Labour’s pragmatism (or waffle/procrastination) over Brexit, argues writer Nick Cohen, is both psephologically illiterate and ideologically motivated. Of course trying to bridge different interests has a very long tradition in the party. A compromise among Labour’s class and ideological broad church brought majority Labour governments for at least some of the period from 1945-2010. On Europe, Labour has never been enthusiastic, preferring to try on this, as on many other major issues, to manage (or obfuscate) the deep divisions within its electoral and parliamentary coalition.
Gaitskell feigned ‘little Englander’ anger at a prospective ‘end of a thousand years of history,’ while Wilson only tentatively sought to get beyond De Gaulle’s ‘Non’ in response to Macmillan's speculative application. It was Tory PM Heath who forced through the UK’s membership of the then Common Market (with the backing of some dissident Labour MPs) in an exercise in executive chutzpah. Three years later Wilson foreshadowed Cameron by putting political convenience before national interest and held the UK’s first referendum on whether to leave the European project. In the 1950s and early 1960s Jim Callaghan had reflected the Labourite conservatism of the Party’s trade union base in being instinctively unenthusiastic about the Common Market. However, as foreign secretary and then Prime Minister in the 1970s, Callaghan understood that as a middle-ranking post-imperial power, the UK was either in the club or it was irrelevant.
Labour leader Michael Foot had to swallow many of the ideological stances of a hard left that - as a parliamentary socialist, intellect and pragmatist - he usually had little time for. However Foot tried his best to manage the then intra-party coalition that was rupturing over Europe – and over much else. Kinnock and Smith took Labour back to its broad church position on Europe, defence, and the economy. Blair in turn maintained that traditional Labour pragmatism on Europe. However the desperation of party that, in Austin Mitchell’s famous words, was ‘prepared to eat shit to get a Labour government,’ meant that Blair and Brown could get away with upholding the neo-liberal abdication of national interest they inherited from Margaret Thatcher, even if much of the country baulked at their unprecedentedly supine and ill-considered Iraq policy. Blair was arguably an outlier in Labour’s tradition, although on much social and welfare policy, and on Europe, he was pragmatic.
Corbyn though is the first ever Labour leader who's not a genuine managerial pragmatist. He’s also the first Labour leader since George Lansbury to have little interest in leading. Corbyn is rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s hard left Labour ‘activist’ myopia that favoured ideological correctness over class compromise. Back in the day, a half-baked perversion of cod Marxist theory led the polytechnocrats and bourgeois militants of the Bennite left to believe that, from the ashes of the dialectical clash of the differing class interests that have characterised the Party from birth to government, a truly socialist (ruling) class could emerge to finally deliver socialism.
The spectacle of a Labour Party, a Labour Party, run by middle class activists purporting, Leninist-style, to lead the proletariat into the light, didn’t convince many of the working class, then or now. Nor did it attract many of the middle class: the support of sufficient white-collar workers has always been a necessary and important part of Labour’s coalition.
Today, the ideological heirs of Labour’s early 1980s deviation into political irrelevance are prioritising their own version of the party’s historic pragmatic alliance. In their case however it’s a very unholy union of bourgeois leftist disdain for a ‘capitalist club’ (the EU) with the appeasement of Labour’s disappearing white working class voting base who are angry over immigration and the loss of national sovereignty.
Labour might now decide that the middle class electoral swing to the pro-EU Lib-Dem centre (and the Green left) is so out-stripping the loss of (white) working class Labour voters to the Brexit Party, that it can no longer maintain the party’s historic fudge on Europe. However a firm Labour embrace of another referendum – because Tories aren’t going to vote for an early electoral Christmas, to paraphrase aspirant Labour Party leader McDonnell – could mean JC jettisoning his misguided version of Labour class pragmatism in favour of a stance that hardly convinces anybody.
Corbyn cannot seek to persuade 'decent moderate Tories' (to paraphrase Baroness Chakrabarti on the ‘Marr’ show) to back another national referendum if he doesn’t make clear how he wants actual or prospective Labour voters to vote. Likewise, he cannot present himself as the nation’s prospective PM in the event of a short-notice general election if he can’t say whether he wants Britain to be in or out of the EU. So, unless Corbyn intends to approach the next fork in the road with the response he’s maintained ever since the last EU referendum, he will be forced to break the Party’s historic class coalition and to prioritise the winning back of liberal middle class voters. However unless they are convinced by Corbyn's 11th hour decisiveness, then Labour might have kissed goodbye to the white working class and to the prospect of ever returning to power.