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Why Labour's silence on the EU is incredibly dumb

I do feel sorry for fans of Jeremy Corbyn.

No, seriously. 

There’s a hell of a lot of psychological turmoil involved in playing follow-my-leader these days.

I was talking to a Corbynista recently and she admitted that she signed petitions to protect the BBC, even though she didn’t actually watch or listen to any of its output. She’d gone ‘indie’ in recent years, feeling that the Corporation had abandoned its remit as a public-service broadcaster and simply followed a Tory agenda.

In other words, she buys into the narrative – quite common now on the left – that the ‘mainstream media’ cannot be trusted. But still she goes through the motions with the ‘save the BBC’ stuff online, perhaps out of some residual loyalty to what she imagines the institution might have been. Pretty weird stuff. Hard to get your head around.

No doubt, when confronted with the European referendum on 23rd June, she goes through the same agonising process.

In the eyes of the Corbynite left, the EU is a terrible institution, which screwed Greece and is determined to sign secretive trade agreements with the US, handing more power over to multinational corporations. Corbyn, of course, has spent his whole political career opposing the European project. But now his supporters hold their noses and say they support the ‘remain’ campaign. Maybe – just maybe – a better, kinder EU can be forged, they tell themselves, with the help of Jez and his pals in Podemos and Syriza.

But are they going to say anything positive in advance of the referendum? Are they going to speak to their relatives, friends and work colleagues in support of the EU?  Probably not. And if they do, there will be so much equivocation that the conversation will be next to useless.

And there’s the problem.

A poll in The Observer by Opinium shows that 40% of people don’t know what Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the EU referendum actually is.  More than one in ten people think that he is in favour of Brexit.

With two and half months to go until the vote, the Labour leader has been so unwilling or unable to mount a full-scale defence of the EU that he has left voters in the dark. Meanwhile, the appointed party spokesman on the issue – the affable and credible Alan Johnson –  appears to have been locked in an attic somewhere.

Polling evidence suggests that young people are much more inclined to want to stay in the EU, but are less likely to vote. Older folk tend to favour Brexit and are much more certain to turn up at the polling station. This presents a prime opportunity, surely, for Corbyn? His supporters claim that he has a large following among young people. So will he actually issue a rallying call? Somehow I doubt it.

Instead, he broadcasts an SOS to ‘Save Our Steel’ – certainly a worthy cause, but one which falls entirely within his natural comfort zone of backing trade unions and supporting old-style manufacturing. It reminds him no doubt of the ill-fated ‘Coal Not Dole’ struggle of 1984-5, which remains a massive ideological rallying point (or spectre, depending on your viewpoint) in the modern history of the British left.

While in no way belittling the strategic importance of the UK having its own steel production capacity, it is worth pointing out that the industry contributes the tiniest of fractions of the nation’s economic output in 2016.  We already only produce half the steel of Italy and about a sixth of the amount that comes out of the factories of South Korea. So if we’re concerned about the state of the UK economy and the long-term future of job security, by far the bigger issue of 2016 is whether or not we remain members of the European Union.

And ironically, of course, the steel issue is used by Brexiters to point out the failings of the EU to agree effective protectionist tariffs, as well as the UK’s supposed lack of control over its own destiny. So by placing such an emphasis on steel just two months away from a critical referendum, he succeeds simultaneously in diverting attention away from the much bigger economic problem and playing into the hands of the anti-Europe brigade.

As time ticks by, I have a worse and worse feeling about the EU referendum. If younger voters and Labour supporters broadly support the idea of staying in, but do not feel strongly motivated to vote, we may well sleepwalk into Brexit. If that happens, the consequences will go way beyond the UK and might spiral into a crisis for the whole continent. It would be terrible to think that this unfolding nightmare might be presaged by the Labour Party’s disastrous leadership election in 2015.


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