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With less than two weeks to Britain’s EU referendum, the campaign for the UK to remain in the bloc is by no means assured of victory. The pro-Europeans are under pressure on many fronts, not least thanks to the ruthless tenacity with which the Leave camp is making its case. One factor, however, seems increasingly to be hobbling the anti-Brexiters: the failure of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party’s leader, to rally behind their cause.
There has been much attention in recent weeks on the “blue on blue” attacks involving Conservative MPs on either side of the debate. But the muddle inside Labour, which was supported by 9m people at last year’s general election, is no less significant. If Remain is to win on June 23, Labour needs to persuade many of these voters to back the pro-EU case. Yet opinion polls show that as many as half of the party’s supporters do not realise it backs Britain staying in the bloc.
Mr Corbyn is largely to blame for this absence of clarity. The vast majority of Labour MPs are firmly pro-European, as are most of the trade unions. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, has been an impressive advocate for Remain, arguing in a video watched by 2m people that Britain should be leading in Europe, not leaving it.
Mr Corbyn, however, is a reluctant convert to the cause. A longstanding member of the traditional Eurosceptic left, he voted against Britain’s membership of the European Community in the 1975 referendum. He would probably be advocating the same today if his party’s MPs had allowed him to do so.
The Labour leader has never overcome his deep inner conviction that the EU is a capitalist club. Nor can he resist the temptation to take partisan swipes at his own side in the campaign, claiming, for example that Treasury forecasts about the dire consequences of Brexit were “histrionic”. His speeches in favour of Britain staying in the bloc have been rare and halfhearted. Whenever he makes them, he comes across as a hostage reluctantly reading out a statement drafted by his captors.
In the final days of campaigning, Mr Corbyn and his allies should put an end to this confusion and recognise what is at stake for their own supporters as well as the country. If Britain leaves the EU, it will almost certainly leave the single market, a move that would likely take the country into recession. That would have a disproportionate impact on Labour-supporting communities, which are more prone to rises in unemployment during a downturn.
Britain’s departure would also threaten some of the protections for working people that come from Brussels, such as the working time directive and the rights for agency workers. This would run against much of what the party has historically stood for.
Some Labour supporters are tempted to believe that a victory for the Leave camp will work to their advantage because the Conservatives will be split asunder, throwing British politics wide open. But the stakes in this referendum are no less high for Labour. The party has long struggled to win back the support of white working class families who are increasingly drawn to the UK Independence party in many parts of England. A vote to leave the EU would confirm that the left cannot halt this drift towards the populist right.
The June 23 referendum has immense ramifications for the country’s future and implications that transcend normal politics. Even so, Mr Corbyn should be under no illusion over what the outcome means for Labour. If it cannot win the argument against Ukip in large parts of England, its future as one of Britain’s two main parties will be in doubt.