Why Corbyn Talks Non-Brexit at TUC

As part of our regular “Remember their Audience” series, we examine Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on employment rights at the TUC this week, which is unusually important precisely because it isn’t brexit – although that’s the bit a lot of people will focus on.

The background: There is an election coming and Jeremy Corbyn says he welcomes it but will not be tricked by the Prime Minister into having one while the country is at risk of “no deal” brexit. Against that background, while other politicians focus almost exclusively on brexit, he tried to speak about something else.

The claim: “We’re ready to unleash the biggest people-powered campaign we’ve ever seen,” declared Jeremy Corbyn. Then he said Labour would “put power in the hands of workers” and undertake “the biggest extension of rights for workers that our country has ever seen.” He even proposed a Cabinet post dedicated to workers rights.

Yet politics  is  all about brexit, as always. So what’s going on?

Who he isn’t talking to: (Almost Anyone in Politics)

As usual in this series, I now take the opportunity to remind you that many things in politics are misunderstood because most of us think we are the audience when in fact we rarely are. And that is perhaps more true of Jeremy Corbyn than anything else.

Some months ago we reported on Corbyn’s attempts to cast remainers and leavers on the same side against the challenges people face in daily life. That was quite at odds with almost all political discourse in 2019, and now he’s doing it again.

While he did say in his speech that Labour in Government would offer a referendum on Europe but also offer a credible leave option in that referendum – he is not really talking about Europe today. So if you think he was, you are probably not his audience today. He just couldn’t not mention it because that would seem weird.

His talk of workers’ rights on the other hand is not just crowd-pleasing stuff for a TUC audience. It is also a message that Labour, unlike other parties, still has an eye firmly on domestic policy.

Almost no one in politics or the political press is interested in domestic policy right now. Theresa May set out a domestic vision when she became PM but it quickly dissapeared into her brexit abyss. Johnson has scarcely even bothered to set one out. Labour is clearly keen to stay different.

So who is he talking to: (Members and Non-Brexit-Motivated Voters)

As seen in 2017, the public are not as easily fixated on brexit as politicians sometimes expect. The Conservatives benefited from leavers voting for them as UKIP largely died away, and Labour benefited from defeated remainers backing the less brexity of the two main parties. But Labour also got millions of leavers to vote Labour because, at an election, domestic policy motivated them more than their preference on brexit.

So a return to domestic politics is important for Labour. It is especially important after so heavy a focus lately on stopping “no deal” as part of a rebel alliance that was otherwise wholly “remain”.

Labour’s equivocation on brexit is largely to mitigate voters rejecting Labour. That may still hurt Labour among some heavily brexit-motivated voters, but up against the extreme nature of the Johnson Premiership so far, many may be willing to take the referendum/credible option offer and vote tactically.

That gives Labour leeway to tell people about workers’ rights, and perhaps next the NHS, and then maybe education, and so on. That is crucially important to its very large membership – which the party needs to get out onto the doorstep at an election to reach past a largely hostile and brexit-focused press.

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