As part of our regular “Remember their Audience” series, we examine Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to unite leave and remain voters.
The background: Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party, and is felt to have spoken far more on other issues like poverty and hardship than on Brexit – the biggest story in Westminster. And he gave a speech calling for unity across the Brexit divide, which inevitably got more attention than poverty and hardship.
“I would put it like this: if you’re living in Tottenham you may well have voted to Remain. You’ve got high bills, rising debts, you’re in insecure work, you struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it.
If you’re living in Mansfield, you are more likely to have voted to Leave. You’ve got high bills, rising debts, you’re in insecure work, you struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it.
But you’re not against each other.”
Who he isn’t talking to: (you)
As usual in this series, I now take the opportunity to remind you that most things in politics are misunderstood because most of us think we are the audience when in fact we rarely are.
Let’s be honest here, you probably have a clear preference regarding leave/remain – and those who do will likely have experienced some pretty unambiguous “against each other”
You are unlikely to be convinced if you have strong views on leave/remain that your preference is not somewhat integral to a solution to hardship, and that the alternative would cause yet more hardship to come.
Likewise, this wasn’t really a message to you if you are a true believer in Corbyn’s cause. Often this series notes the importance of giving a message to the faithful to parrot. But Corbyn has not done that here. In the same speech he made clear party policy is up for grabs because Labour manifestoes are written by a wider part of the party than the leadership.
And besides, Corbyn supporters are very loyal to the man. Few realistic u-turns or contradictions he might undertake would really change that so long as he seems genuine to his supporters (note loyalists calls for MPs to be loyal to the leadership, alongside glowing praise for his decades of disloyalty to the leadership).
So who is he talking to: The public
When a politician says something like this, it can become very bland. While Jo Cox rightly argued that we have more things in common than things that divide us, she was unambiguously right. The trouble is that politics exists to deal not with what unites us, but with what divides us. Politics is where we debate those things and try to find balance.
Jeremy Corbyn knows this, and appears to be trying to downgrade Brexit as a political issue, not just as a political divide – hence casting it against such obvious cases of real life hardship.
While Westminster obsesses over Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn is pretty close to saying here that Labour’s position on Brexit doesn’t matter. Leave or remain, he suggests job insecurity, benefits policy, and old-fashioned hardship are their real focus. And he picks two hard up Labour neighbourhoods for illustration to hammer that point home.
In doing this he’s speaking to most of the public, not to people who are strongly political and thus increasingly ingrained in the leave/remain divide. And in doing so, he is hinting to the public that Labour will be pragmatic about Brexit, because it can be pragmatic about the things that don’t really matter.
Pragmatism rarely goes down badly with voters, and Labour’s strategic ambiguity on Brexit was part of their relative success in 2017. Pragmatism also allows for a party to change its mind as the circumstances make it sensible.
If, for example, Labour came to feel opposing Brexit would deliver the keys to Downing Street, Corbyn has already explained in this statement to the public why that’s OK. And the public might not care too much about some political outrage that would follow. Since most of his own party would welcome such a move anyway, his reminder of Labour’s ambiguity feels important, even if Labour still presently believes Brexit is their path to power.
The motive here is thus to remind an important part of the public that Labour believes they belong together, and belong with Labour regardless of Brexit.