Will Labour Listen To Its Eurosceptic Voters?

By putting the left-wing case for Brexit, the party can lift a referendum debate so far dominated by Etonian egos and Little Englanders

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Jeremy Corbyn at a CND rally in February: The Labour leader’s near-silence on the question of EU membership is a dereliction of duty (CC BY-SA 2.0)

George Orwell considered the English left-wing intelligentsia to be in both thought and taste fully Europeanised. “They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow,” he mused, recognising the way that they sought cultural refuge on the continent to elevate themselves above the parochialism and introspectiveness of an island mentality. “It is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” Writing at a time of war, Orwell wondered whether it was possible for “patriotism and intelligence” to “come together”. As Britain heads towards the European referendum, it is worth posing that question again now in order to consider whether an intelligent and mainstream left-wing Euroscepticism can rescue the debate from the grip of Tory factionalism.

If one briefly considers what the EU has become, it is clear that the left-wing case for leaving Europe is much more compelling than any argument from the Right. Even the most assertive left-wing pro-Europeans struggle to defend the EU’s current lack of democratic accountability, the tight grip of the Troika, and its botched and inhumane handling of the migrant crisis. There are a few outers on the Left raising their voice but with only seven out of 230 Labour MPs declared in favour of Brexit and the Eurosceptic party leader muzzled, there is little hope that a robust campaign can be mounted.

Euroscepticism runs as deep on the Left as it does on the Right; indeed, Europe has always been a source of division for Labour as much as the Tories. Clement Attlee was as wary of the growing Franco-German trading partnership as any union leader. Harold Wilson, like David Cameron today, hoped that a plebiscite would generate the right result to heal divisions within his party. He secured victory but not unity. Within six years, the key Europhiles had left to establish the SDP, while the Eurosceptic Michael Foot led the Labour party into the 1983 election with a “suicidal” manifesto, including an outdated and hopeless-seeming Brexit pledge.

It seems obvious, but perhaps necessary, to say that as the aims and ethos of the European project have changed, so have the political parties’ enthusiasms for it. Both sides have, in the last 40 years, veered from viewing Europe as the route or obstruction to their domestic political goals. During this referendum campaign we are led to believe that MPs, free from the party whip, are speaking from a point of unadulterated conviction. But now, as before, political expediency reigns. Europe has always given rise to the lowest form of opportunism and grandstanding among Britain’s ruling class, particularly in the last decade when it has become conflated with Britain’s age-old obsession with immigration. If there has been one consistency in our relationship with Europe, it has been the level of inconsistency by political parties on the matter. To this end, it is worth considering that Boris Johnson’s flip-flop is nowhere near as dramatic as Margaret Thatcher’s or Neil Kinnock’s U-turns on Europe.

It is entirely understandable that as the European vision became more progressive the Labour party came to embrace it. Jacques Delors’ speech to the TUC conference in 1988 was a turning point, not because the unions saw the EU as a way of halting Thatcherism or as a vehicle of pan-European socialism but rather its potential as a European-wide corporatism to cope with the forces of globalisation. Thatcher’s policy had been to allow unprofitable nationalised industries to fail, and through legislation to undermine the unions’ ability to fight back. Delors’ EU alternative was a place where unions and employers would work collectively to create conditions for European labour and capital to thrive in the world’s markets. He also promised to alleviate the impact of deindustrialisation through the restructuring of urban and rural regions and tackling long-term and youth unemployment. After the battles and defeats of the Thatcher years, it is little wonder that the union leaders salivated at the thought of beer and sandwiches in Brussels.

Delors, though, said little about how his plan compromised state sovereignty and democracy. This was a theme Margaret Thatcher was determined to address weeks later in a speech at Bruges on Belgian soil. She appeared to wake up to the fact that signing the Single European Act two years earlier had not been an unmixed blessing, and delivered the killer line which sent every hot-headed small-state Conservative into a frenzy: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level.” By the mid-1990s, the transformation was complete. Labour had acquired its most pro-European leader in history, Tony Blair, while its Eurosceptic former leader Neil Kinnock settled into life in Brussels as a European Commissioner. Meanwhile William Hague took up the cross of the Tory Maastricht martyrs and allowed the issue of Britain’s membership of the euro to define his leadership. The party battle lines of the European debate were drawn for the next decade.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, international socialism in Britain seamlessly morphed into a rather bland form of Euro-internationalism. Blair’s pledge to put Britain “at the heart of Europe” was essentially borrowed from the SDP and inspired by his mentor Roy Jenkins. Under New Labour, EU membership was sold as Britain’s modern destiny. We were to be part of a club that was prosperous and progressive and enabled us finally to shed our imperial baggage and silence our “two World Wars, one World Cup” bravado. A few scrapes put a dent in this vision — notably Gordon Brown’s block on joining the euro and Blair’s foreign wars — but to this day this consensus remains remarkably intact within the party, despite it being out of date and out of touch with a significant proportion of Labour voters who oppse mass EU immigration. It was only with Brown’s infamous encounter with that “bigoted woman” Gillian Duffy that some began to realise that Labour’s core supporters were not quite as enthusiastic about the EU as party insiders. But they failed to address it, allowing UKIP to capitalise five years later. 

It is undeniable that a faltering Europe causes an identity problem for Labour in a way that it does not for the Conservatives. Nor can this problem simply be resolved by inserting the word “reformed” before the EU. In the current crisis, Labour’s blind attachment to Europe seems like a house built on sand. There are few pro-Europeans who now positively cite the EU as a bastion of modernity or a progressive response to globalisation. As the migrants push the notion of a borderless continent to the brink, the member states retreat back into their default nationalist mentality.

Left-wing Eurosceptic stalwarts Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart are leading the campaign for Leave although much of their energy has been channelled into airing their frustrations with the party. “Why are we storming the barricades to be on the side of the FTSE 100?” Stuart has legitimately asked, concluding that Labour has “mislaid its radical roots”. It is outside parliament that the loudest left-wing anti-EU voices can be heard. The Guardian’s editorial position may be to Remain but its commentators do not seem to be toeing the line, with Giles Fraser, Suzanne Moore, George Monbiot and even Owen Jones all at least flirting with Brexit. Theirs is a reluctant position born not out of a long-held suspicion of the EU or even domestic concerns, but events in southern Europe.

Appalled by the eurozone budgets concocted by unelected officials and imposed on a democracy like Greece, they are beginning to talk of the EU as a capitalist conspiracy that aids and assists the banking system and promotes policies that protect and promote international trade and finance at the cost of democracy. While the Right targets the bureaucrats in Brussels, the Left prefers to man-mark the bankers in Frankfurt. Those that demonstrate solidarity with Syriza and Popular Unity in Greece and Podemos in Spain, do so as if they were colonial liberation movements with Germany as the heavy-handed imperial force.

Tony Benn once dubbed EU treaties as a “cast-iron manifesto for capitalism” in the way that they had generated the perfect conditions for free movement of trade, capital, goods, services and people. Back in 1975, Benn was dubbed the “minister of fear” for his apocalyptic predictions that continual EEC membership would mean rising food prices and loss of trade and jobs. Seventies Euroscepticism was essentially a retreat into protectionist socialism. Likewise, today there are those that argue that leaving the EU is the only way to save Britain from corporatist Europe. An EU which has made it illegal to expand state ownership of business and is rushing through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is not a mechanism through which the socialist utopia can be realised.

One man who until recently took this view is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader once said that the project “has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy”. (You will not be able to read his full analysis as his aides have conveniently deleted all Corbyn’s anti-EU speeches from his website.)

For all his supposed authenticity and principles, Corbyn has turned out to be like any other politician in bowing to the combined pressure of his pro-European parliamentary party and his support base, Momentum. Pushed into reluctantly supporting the Remain campaign, Corbyn’s tactic has been to avoid speaking about the issue. On the occasions he does, he is about as convincing as Donald Trump speaking about Christianity.For him to remain on the sidelines in Britain’s first referendum on EU membership in over 40 years is a total abdication of responsibility. Labour MPs on both sides rightly despair when they see Corbyn speaking at a CND rally rather than campaigning on the referendum. But then the EU is not a cause on which Corbyn is prepared to risk his political life, while CND is something he has been campaigning for since he was 16. With 38 per cent of Labour voters likely to vote to leave and many undecided, the referendum is the one political outcome in this parliament that Corbyn could possibly influence (whereas the renewal of Trident is not). Politicians choose their fights carefully; perhaps it is the romantic in Corbyn which makes him favour battles he is certain to lose.

It is a truism that the British working class, in many respects, has not done very well out of globalisation or the protective belt that the EU is supposed to provide; their jobs have either been transported elsewhere or their wages suppressed by immigration. As RMT leader and virulent Eurosceptic the late Bob Crow once put it, “Social EU legislation has not saved one job.” Last month the former M&S boss and head of the Remain campaign Sir Stuart Rose admitted that rising immigration suppressed wages (he added that this was not necessarily a bad thing). Some believe the referendum will hinge on immigration, but that is a misnomer for what must also be recognised as a wider debate about cheap labour. If the unions have been silent on immigration, this is more a reflection of their weakness than their cultural openness. If the Labour party has been ineffective in addressing concerns about immigration it is because it has tended to approach it as an issue of race relations rather than what it actually was: industrial relations.

The EU reveals, more than any other issue, what Orwell recognised as the central tension between the left-wing establishment and what were in his day the cloth-cap constituencies on which Labour relied (and is supposedly still there to represent). Left-wing Euroscepticism (or at least a genuine reassessment of its stagnant position on Europe) is one way that the party might regain some relevance among its core constituency and claw back some of the votes it lost to UKIP at the last election. Either way, it would be foolhardy as well as irresponsible for the Left to allow the referendum campaign to be dominated by Etonian egos and Little Englanders whistling “Rule Britannia”.