The Corbyn Case
It is sometimes amusing mental exercise to try to gauge the levels of intelligent argument and of principled conduct in the political class that governs the country where you live, whether that class has one member or hundreds. (Any claim that the class could number thousands or even in fantastically implausible cases the whole adult population should be put back into the proper obscurity that is found between the covers of textbooks on democracy.) Warning: this form of exercise can be interesting but may leave you with a bad case of depression.
As I write calls continue for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader of the British Labour Party. The callers accuse him of ‘weak leadership’. The calls are broadly justified but in a way almost diametrically opposite to that alleged by the callers. It is said that Corbyn should have engaged more vigorously on behalf of the campaign calling for Britain to leave the EU; had he done so, it is said, Labour Party supporters might have voted in sufficient numbers to keep Britain in the EU.
The idea that a party leader should have energised his followers to vote to stay in can only be coherently held (if at all) by people who themselves were (and in the nature of the case probably still are) committed partisans of remaining in the EU This is coherently possible for those who believe that the side they favour is right even when this conflicts with democratic principles. However, many in the Labour Party believe themselves to be staunch supporters of democracy. A principle of democracy agreed very widely (but perhaps not in the Labour Party) is to accept the result of a popular vote even when it conflicts with one’s own preferences. A referendum won by more than 1,250,000 is by democratic principle the right result. In such circumstances, the question of whether a different electoral turn-out would have produced a different result is, in constitutional terms, irrelevant.
Leaving questions of principle aside, the complaint about Corbyn’s campaigning rests on an assumption that if more Labour supporters had turned out, then the proportion of the vote in favour of remaining in the EU would have been higher. But there is evidence in bucketfuls that the mass of Labour voters (who on the whole have a tendency not to live in affluent circumstances, or enjoy incomes, opportunities, and dinner table conversations such as those enjoyed by Members of Parliament and other inhabitants of London) by a large margin wanted Britain out of the EU. Consequently more Labour voters would have meant an even bigger majority in favour of leaving. (Naturally this would have left committed ‘remainers’ even more furious and convinced, on the basis of the information acquired at those dinner table conversations, that the result reached had been ‘wrong’, and consequently even more eager to find some way to reverse the decision.)
Corbyn allowed himself to be persuaded, by partisans of ‘in’ who in all likelihood believed genuinely that their side would win and that Labour would be damaged by association with a losing cause, to support the ‘remain’ campaign, even though this was contrary to the views of most of his Labour supporters and probably against his own inclinations. Thus his mistake was precisely to go out and speak on behalf of the campaign to keep Britain in Europe.
[A footnote: the petition calling for a second referendum to decide whether or not to accept the result of the first referendum was discovered to have signatures of, among others, 39,000 inhabitants of a non-British microstate which in fact has a population of 800.]