Whenever I think about a British Labour party leader, Harry Perkins peeps into my mind. Perkins was the protagonist in the 1982 novel ‘A Very British Coup’, written by Labour backbench MP Chris Mullin. In 1988, it was adapted to a three-part drama on Channel 4.
The book was written in the backdrop of the early eighties when Tony Benn looked forward to becoming deputy leader of the Labour Party, and Labour was strongly challenging Mrs. Thatcher’s government. Harry Perkins hailed from a true Labour background – he was a former steelworker from Sheffield. In the story, Perkins was a strong left-wing leader, who became the Prime Minister of the UK in 1991 beating all odds. That is the post-Margaret Thatcher era, a period full of political turmoil. In Chris Mullin’s book, Perkins prioritised dismantling of media monopolies; he wanted Britain to withdraw from NATO and planned to carry out unilateral nuclear disarmament.
While Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour leader in 2019, the UK is facing unprecedented social, economic and political turmoil. Certainly, there couldn’t be a more challenging and opportunistic period for Corbyn to exhibit his leadership. Undoubtedly London Bridge is delicately balanced between a soft and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Will it fall down? Theresa May is clearly in a mess, more than ever before. However, Corbyn wrote an open letter to Theresa May saying he would take no part in discussions until she rules out a no-deal Brexit. May is right in saying it is impossible for her government to take no-deal off the table. She, however, needs support from all, even from the opposition. A section of the Labour also criticised Corbyn’s decision – Mike Gapes, a Labour MP, said: “Apparently Corbyn is prepared to hold talks with Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad and Iran without preconditions. But not with the UK prime minister.” When Theresa May was ready with her Withdrawal Agreement to take before the House of Commons again in end- January, Corbyn demanded parliamentary time to debate and vote on options to avoid a “no deal” Brexit.
It’s certainly not quite an easy call for Jeremy Corbyn to ask for a second referendum though. Up to a dozen of the Labour frontbench MPs might resign if the party backs a second referendum as a way out of the Brexit crisis.
Corbyn himself could not take a decisive stand about EU and failed to exhibit his leadership in the unprecedented crisis of the country. Corbyn’s strategy is more like appeasing both ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’, and this might backfire at some stage.
It is well-known that Corbyn opposed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1975 referendum. In 1993, Corbyn also opposed the ratification of the Maastricht treaty to establish a European Central Bank. He opposed the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and backed a proposal of EU referendum for possible withdrawal of Britain in 2011. Overall Corbyn is known to have been a Eurosceptic over the years. He changed his tune a bit in late 2015, but still attacked the Remain campaign in the weeks before the Brexit vote of June 2016.
Corbyn’s stance was “for ‘Remain and Reform’ in Europe” as he was not satisfied with the European Union as it is. Thus, there is no surprise that Corbyn was accused of ‘lukewarm’ campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, and his ‘lack of leadership’ on this issue was even questioned by his party members.
However, Brexit was indeed a rare opportunity for an opposition party to take a decisive role in the lives of people, especially from a strong opposition like Labour in present-day UK. But, Corbyn possibly misused that. Or, is he just in the mood of enjoying the advantage of the Brexit storm as the opposition leader?
Brexit is now proved to be a politically dangerous game. David Cameron’s resignation and Theresa May’s sudden elevation to the top position of UK politics were attributed to Brexit. And May remained very loyal to her comments and commitments: “Brexit means Brexit.”
March 29 is approaching fast. Soon British lawmakers will be left with only two choices – no deal versus May’s deal. And, everybody knows that any deal is better than no deal. So, Theresa May might just enjoy such inconclusive debates over her Brexit deal to pass the remaining two months. And the lost time at this stage will be too costly for Britons.
Can 2019 become Corbyn’s year in any case? If, under severe pressure, another Brexit referendum takes place, that would certainly be the end-point of May’s political career. If that is avoided, Britain will formally leave Europe. May’s leadership will not be challenged before December within her own party. And, even if May’s deal is not supported by DUP and the Eurosceptic Tory MPs, she might survive few more no-confidence votes. And a general election might not take place very soon.
Although the Labour Party formally supported remaining in the EU, it refused to work with the official, Conservative-led remain campaign, and Corbyn was notably absent from the campaign trail. Once ‘Leave’ won in the referendum, Corbyn wanted to prove that he is a hard Brexiter, he went on pushing May to trigger Article 50, starting the two-year negotiating clock.
For the time being, Corbyn is apparently in a safe position. He’d continue to get benefit from the antiincumbency against May’s government. However, Corbyn is failing to lead the country in a conclusive direction, and to achieve a glorious feat in history – a glory which could be much more elusive than being a prime minister. A Very British Coup will remain unachieved as Corbyn seems no Harry Perkins.
For decades, Corbyn has been the most rebellious Labour MP; he defied hundreds of party whips. But Corbyn is certainly not as much of a leftist as Perkins in Mullin’s novel was. Harry Perkins was cunning, ruthless and capable of fighting dirty, and was a believer in full accountability. Take an example. Perkins is travelling by train, and he was asked if he’d abolish first class. “No, I’ll abolish second class,” he said, “I think all people are first class, don’t you?” So, Perkins had less ambiguity, at least.
Corbyn’s refusal to meet May shows that he prefers to remain a bystander at this critical juncture of the nation when the role of the opposition is more important than ever. If Labour under Corbyn refuses to be engaged in finding a solution, history will remember Corbyn as an uncompromising man who refused to see reality, confused and perhaps an escapist too.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)