I admit it: I didn’t spot what Jeremy Corbyn said on the morning of Friday 24 June.
I found out only later, at a packed meeting with Keir Starmer, our member of parliament, who told his local members what aroused his concerns. Corbyn’s call that morning for Article 50 to be activated immediately suggested he had not grasped the magnitude of the moment, nor the implications of what he was saying. The only other leader who spoke in similar terms was Nigel Farage, who said activation should happen ‘as soon as humanly possible’. Such similar tones are perhaps what lay behind a Labour source’s comment that the leader’s ‘views were in tune with the people.’
Back in the room I was taken aback, as were many others. A clear relationship was drawn, in metaphorical big black marker pen, between this terrible misstep and Corbyn’s competence as leader. Many party members, including those who consider themselves ‘on the left’ and who had plugged away week in, week out for Europe, made clear the deep disappointment they felt in the man they had voted for just nine months earlier. There was not much disguising this, and a vote of confidence moved that evening was soundly defeated.
Corbyn’s retraction of such an important statement on Newsnight last night hardly reassures.
This last week, speaking to local members and to people who work in the ward where I am a councillor while campaigning for Saving Labour, I met many people both passionately for and against Corbyn’s leadership. But the truth is that even his more fervent supporters revealed real queasiness at his behaviour during the Europe referendum. And those who have already turned against him are simply incandescent.
The questions facing the country will define the rest of our lives, and shape the rest of the century and longer. So we cannot afford to have the prime minister alone leading this. The leader of the opposition stands at the head of nine million people and more, and can be – should be – the vocalisation of tolerance, openness and internationalism. Theresa May and three-headed hydra of Boris, Liam and David cannot be allowed to run rampant, cutting us off from our neighbours and impoverishing us all.
Owen Smith has made a start with the suggestion of a second referendum. But a plea to MPs and all involved in the leadership contest: it may not feel like it, but this is not about Owen v Jeremy. Over the last three weeks there has been too much MP-on-MP chat and intrigue, all very fascinating for those in the thick of it. But if it becomes about one personality over another, Owen may lose.
Instead, lift your eyes. This must be about a European future v wandering in the wilderness. Only Europe unites Labour, and about Europe this must be. Answering this question in this summer’s leadership contest may start to answer it for the country.
Show that you can sport the mantle of leadership, and one day the people may bestow it on you.
Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress and a councillor in the London borough of Camden. He tweets @AdamDKHarrison
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