Opposition parties are obsessed with stealing any slight sliver of limelight they can get their hands on. They see a bandwagon of the chattering classes obsessing on an issue and they make sure they get some-any-influence on the debate. At least that is what used to happen. With the EU referendum well and truly kicked off, the great and the good are heading to TV and radio studios across the land to explain the nuances of EU membership to the great British public. In fact, there is no political panel show or discussion, where the guest is allowed to leave the building without revealing where they stand on the issue.
Yet those currently at the heart of the Labour leadership seem to have managed to get through the last few weeks without such concerns. A Google search of news and opinions on the referendum would get quite a few pages in before Messrs Corbyn or McDonnell appear.
Perhaps it is all part of a plan. After all, Europe is the Conservative Party’s kryptonite. Something that, no matter how many times they try to change the subject, always comes back to destroy them. It brought down Thatcher, nearly brought down Major, and may still bring down Cameron. So is the thinking ‘let’s just sit back, let the Tories destroy themselves, and keep our powder dry for when it all goes wrong”? Perhaps. The recent resignation of Iain Duncan Smith certainly gives fuel to that fire. The problem with this theory though is that it would require the Corbynista inner circle to be in possession of political strategists who are willing to play a long game in order to get to the ultimate goal, and there has been no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. In fact, all evidence has been to the contrary in relation to the aforementioned IDS resignation. Like the punch Ali never gave Foreman when he went down, this is the perfect illustration of a time when Labour should not be seeking to take any attention away from Osborne’s world of pain. Despite this, they have gone on the war path and helped the Chancellor circle the wagons of the Tory party to fight off this attack.
So if Labour’s EU silence isn’t a House of Cards style, Machiavellian, stroke of tactical genius; you are left with one conclusion. Jeremy Corbyn’s heart isn’t really in this, and that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone.
It has been one of the great unmentionable facts of modern politics that elements of the Labour party are, in their hearts, Eurosceptic. Because the Tory party has taken its obsession over Europe to stratospheric heights over the past 20 years, most have been led to the conclusion that to be anti-EU you have to also be right-wing. People who do this are, of course, not paying due attention history. In the early 80s, while the Labour Party was tearing itself apart, one of the touchstones of this divide was Europe. Led by Tony Benn and others, those on the left of the Party were passionately opposed to the EU (or the common market as it was called then). Ok, their problems with it were born out of different principles to their Conservative opponents, but they ultimately came to the same conclusion. Then came Neil Kinnock, then John Smith, then New Labour. The Party’s direction was moved closer towards a continental style social democratic position, and the roll out of extensive EU legislation promoting workers’ rights gave Blair, Brown et al the political cover to take those on the Left with them and make Labour an unapologetic pro EU Party. They didn’t win Labour’s debate on Europe, the ended it. Or so everyone thought. Throughout the New Labour heydays there remained a small but boisterous minority who never made their peace with the EU. One of the ring leaders of that minority was Jeremy Corbyn.
Now as leader he is in the awkward position of leading a pro-European party, while holding on to his own, at best lukewarm, feelings about the EU. There has been a new wave of frustration among those who used to set the Party’s course, that the Party is failing to play a leading role in the biggest debate facing the UK for a generation, and one whose implications impact every corner of political life. While on other issues Corbyn can more or less ignore these complaints, safe in the knowledge that he has the bulk of the membership behind him, this is not the case on Europe.
So he has two basic choices. Swallow his pride and lead an unapologetic, full-throated defence of Britain’s place in the EU, or keep his head down, wait for the dust to settle and for the agenda to move on. So far he has clearly chosen for the later, much to the chagrin of most within his Party, and the bewilderment of everyone else.