Corbyn's EU referendum speech verdict: rambling but also rather special

Corbyn in Coventry

Anyone who watched Jeremy Corbyn’s rambling, and rather second-rate, EU speech will have wondered how he became Labour leader.

However, those present for the subsequent Q&A, which unfortunately was not broadcast live, will have understood why he did, because he began to sound passionate – and rather special.

But let’s start with the speech. If you were expecting a deep, rich argument for remaining in the EU you will have been disappointed. Corbyn provided a range of reasons for voting to remain, but the speech sounded like a list of talking points rather than a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

He certainly did not explain his “personal journey” from voting out in 1975 to voting in now, as we were told he would. And, like a disobedient shopping trolley, he kept veering away from his message to attack the Tories, over tax avoidance, privatisation and the like.

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with a Labour leader attacking the Tories. And he deployed some good, waspish lines: “The Conservatives are loyally committed to protecting one British industry in Europe: the tax avoidance industry.” But it all sounded a bit off-message.

It was also significant that he made little attempt to engage with the arguments made by the leave camp. There was nothing about how long it might take to negotiate a trade deal, or whether the EU would really allow the UK access to the free market without also allowing free movement. These are the kind of points David Cameron makes all the time because he is interested in dismantling the leave case point by point.

On the plus side, it sounded 100% sincere. If anyone was expecting Corbyn to parrot pro-EU homilies that he clearly did not believe, then they will have been disappointed. He did not say anything inauthentic or phoney. Possibly his best moment came when an ITV reporter accused him of being “half-hearted”. He rebutted the claim with the line: “There’s nothing half-hearted about anything I do.” And after that the Q&A got even better.

In his book about the 1988 US presidential election What It Takes – one of the best political books ever written – the late Richard Ben Cramer describes how George Bush was a lacklustre and unfocused candidate, largely because he did not seem to know why he wanted to be president. The turning point came when he was convinced that Michael Dukakis would be a disaster for America; suddenly Bush had a mission.

Corbyn has never been enthusiastic about the EU. But during the Q&A he was stirring and persuasive on issues such as workers’ rights and the migration crisis at an EU level. And when he described what it would be like living in a Tory Britain outside the EU, it felt as if he he might have had his own Bush moment and discovered a reason for engaging in this campaign.

Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave for agency workers, and on maternity pay, as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.

Not only that, it wouldn’t be a Labour government negotiating a better settlement for working people with the EU. It would be a Tory government, quite possibly led by Boris Johnson and backed by Nigel Farage, that would negotiate the worst of all worlds: a free market free-for-all shorn of rights and protections.

More of this, and Corbyn could energise the pro-European Labour vote. But whether we see it or not remains to be seen.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th April 2016 12.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010