It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13. Jeremy Corbyn, his chin nuzzled into his chest, stood up to speak at Senate House in central London. “This building was the model for George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth,” he began. “We shall see.”
You can’t accuse the Labour leader of being afraid to make himself a hostage to fortune. For most of his political career, Corbyn has been a fierce critic of the EU and his late conversion to the cause has left many people a tad suspicious about his motives. It wasn’t as if he had been in any hurry to proclaim his EU love; while David Cameron had been up and down the country trying to persuade people to vote to remain, Corbyn had been entirely silent. The hunt was on for any signs of doublespeak.
“Labour is overwhelmingly for staying in,” he said. “Labour is convinced it is better to reform the EU from within.” But was he? Corbyn wasn’t really letting on. We had been promised the full-on, emotional “my EU hell” journey, but Corbyn said little other than the catch-all, rock’n’roll “We’ve had our differences but we’re still playing together” disclaimer and pointing out that the cold war had ended since he voted against the EU in the 1975 referendum. The more recent cold war within the Labour party over Europe was studiously ignored.
For much of the early part of his speech, Corbyn barely bothered to engage with his audience of Labour activists or even himself. His words fell off his tongue in a steady deadpan, almost as if he were engaged in an existential act of alienation. As a rallying call for the remain camp it was not so much “project fear” as “project apathy”. The EU was basically a bit rubbish, but being in it was a bit less rubbish than not being in it.
A note saying “show some passion” flashed up on the autocue. Corbyn duly obliged by doing what he does best – attacking the Tories. It was David Cameron who had been responsible for blocking EU trade tariffs to prevent the Chinese from dumping steel. It was Cameron who had turned the UK into a tax avoidance industry. It was Cameron who was personally responsible for ensuring that 500,000 people would die from air pollution by 2025.
This was more like it. This was what the audience had come for. Corbyn went for the kill. “It is Labour who would be behind the Forth Road package,” he said. No one had a clue what the Forth Road package was, but it sounded like a good thing. Stuff the EU, stuff dismantling the Brexit case, sticking it to the Conservatives was what really counted.
“That was all a bit half-hearted,” observed one journalist in the Q&A that followed. “Nothing I’ve ever done has been half-hearted,” Corbyn said, rather half-heartedly. Get me out of here. Now. “So why has it taken you so long to make a speech in support of the EU?” the journalist asked. Corbyn’s supporters rallied round their man and booed. “I’ve been making lots of speeches,” he said defensively. Just not about Europe.
Just as it looked as if the meeting was going to peter out, Corbyn found his reason to believe. He may have initially agreed to support the EU only as a gesture of party solidarity, but he had finally managed to come up with an argument with which he could wholeheartedly agree. The problem wasn’t migration, it was low pay and the erosion of EU employment legislation. Leaving the EU would start a bonfire of workers’ rights presided over by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. There was no contradiction after all between quite liking the EU and wanting the Conservatives out. Corbyn had finally come round to his audience’s way of thinking. Near enough.
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