Britain and Europe

Labour must not abandon internationalism

21 February 2017

As we navigate Britain's exit of the European Union, we must fight to maintain the Labour party's internationalist principles.

Roger Liddle

I want to address my brief remarks to my own benches. Whatever our differences on our response to last year’s referendum, we are all with some few exceptions pro-Europeans, including members of our frontbench who I count as good friends.

Internationalism has always been a core socialist and social democratic belief. Interdependence in our globalised world today makes what was always a moral value, an economic and security imperative as well.

Today we find ourselves debating this miserable measure to trigger the process of detaching the United Kingdom from the most successful peace project in history.

Europe has defined my political life. I hang my head in shame that the leaders of this country and this party were not able to win a majority for Remain last June. It will live with me to my dying day.

There are many Guilty Men and some women too.

The failure of successive governments, including I regret to say our own, to present a consistent case for our European Union membership.

A collective weakness in going along with the idea of a referendum – ‘a device of dictators’, as Clem Attlee once so accurately quipped.

And of course David Cameron’s miscalculated opportunism.

But let us be frank and I say this with the deepest sadness: the debilitation of our own party contributed to the Brexit disaster. We have a leader, who, unlike the vast majority of Labour members, including those who joined up to support him, has never believed in Europe. In the referendum he failed the key test of democratic politics – to cut through media cynicism and a mass of seething public discontents – with a compelling positive case for Europe that forced voters to listen.

And now there is no clarion call for the fight still to come: only a three-line whip in the Commons to force Labour members of parliament to troop through the lobbies alongside a rightwing Tory government dancing to Iain Duncan Smith’s tune – even on third reading when all the amendments containing our so-called ‘red lines’ had been rejected.

Of course we must live with the referendum result. But public opinion is not immutably fixed for ever in the same spot.

There could have been a national consensus behind Brexit. A government determined to establish that could have proposed a different approach that would have taken account of the 48 per cent and not given top priority to the ideologues of the Tory right.

That would have been a Brexit based on continued membership of the single market and the closest possible political and security ties with our EU partners.

But in January we had the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech which prioritises sovereignty and immigration over jobs and living standards. The British electorate did not vote for that last June.

The referendum result cannot mean that parliament is bound to accept whatever withdrawal deal Mrs May cobbles together.

If her terms are contrary to the national interest, then there must remain open at least the possibility that Brexit might be reversed.

But sadly, there is no sign the current Labour leadership is ready to fight for the national interest in this way.

The remnants of the 1970s hard-left still hanker after some tattered old version of ‘socialism in one country’. A former leading adviser to Ed Miliband opines that ‘Brexit opens the door for a new and exciting programme – from regional industrial strategy to the end of the power of the City of London’. I have to say – knocking away that £70bn of City tax revenues would be a great start for a big regional investment programme!

And then of course there are the Blue Labour intellectuals, who compete with Mrs May in their fervour for immigration control and imagine that drastic cuts in numbers are the only way to restore Labour’s relationship with its so-called ‘core’ working class vote. Their analysis is highly questionable. Their policy unimplementable without unacceptable cost.

John Curtice’s analysis of the British Election Study shows that even in Labour-held constituencies that voted Leave, 57 per cent of 2015 Labour supporters voted to Remain.

And as for cutting low skilled migration, there is no possibility of achieving this without huge damage to our NHS and social care, or any chance in the next five years of finding the workers Britain needs to build the houses and infrastructure we all want to see.

It is time for Labour to tell the truth. The biggest losers from Brexit are going to be working families and the poor. As the devaluation of the pound forces up prices while benefits are frozen, a sharp rise in child poverty is the inevitable consequence. And on sterling, we have seen nothing yet, as Mrs May teeters on her infamous cliff edge.

I venture that our internationalist forefathers would be shocked by our present state.

Keir Hardie, and I have no time for insults to the uneducated – he left school at 8 – bravely condemned racism in  South Africa, backed independence for India and fought to build solidarity with social democratic parties in Europe (particularly Edouard Bernstein of the German SPD) in the hope of averting the catastrophe that became the first world war. He never flinched in face of the jingoists and imperialists of his day, many of them of course in the working class electorate.

The same was true of Ernest Bevin in opposing Nazism and Munich in the 1930s.

And if Labour leaders in the past had bowed the knee to populism, would the great Labour governments of Harold Wilson with Roy Jenkins as home secretary, ever have abolished hanging, legalised homosexuality or introduced the first laws on racial equality?

Labour faces two choices on Brexit. Accept the hard Brexit that looms and be driven by the present leadership like lambs to the slaughter. Or expose it for the multiple deceits that it represents, and campaign for public opinion to shift.

I know where I stand.

As a proud member of the Labour party, I will fight to sustain the internationalist and egalitarian convictions in which I was brought up to believe.