Does Labour want to leave the Single Market? Maybes aye, maybes naw, as we used to say in North Britain. Corbyn isn’t saying. It might be one of the biggest questions of public policy of this decade, but the man who now has at least a non-trivial chance of being PM one day isn’t saying where he stands on it.
This matters. Of course, we think we know what he intends on the single market. We think he is hostile to it and regards it as a wicked capitalist plot. We think he also inclines towards leaving because he wants to keep inside the remaining chunk of the old Labour working-class vote that is persuaded by the Ukip argument that the single market means free movement which means immigrants.
But we don’t know because Corbyn isn’t saying. And the rules of this game – politics and journalism – dictate that we have to judge people on what they say not what we think they would say if they were willing to talk. So in the absence of clarity we have a sort of Schrödinger’s policy: Labour’s commitment to the European Union might be dead and it might be alive, so in a quantum sense, it is both, and neither.
At a short-term tactical level, the Corbyn ambiguity is perfectly astute. After all, he owes that 40 per cent vote share to a lot of degree-educated urban liberal pro Europeans who would not want Britain to leave the single market and might one day start to wonder why they cast their vote for a man who wants that very thing. It’s understandable that he wants to keep quiet in the hope of keeping his electoral coalition together a little while longer – even if this means the sort of triangulating cynicism that he and his friends always decried when Tony Blair did it.
But that’s the short term. The absence of a Labour position on the single market surely cannot be sustained in the long run. Surely, sooner or later, the official opposition will have to make its view clear. Won’t it?
Perhaps not. That is what a conventional understanding of politics dictates: eventually anyone leading a big party has to answer a question like this clearly. But let’s consider the alternatives, since in many ways we live these days in an alternative political universe. Maybe it doesn’t matter that Mr Corbyn can’t or won’t answer this question. Maybe his supporters don’t care. Maybe the absence of a clear position on the single market is a stroke of post modern genius that allows Labour supporters to construct whatever policy they wish in the space where Mr Corbyn’s clarity should be.
It is, as the current experience of American politics shows, now perfectly possible for large numbers of voters to continue to support their chosen leader utterly regardless of anything as inconvenient as actual facts about that leader and his positions.
To be fair to Mr Corbyn’s devotees, most have not yet reached Trump-level resistance to conventional reality. But there is something Trump-like about the willingness of many Labour supporters to insist that a man committed to large middle-class subsidies (scrapping University tuition fees , continued universal welfare for wealthy pensioners) is in fact a champion of progressive politics and policy.
So maybe it doesn’t matter that Mr Corbyn won’t tell us what he would do about the single market. Maybe the coalition of voters he has somehow assembled will remain intact while his fans wilfully ignore old-fashioned things like facts. If so, then Jeremy Corbyn really is the start of a very new sort of politics.