‘Labour will put the interests of the majority first.’ So said Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in his first official General Election campaign speech earlier today. Corbyn wants to frame the campaign as his Party of the People versus the Westminster elite. ‘When we win, it is the people, not the powerful, who win’, he said.
Bombastic rhetoric is par for the course in elections. But Labour’s championing of ‘the people’ rings particularly hollow post-Brexit. While Corbyn waxed lyrical about majorities versus minorities, the little man versus big business, and ‘hope and opportunity’ for all, he nodded to Brexit just twice in his entire speech.
First, he said Labour was not ‘obsessed with the tittle tattle of Westminster and Brussels’. Then he criticised prime minister Theresa May for going on an ‘ego trip about her own leadership and the machinations of ongoing negotiations in Brussels’, saying Labour will focus on ‘what kind of country we want to have after Brexit’.
That Corbyn is refusing to take the biggest issue of this election head-on is embarrassing, but unsurprising. Labour is of course in a bind: while its party members and supporters in the south backed Remain, vast numbers of Labour supporters in the north of England and in Wales voted Leave. On Brexit, Labour is damned either way. The party founded to represent working people has become distant from them, and reliant on a new middle-class base.
That some Labour MPs still want to overturn Brexit and the party has said it will vote down any deal that doesn’t maintain the ‘exact same benefits’ as Single Market membership will make Labour poison in many Leave-voting constituencies. What’s more, Labour’s decision to avoid Brexit by focusing on ‘bread and butter politics’ suggests that working people aren’t interested in big-P politics – issues of freedom, democracy and the future of society.