Two perspectives on Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent visit to Bristol to speak to party members: one from one of the peaceful pro-EU demonstrators outside, the other from inside the room.
Last Friday a group of about 20 of us from Bath for Europe and Bristol for Europe staged a peaceful protest outside a pre-arranged gathering of Labour party members at a social club on the outskirts of Bristol. They had assembled to hear Jeremy Corbyn give a speech to thank the local Labour stalwarts. In the recent General Election Bristol turned all Red; all four seats for Labour. Yet, at 202,000/131,000, Bristol and Bath were about the strongest Remain regions in England outside London (1). We don’t know how much of the Labour vote in this part of the country was to oppose Brexit rather than for Corbynism per se. It would seem that the Labour leadership — with its position of supporting leaving the EU, including the single market – is out of line with local left-leaning opinion. Hence our protest.
We arrived a bit late, with our EU flags, banners and badges, and set up camp just below the front steps. The audience had been told to arrive an hour early and most were already there. We were being watched by a number of party apparatchiks, suited and booted (but no ties), who filmed us on their smart phones and rapidly texted. We waited. Where was Jeremy? It turns out he had sneaked in the back door.
After some passive aggressive exchanges with the apparatchiks who were blocking the fire exit at the back, it is alleged that some pro-EU stickers (wishing a certain misspelled expletive to Brexit) made their way onto Jeremy’s car. I couldn’t possibly comment.
The most value from our presence was undoubtedly after the meeting finished; waving our flags at the exiting cars and talking to those leaving on foot. Toot after toot, raised fist after raised fist, the party members showed solidarity with our position. Brexit is just bonkers. A key for me was the number of people who claimed that “everyone knew” the Labour would eventually oppose Brexit, but that the party was just playing a waiting game. Maybe.
From the outside looking in, I have the sense that the party is divided on Brexit. What I don’t understand is that the threat of Brexit is the biggest crisis facing our county, yet Jeremy Corbyn, who throughout his career has been known for making principled stands, no matter how unpopular, should be so silent.
But there is an opportunity. Jeremy mentioned a new initiative. There is apparently going to be a new Labour manifesto that will be written by the grassroots of the party. Everything is to play for. It is time to influence, to persuade, to encourage Her Majesty’s Opposition to truly oppose. The party conference season is coming up. Britain for Europe is planning peaceful demos at all the major conferences. Then there will be a series of events in all the major cities of the UK, including in Bristol on 14th October. We must keep going. As the Leave negotiations continue to flounder, as the Brexit press get more and more desperate, we must continue to seek to influence and persuade anyone who will listen that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. It must be stopped.
…. and on Friday we were rewarded with yet another sign of hope. When Corbyn finally left, as his car passed the array of EU flags, he gave us a little wave from his back seat. Could he, like the Queen, be secretly with us?
Alan R. Champneys
Notes from inside the meeting
In his speech to Party members, Jeremy Corbyn devoted about the same amount of time to Brexit that he did to education and housing. He made three points.
1) Trade with the EU must remain tariff-free.
2) The benefits of environmental and consumer protection guaranteed by EU membership must be maintained after any Brexit.
3) Full citizenship rights for EU nationals now in the UK must be guaranteed (presumably with reciprocal rights for UK citizens in the EU).
He added that, unlike the government, Labour wanted a close relationship with the EU and, to that end, he and Keir Starmer had visited Brussels and had positive discussions with EU leaders.
What all of this will mean in practice is, of course, anyone’s guess at present. My, otherwise uninformed, guess is that it’s more the case that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit outcomes is muted, rather than ‘silent’. From a Remain perspective, the most optimistic interpretation would be that the Labour leadership envisages having as close a relationship with the EU as possible while officially not being a full member.