Britain and Europe

Labour: the anti-hard Brexit party in UK politics?

22 September 2017
Patrick Diamond

The major political news of the summer break has been the Labour party’s decision to come out in explicit support of a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit, at least as a transitional arrangement with its EU partners. The manoeuvre signals Labour’s intention to oppose the Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, rather than merely offering tacit support from the side-lines. Labour has thus established itself firmly as the only major party to oppose a ‘hard’ Brexit in UK politics. In practice, ‘soft’ Brexit means continuing access to the single market, a customs union with the EU, and as a consequence, limited acceptance of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). As The Observer newspaper commented in late August:

[This position] represents a pragmatic shift towards the only conceivable transitional arrangement Britain should be seeking, and puts clear water between the two main parties for the first time. Theresa May’s Government insists that in 2019 Britain must leave both the single market and customs union.

Labour’s new position on Europe was orchestrated by the Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit, Keir Starmer. It constitutes a bold political move which has put the May Government on the defensive. While pro-Europeans within the Labour party have naturally cheered Starmer’s repositioning, it is the tactical nature of Labour’s policy shift that is striking. Sensing an opportunity to undermine an already weak government, Labour’s stance is calculated to create maximum disarray in Tory ranks, as the party did so successfully under John Smith in the early 1990s when the Maastricht Treaty was being debated in the House of Commons.

No one should pretend, however, that Starmer’s announcement marks a permanent shift on European policy by Labour, or that the party is now certain to maintain its opposition to a ‘hard’ Brexit as a matter of principle. Corbyn’s team want to leave open the possibility of altering their position if political circumstances change. And it is important to remember that Labour is already a long way from being a committed pro-European party, as it clearly was under Neil Kinnock at the beginning of the 1990s.

In fact, Labour’s pro-European outlook had already begun to weaken under the Blair and Brown governments. Blair had the ambition to put Britain at the heart of Europe, but he was reluctant to make the case explicitly to UK voters. Early enthusiasm for Britain retaining the option of joining the single currency soon evaporated once the scale of public hostility to the Euro became clear. During the 1997 election campaign, Blair had written an infamous article for the Eurosceptic newspaper, The Sun, entitled ‘Why I Love the Pound’, in which he proclaimed:

Labour will have no truck with a European super-state. We will fight for British interests and to keep our independence every step of the way…I am a British patriot.

The Labour leader’s rhetoric was difficult to row back from, even after Blair had decided to try to make the case for Europe in Britain during his second term.

After 2007, Brown was even more cautious about Europe than Blair: he found the process of negotiating EU budgets especially troubling because of the political damage it inflicted in Britain. Brown also believed that too much abstract discussion of treaty change prevented the EU from focusing on the core problems of lack of economic competitiveness, and the threat posed by the rising powers of Asia and Latin America. In Government, Labour drifted away from Europe because it struggled to reconcile external policy positions at EU level with domestic political realities. Ed Miliband’s stance on Europe was similar to that of his former boss, Gordon Brown. As opposition leader between 2010 and 2015, Miliband made relatively few speeches on Europe, and blamed the rise of Euroscepticism in Britain on the failings of the EU. Miliband’s flirtation with the more insular, nationalist politics of Blue Labour centred on ‘family, faith and flag’ reinforced the Labour leader’s distance from Europe.

Since 2015, Corbyn’s rise to power has intensified the Labour leadership’s instinct of heightened ‘Euro-caution’. Corbyn himself has been a Eurosceptic since the 1970s under the long-standing influence of his political mentor, Tony Benn. The Labour left in Britain feared that membership of the Union would prevent the party from implementing a programme of radical economic reconstruction within the nation-state. Benn exhibited increasingly strident hostility to the European project during the 1970s:

I loathe the Common Market. It’s bureaucratic and centralised, there’s no political discussion, officials control Ministers, and it just has a horrible flavour about it.

During the 2015 Labour leadership campaign, Corbyn asserted in a similar vein:

The EU knowingly, deliberately maintains a number of tax havens and tax-evasion posts around the Continent – Luxembourg, Monaco and a number of others. I think we should be making demands: universal workers’ rights, universal environmental protection, end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, end the race to the bottom in working wage protection.

Although the Labour leader abandoned his earlier position of virulent Euro-scepticism, it was hardly surprising that during the 2016 referendum campaign, Corbyn struggled to muster much enthusiasm for the EU (famously awarding the Union ‘seven points out of ten’), an approach subsequently attacked by Labour MPs.

In electoral terms, Labour’s support base has also been increasingly divided between support for the EU, and hostility to membership. Labour MPs in Northern and Midlands seats were determined that the party should acknowledge the hostility to freedom of movement across Europe in its own post-industrial and urban heartlands. According to the former Europe Minister, Denis McShane: ‘Many Labour MPs remain frightened of losing the white working-class vote in old mining and metal-working constituencies in the Midlands and the North. . . In poor, post-industrial areas there are not yet many votes in being pro-European’. As the political scientist Harold Clarke and colleagues conclude: ‘Brexit and the closely linked issue of immigration had cut directly across the political geography of the Labour party’.

Although there are divisions among Labour’s natural supporters, the membership of the Labour party has actually become more pro-European over time: the ESRC party members project indicates that nearly 70 per cent of Labour members want Britain to remain in the single market after Brexit, and a similar proportion would like to see a referendum on the terms of exit. The trade unions are, on the whole, strongly opposed to Brexit, fearing the negative impact of leaving the EU on UK social and employment rights. This instinctive pro-Europeanism may actually become stronger as the EU recovers from the political and economic shocks of the last decade: it is striking that in 2016, for example, per capita GDP growth in the EU surpassed the United States.

Despite the support for Europe within the party’s grassroots, it is little wonder that since the 1970s, Labour’s leaders have ended up facing in several directions on Europe. The position of ‘constructive ambiguity’ on the EU and Brexit is the inevitable consequence of these internal tensions within the party’s base of electoral support. These will not be easily resolved, and as a consequence, Labour’s tactical shift in favour of a ‘soft’ Brexit this summer is unlikely to mark a permanent change in the party’s stance on Europe.

Image credit: CC by 2.0 / Chris Beckett