Labour Must Lead Britain Into a New European Age

This article was written in partnership with Nathaniel Butler Blondel, a Labour Party activist and student at the University of Glasgow who currently sits as the Secretary of Scottish Young Labour.

The Labour Party’s relationship with Europe has forever entailed parallel tendencies that have never been entirely clear to the electorate, or perhaps even to the party itself.

It was during Harold Wilson’s third government in 1975 that the bellicose Labour MP for Fife Central, Willie Hamilton scolded the Prime Minister on the issue of entry into Europe. “First we’re in, then we’re out…. It’s exactly like coitus-interruptus” as the house stumbled over themselves laughing one Tory MP cried “Withdraw!” – fortunately for us, Mr. Wilson stayed the course.

Despite the resounding Yes vote in that year’s referendum the issue of Europe remains one that interrupts Labour’s rhythm on the doorstep every year.

The mid 1970s were a time when prominent members of the cabinet including Tony Benn, and future leader Michael Foot campaigned for Britain to leave the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then. Little would they have imagined that four decades later one of their accidental protégés Jeremy Corbyn would sit atop the Labour throne, leading his party somewhat indifferently into the next opportunity to stick or twist on the grand table of Europe.

Thankfully any concern as to where Corbyn’s allegiances lie have been assuaged when he stated confidently in September:

An unlikely European champion. Will Jeremy Corbyn be a strong voice for the pro-EU bloc?

“We will make the case that membership of the European Union helps Britain to create jobs, secure growth, encourage investment and tackle the issues that cross borders – like climate change, terrorism, tax havens and the current refugee crisis.”

This is a position we can find no disagreement with, and one we look forward to campaigning strongly with the whole party on, to once and for all put an end to UKIP’s divisive rhetoric.

But what form can this campaign take, and are we as a party sleepwalking into one of the most important battles over jobs and conditions for British workers for decades?

Direct comparisons between this referendum and the previous are misplaced. The 1975 referendum primarily focused on the common market. Despite claims to the contrary the approaching referendum will be fought on two fronts; immigration and the EU’s actual utility in a globalised world – which ultimately means job creation.

Between 3- 4.5 million jobs in Britain are directly linked to exports to the EU and these exports account for around 45% of Britain’s total. Trade with the EU has fallen over the past few years – but if the value of exports are examined (and this is what those jobs rely on), it has risen year on year, on average at 5% annually since 1999. Furthermore, over 50% of Britain’s imports come from the EU – whilst the UK is currently running a trade deficit. Three out of our top five trading partners are in the EU – and the other two trade with the UK on the basis of a treaty negotiated as part of the EU.

To cut a long story short: millions of jobs rely on trade with the EU. Just under half of what we earn, and over half of what we buy, comes from the EU. We may not like globalisation, but those are the facts on the ground. There is no analysis which can avoid the fact that in the short term at least we are facing significant adverse economic effects if we choose to leave the other 27 member states behind.

There is a further concern here that Labour should be at the forefront of nationally, borrowing costs. Yesterday the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, stated that any UK exit from the EU (or even the realistic likelihood of it) would seriously threaten interest rate levels. The reason this is so worrying is simple, UK households are currently burdened with total debts higher than at any previous time in history. This is an issue that strikes home with Labour’s core vote who are often asset poor and debt laden. The UK’s relationship with our largest trading partners, namely other EU countries, is fundamental to the stability of our banking and business sectors – any existential threat to that (which an EU exit very much is) trading relationship may have severe consequences in the short term, especially in regards to external investment. This would further weaken the pound, thereby making overseas lenders charge us more, and in turn bump up interest rates for individual borrowers.

Despite what you might wish to believe about Labour or see as the historical nature of the party, from the day Michael Foot left office to the moment Jeremy Corbyn arrived and for a great deal of time before that, Labour was a social-democratic party. The European Union has continuously been a focal point of the social democratic project and thus membership of that union in every section of the party except various trade unions has been entirely non-controversial.

Given this fact, it should be a straight road to a united Labour campaign to remain in Europe – or so you would think. One of the aggravating technicalities of democracy is that you occasionally have to take heed of your vote, and on the issue of Europe (read specifically ‘immigration’) Labour’s vote is demographically and regionally divided.

Ed Miliband’s leadership never really convinced when it came to discussing immigration or Europe, and this revealed itself in May. Despite not conceding any seats to UKIP the vote for Nigel Farage’s party theoretically made the difference between Labour and the Tories in 57 seats. This effect was particularly pronounced in suburban seats in Northern England and the entire Midlands. Any ground campaign aimed at saving us from a Farage led European exit will have to seriously concern itself with why this key demographic moved away from Labour and more moderate Conservatism.

This was an issue adequately represented by Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham at the party conference in September:

“Freedom of movement has built the economic power of the big cities. But it has also made life harder in our poorest communities, where the rules have been exploited to undercut people’s wages, undermine their job security and create a race-to-the-bottom. Those same places get no extra funding to deal with the pressure that comes on primary schools, GP services and housing.”

Regardless of how obvious this argument seems to anyone left-leaning, in constituencies like Derby North and Bolton West it was one spoken of in hushed tones. Repeating this mistake could potentially turn the UK back into a solitary island in the North Atlantic, rather than a member of an imperfect, yet relatively successful union.

During the Labour leadership contest the issue of Europe was curiously muted. This belies a truth that many have failed to take into account, the EU does not enthuse anyone beyond those who vehemently wish to leave it. As such the Labour In campaign is to be an argument predicated on ambivalence at worst, and business rationale at best. Neither of these Labour do well. As such it was a wise move to appoint broadly popular Alan Johnson to lead the campaign. If there is one thing the Blairites did well, it was Europe, and if you had to pick the most likeable Blairite around Mr. Johnson would be a popular choice in most quarters.

Reasons to be fearful, the dull business face of the official campaign to Remain

However, the official campaign cross party campaign to Remain has thus far been underwhelming. The great mass of people in Britain are not plucky entrepreneurs nor do they travel frequently to the continent. Soft-Eurosceptics that could be won over are not even being targeted, because the whole campaign has singularly failed to mention immigration (sound familiar?). By omitting what makes Brexit so appealing to so many, the Remain campaign have shot themselves in the foot before the race has even begun. They have two choices: either argue for the positive effects of EU immigration, or argue that collective action through the EU to prevent wage depression can and will happen as part of a ‘reformed’ EU. People won’t forget immigration just because we fail to talk about it. No matter how many mugs we emblazon with our misguided intentions.

The rights afforded to workers in this country, guaranteed by the EU, are not Stuart Rose’s (leader of the cross party campaign to keep Britain in Europe) priority. Instead, the Remain campaign spends more time fawning over England’s nascent wine industry. It is run by individuals who are completely disconnected from ordinary people – and it shows. If we want to remain in the EU, Labour has a serious responsibility to take on the task, and make the case for the EU relatable and relevant to the lives of normal people. The sheer number of jobs under threat, and the rights at work which the EU provides should be a strong enough case – but it is a case you have to make. It will not simply occur to people.

The refugee crisis, combined with the attacks in Paris, have left Europhiles feeling uneasy. It is UKIP’s perfect cocktail, and appears to seriously undermine the argument that the EU makes us safer. We should not be afraid to challenge this line for the superficial nonsense that it is. Britain can be part of a pan-European plan to resettle refugees, or we can flounce out and pretend the problem will go away. Brexit does not mean we are raising the anchor and floating off – there is no escape from a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

Labour voters on the left who advocate an exit should realise that they are abdicating their responsibility in this tragedy. Unless that is, they seriously believe that a Tory government in the newly ‘independent’ UK will have a change of heart and throw open the doors to refugees?

The threat of terrorism is just as much of a homegrown problem as it is one emanating from Iraq and Syria. Within the EU, governments and regions can work together to coordinate a response, share information about suspects, and use the European Arrest Warrant to apprehend suspects who have escaped these shores. How would ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ protect us from our own citizens? We’ve got to tackle these arguments head on. Letting them go unanswered, particularly when they appeal to emotion rather than reality is conceding the point. Surely this is where we as a Labour party should be?

Sadly there is an inevitability to Cameron’s meandering demands regarding Europe. Ever since the fait accompli of the Common Fisheries Policy and other such bugbears were sealed during the Heath administration there has been a shadow upon the Tory soul regarding negotiations with Europe. UKIP could not exist today without this consternation at the heart business minded ‘patriotic’ Britain. This is a particularly difficult space for Labour to fill, especially given their current leadership is one defined by relative social and economic radicalism and as such notions of business and trade sovereignty are not included in their lexicon.

Just your cheeky neighbourhood xenophobe. Nigel Farage’s reputation rests on the result. 

Labour will inevitably have to accept that their role in this fight is to lead the charge against the social and economic myopia of leaving Europe.

If we have learned anything from the Scottish independence referendum it is this: economics might win the day, but economics without strongly argued for social and cultural foundations will leave you worryingly exposed to an opponent surging in the minds of more frequently ignored communities. There can be no room for complacency within the Labour ranks. We must treat this in the same way we would treat a general election (though….actually win it, that bit is important).

Undoubtedly the European Union debate contains multitudes that cannot be dealt with here, but in the end it is a simple consideration for the Labour movement. Do we continue to add our voice to reformist choruses within a wider social collective and maintain jobs for our core vote, or do we appease the right and immigration fear mongers – laying waste to the structure which brought us maternity leave, working time directives, and human rights?

It is our position that a Labour Party which fails to be the party of international cooperation, ultimately ceases to be a party of the working class. Whether voters come to agree with us entirely rests on the shoulders of our party, and those allies we will meet along the way.

Nathaniel Butler Blondel and Seán Duffy

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