For more than two decades, the unresolved question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union has threatened to tear the British Conservative party apart. After all, Europe brought the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron to an unceremonious end.
Yet nine months after the historic decision of UK voters to leave the European Union, it is the Labour party that is reeling: politically divided, intellectually bereft, with little ostensible idea of where to go next. It is an indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal period as leader that Labour has been unable to devise a coherent response to Brexit, other than acceding to the Government’s squalid objective of “immigration controls” over single market access and economic growth.
In truth, however, the Labour party’s difficulties with Europe long predate the Corbyn insurgency. In the late 1980s, Labour made a principled decision to support European integration after several decades of ambivalence and discord. Membership of the European Union would enable the party to fulfil the core rationale of social democracy in a capitalist economy: reconciling economic efficiency with social justice. In a world of growing interdependence, there was little prospect of creating ‘socialism in one country’. Access to the single market meant growth; jobs and higher living standards; it entailed social protection for workers; new employment rights; and a positive role for trade unions. The EU espoused “a market economy, but not a market society”, in the words of the former French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. In short, Europe would allow the Labour party to create a bulwark against the worst of the Thatcherite legacy.
Coming to power in 1997, Tony Blair promised to be the most pro-European Prime Minister in modern British political history. He spoke of a “step-change” in Britain’s relation with the EU; passionate speeches were delivered arguing that the UK’s destiny lay with Europe.
But the Labour Government’s approach was, in practice, far more ambiguous. Ministers signed the social chapter, but rejected proposals to strengthen social rights, initially refusing to enact the information and consultation directive. They wanted the EU to be a dynamic market competing with the rest of the world in an era of globalisation, but were resistant to Europe as a guiding light for solidarity and equality. British Ministers lived in fear of the federalist project to create a United States of Europe (which, in reality, had little support among member states), preferring instead to promote the ‘enlargement’ of the EU’s borders. On Iraq, senior Labour politicians sided with the United States against Berlin and Paris.
They did so for a reason: in their gut, Labour politicians did not believe that many of their party’s voters could be persuaded to support a fundamentally pro-European vision. In particular, they dreaded the political influence of the Eurosceptic Murdoch press over the skilled working class electors who flocked to New Labour in 1997. During that election campaign, Blair wrote an article for The Sun newspaper entitled “Why I love the pound”. Ministers were happy to extol the EU’s virtues when making visits to other European capitals, but much more cautious about making the case for Europe in Britain. In a decisive intervention, the former Prime Minister recently called upon the citizens of the UK to “rise up” against Brexit, but as he himself admitted, such idealism is easier when you are no longer competing for office.
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Labour is paying the price for its decades-long reticence on the European question. The party palpably lacks confidence in its own core political convictions. Instead of viewing the centre of gravity in public opinion as something to be constructively shaped, Labour politicians have behaved as if people’s views were immutable: Labour governments could be pro-European only by stealth. There has been precious little effort to take the debate about Europe beyond the economic and political elites in London. Today, the Labour frontbench use working-class ‘revolt’ against globalisation and mass migration as an excuse to troop through the division lobbies of the House of Commons with the Conservatives. What precisely membership of the EU has to do with falling wages and the growth of precarious employment has never been explained; the strategy hardly succeeded on the doorsteps in Copeland and Stoke where Labour’s share of the vote fell, as it has in every by-election since the 2016 referendum.
It is convenient to load the blame for Labour’s Brexit woes onto the demonstrably ailing leadership of Corbyn. In truth, Europe has been a collective failure of leadership in the Labour party over several decades. As of today, there is a significant section of British public opinion which is unconvinced as to the plausibility of the May Government’s hard Brexit project. Yet the political scientist John Curtice finds Labour rapidly losing support among this constituency. These voters want the principled case for British participation in Europe to be made on the basis that only through EU membership can we solve the problems of deindustrialisation, regional inequality, environmental degradation, uncontrolled migration, while containing the unilateralism of the United States in foreign policy (an even greater priority in the Trump era). If Labour cannot offer real political leadership on Europe, it will find that very soon, the party is consigned to permanent political irrelevance.
Patrick Diamond is Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and Chair of the Policy Network think-tank. He is a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.