Laura Parker looks at the history of Britain’s chequered relationship with Europe and says remain and reform must be at the heart of Labour’s manifesto offer
Since joining what was then the EEC in 1973, the UK, including British Labour, has been very ambivalent towards ‘Europe’. This stems from a profound historical reason, namely that the EU was not ‘our’ creation. It is seen as an expansion of the Napoleonic administrative structures which are different from the British. There is an apocryphal quote from a senior diplomat at the time of the establishment of the first pan-European structures in the 1950s that a European Union is a terrible idea, that it won’t get anywhere and if it did, it would not last…
The formative period of the Common Market and what has since become the EU coincided with British decolonisation. British governments had that in their focus rather than Europe. But despite that focus for the left, the world continued to turn and we have needed to update our position. Through engagement with the EU we can take the massive opportunities to tackle tax evasion and transnational corporate power. We can only really be effective against the Googles and Facebooks of the world with taxation at multi-national levels. Similarly with the climate emergency: action is needed at a pan-European and global level. Attempting to deal with a crisis of this magnitude at the level of the nation state simply makes no sense.
The downside of the EU is that we have seen the dominance of neoliberalism, enshrined in the Maastricht Euro criteria. But these are the creation of the Member States and a reflection of the politics of the individual Member States – not an inherent inevitability.
There are those who say we can’t implement a socialist programme because of the Maastricht Treaty. This is not the case. There are of course areas where reform is needed. But to take one frequently cited example, of public ownership: look at the state-owned rail across numerous European states. National ownership can happen and it does.
Other Lexit arguments are disingenuous. The idea some people propose, that out of the ashes of the UK’s exit from the European Union, socialism will arise phoenix-like, is clearly unrealistic in almost any circumstances – and impossible to imagine if our exit from the EU is under the management of a Johnson-led reactionary Tory government, as appears may still be the case at the time of writing.
On immigration we have got to be more honest with people about what is really going on. I’m pleased that at this year’s Labour Party Conference a far more progressive policy motion was passed, including a commitment to freedom of movement.
The 2016 Referendum vote was in many ways a result of a lack of empowerment, the consequences of Thatcherite deindustrialisation devastating working class areas, and globalisation which has left many communities impoverished and feeling neglected.
The Corbyn project must find a way of dealing with these beliefs and connecting to these people.
To win a general election we have to have and clearly present a positive vision of a radically transformed society – in which power as well as wealth are distributed. In the policy agenda which he has been fleshing out since the 2017 general election, we can see the scale of ambition of John McDonnell in this regard: plans for massive regional investment; the promotion of in-sourcing for local government, helping to regenerate local communities whilst putting an end to the profit before people philosophy of private outsourcers; a clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance and more.
If we can get our messages out there, we can win.
The big problem is that between us and the people is a media and establishment which we have to take on.
In terms of Europe, we need a commitment to remain, reform and transform in our manifesto. Obviously, this is a debate which will continue within the Party: Conference was clear that Labour is now fully committed to a public vote, a second referendum, as the only way to resolve the Brexit crisis, but no decision has yet been made about the position Labour would take in that second referendum.
What is abundantly clear, and we should be saying more frequently and loudly, is that under the Tories we have had three totally wasted years. Had Jeremy Corbyn been Prime Minister after Brexit, he would have gone to the EU with a clear position, with already well established relationships with European leaders, and with Keir Starmer, who knows what he is doing. Instead we have had high-handed arrogance from our Prime Ministers and a series of utterly incompetent Tory Brexit secretaries who have had no idea what they want or how to negotiate.
Our ‘divorce’ from the EU is inevitably a hugely complex process. As the fifth-biggest economy in the world, obviously the process of disentangling the UK from the EU is going to be very complicated. The UK economy is massively intertwined with that of Europe. No one explained this properly in 2016. People adopted ideological positions quite without reference to any practical considerations.
Now we need a radically different approach from 2016 if there is another referendum. We can’t have ‘Remain HQ’ in central London, stuffed with white middle class men churning out press releases about GDP. We need to put front and centre the woman from Manchester Trade Council voicing the concerns of working people about their issues – jobs and pay, rights at work, family security, community matters, environmental clean-up, water quality. We don’t need a campaign based on fear and threats but a strategy that educates, informs and provides a positive vision for a future with our European friends and neighbours
There is now a clear route through to Remain, but we need a clear message to convey this on the doorstep. I very much welcomed the statement Jeremy Corbyn made at Conference, delivered with total clarity and conviction, that Labour is fully behind a public vote and option to remain. As Jeremy himself said, this is not that complicated. It is now also absolutely clear that Labour is the only party adopting a position which genuinely can bring the country together, whilst the Tories have been pushing their extreme Brexit and playing with people’s futures through championing a destructive no deal, and the Lib Dems prepared to turn their backs on the 52% who voted leave through championing a parliamentary revoke of Article 50.
I am concerned that we do not adopt the position that we will be rule takers and not rule makers, which would be desperately damaging. Many of those who voted to leave in 2016 were voting for more control; with a Norway-like deal, we will get the opposite.
Since 2016 far too much debate has been played out in the media but not in communities. We should have purposefully taken the wider debate out into the party and the country, trying to understand more why people made the choices they did and making the case for Europe. We didn’t do the hard yards.
Meanwhile positions have hardened. The initial compromise was right—to argue for a soft Brexit, a deal which would have been a reasonable reflection of the very close referendum result, which large numbers of those who voted to remain, as well as those who voted to leave, would have accepted. That option was blown out of the water by May, with her hard red lines, and has now been compounded by Johnson, making any cross-party approach impossible. This was seen in the negotiations earlier this year, which it was right for Jeremy and his team to participate in.
Corbyn himself has not been given enough credit for stopping Brexit to date. There has been a lot of facile and banal commentary over the past three years blaming Labour. But it is the Tories who have blocked real progress and Labour who have ensured that we have not already been landed with a damaging Tory Brexit. It is Labour which can now stop a catastrophic no deal – and I hope that all Labour MPs will support the leadership in doing this.
Campaigners have to build on our remain position. We have to defend the Labour party position and seek to build real alliances across the party. We should also be setting out the difference which staying in, and working to reform, the EU could make for British people.
The Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament has a comprehensive range of policies related to workers’ rights which a Labour government could champion, including scrapping zero hours contracts across the EU and ensuring that all wage undercutting is brought to an end.
Our recent adoption of the Green New Deal policy is a great example of how, with a Labour government in the EU, we could promote more radical pan-European policies – on infrastructure, green business creation, ambitious environment targets – which would have tangible impacts in terms of levels of investment and job creation – and also demonstrate UK leadership in the EU, over time helping people embrace more positively Europe as something we are an active part of, rather than something done to us.
The truth is that whenever it and if it comes, any second referendum is going to be difficult to win. Sequencing is not as big an issue as deciding our policy. There are limits to how effective we can be in a general election with our current position, for all that I applaud its basic intent – which is to enable Labour to speak to people however they voted in 2016. However, without committing clearly to remain and reform all the evidence is that we will lose more votes from Labour Remain supporters than we will gain from Labour Leave voters. The key is having a clear position.