer, while his likely successor, Damien Egan, who shifted his ground substantially over the proposed New Bermondsey scheme in the context of the local mayoral candidate selection contest, is not.
On the second point, attacks on Adonis and then Blair have, predictably but tellingly, revived familiar jibes about high profile Remainers being part of a “metropolitan elite” that is out of touch with “ordinary people” as a whole. Neither man could be satisfactorily described as a “London politician”, but both have been attacked for being unelected figures implicitly characterised as living in “down south” ivory towers and allegedly still failing to understand why working-class people in towns in the north of England voted to leave the EU.
Barbs like this have been hurled from the Corbyn Left as well as the pro-Brexit Right, which raises the ticklish question of whether a middle-class, vegetarian North Londoner who’s spent half a century protesting and never yet had to deal with the dilemmas and responsibilities of power is any more attuned to the social dynamics of Barnsley than Blair and Adonis, who have. Whatever, such attacks underline the sense that the Brexit vote was to a significant extent an anti-London vote – that is, “London” as an idea, bound up with perceptions of affluence, arrogance and rampant immigration – and continues to be a factor in the debate.
And this feeds into the third point, which is that sooner or later national Labour’s position on Brexit will have to change from the current, carefully calibrated vagueness that simultaneously backs Brexit and favours some “softer” version of it than the Conservatives. This helped the party into the position whereby June’s election defeat has been hailed – delusionally in my view – as a “victory for hope” and can give an appearance of comforting unity for as long as Theresa May’s government flails.
But, as Blair’s article stresses, 2018 is the year when stark political choices about Brexit will have to be faced. Labour will have to be clear where it stands. Pressure is building on Corbyn and his top team to focus their position. Will they listen the the voices of their party in London, on which the UK’s prosperity so heavily depends, or pander to anti-London prejudice?