How Labour should handle Europe in the 2020s

We are the 52 per cent - the 52 per cent who voted against leaving the EU in the general election. Of course under the UK’s electoral system we lost. And of course, having a Labour leader and a wider party leadership including trade unions that could not defend EU membership with style or panache either in 2016, 2017 or 2019 did not help.

The core statistic to remember is that 71 per cent of Labour voters in 2019 backed Remain and 29 per cent supported Brexit. It would therefore be foolish in the extreme if Labour either tried to revert to a Bennite-Corbynite 1970s hostility to European partnership or to maintain the ungainly fence-sitting indulged in by Corbyn after millions of Labour voters sought refuge with the LibDems in the European Parliament elections in May 2019.

These key points need to be stressed particularly in the leadership contest as the hustings and other inner-party debates that will take place early in 2020 provide an opportunity for a major recalibration of Labour’s handling of the Europe question.

Because if there’s one thing we can be certain, Europe is not going to go away. Already Johnson is setting himself up for a conflict with British business interests, after saying he will pass into law that there can be no transition period extension.

Even pro-Brexit trade “experts” say this is silly. Johnson has no choice. He must keep stroking his hard right anti-European fronde. It is not just that most of the new Tory MPs were all chosen as candidates and won the election as hard-line Farage anti-Europeans, but that the vast bulk of the ageing Tory membership who selected Johnson see Brexit in terms of a religious or identity question dating back to 17th and 18th century politics. They will make life very hard for any Tory MPs who returns to his constituency association in 2020 and says “Sorry, this is all a bit more complicated then we thought.”

Johnson doesn’t do complexity. If it is not a sound-bite or a catchy newspaper column intro it doesn’t exist for him. Of course, Johnson has betrayed every cause, colleague or woman he has ever met, so once Farage is out of the European Parliament Johnson can proclaim that leaving the EU Treaty has got Brexit “done”. He may cover himself in snake oil and slither out of any dramatic economic rupture which will finally make the CBI, BCC and other representatives of British capital, including FDI exporters, come out from the closet and start criticizing the government.

Meanwhile, what does Labour do? A key priority is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for any Corbyn continuation candidates. The Corbyn coterie, whatever their qualities in terms of seeking to shape a more progressive manifesto, let down badly the 71 per cent of Labour voters opposed to leaving Europe. Via endless shadow cabinet spokespersons, figures like Len McLuskey, and senior party officials, the 21 per cent of Labour leavers were the tail that wagged the anti-Brexit Labour dog.

There is little point of raising the banner of a new referendum for probably at least this parliament which may be shorter than is expected. There needs to be a forensic focus on the negotiations. Labour must find MPs, shadow ministers, special advisers who can daily rip into what will be poorly-run negotiations obsessed with anti-European posturing by people like Michael Gove. A holding place like seeking a bespoke UK version of a Norwegian or even Swiss relationship should not be discounted.

If we can save the Single Market and its four freedoms that will be OK for the time being. In particular, Labour needs to shape an alternative Freedom of Movement model based on national domestic reforms to the UK’s labour market, to better regulate arrivals from outside the UK, based on stronger rights for training up British workers, manpower planning and actually identifying and registering workers in the British traded economy. For the rest it depends on developments in the EU.

For various reasons the negatives coming out of too many EU member states since 1990 - low growth, high unemployment, financial problems, the Euro rules hitting Greece, Spain, Portugal, enlargement taking in so many corrupt, clerical and population exporting nations - have created the anti-EU constituency which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and aides like Alistair Campbell and Ed Balls failed to counter in government 1997-2010 and which were given take-off by Cameron's referendum.

Labour is thoroughly burnt out by its inability to respond to the referendum and there will be a little appetite for Labour to stand up and say we reject Brexit, we will revoke it and want a new referendum. Maybe after the next election but not right now.

In the meantime, Labour should start to take European party politics more seriously with better links and joint campaigns with sister parties in Europe. We also need to look at why the democratic socialist Parties in France, Italy, or Greece have shrunk to irrelevance.

For Labour Party members willing to raise their sights, and work outside the new defunct European Parliament and Brussels loops there is much to learn from progressive politics in Europe.

La lotta continua


By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)