Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth
All eyes are on Jeremy Corbyn at the moment as Theresa May’s travails continue. The Labour party appeared to move closer to calling for a second referendum on Brexit, including the option to remain, at its party conference in September. Yet a closer examination of the conference revealed contradictory signals, with many prominent figures implying that Remain was no longer an option. The general Labour tactic since 2016, of being pro-Brexit but somewhat more moderate than the Conservatives, continues for now. While the general assumption is that Corbyn and his allies are forcing their mostly pro-European set of MPs on this path, the situation is more complicated than that. The variety of positions within the party is worth exploring further to shed light on the current political dynamics as well as the views of ‘the left’ on the EU project more broadly.
The radical left-wing case for leaving the European Union is a quite coherent argument, within its own terms. While it is facile to label the EU a ‘capitalist club’, it is correct that the overarching effect of EU law is to structure a form of market economy and preclude any kind of radical anti-capitalist national project. While the EU has always had tendencies towards interventionism and strong regulation, which appeal to progressives, the vision of the EU as a left-wing project has taken a battering over recent decades. In particular the process of monetary union and the Eurozone bailouts are seen as exemplifying an austerity-driven European integration which subverts economic democracy. (The treatment of Greece in particular greatly damaged the image of the EU as any kind of progressive force). All of this informed those who sought to extricate the UK from the EU as a first step towards more radical change. Of course this radical ideological vision is full of holes in practice. Apart from anything else, the UK tends to be more capitalist than the European mainstream (which has tended to exercise a moderating influence).The dynamics of Brexit are likely to be regressive while the idea of a statist socialism seems quixotic. In any case it is not clear that this ideological Lexit is a strong force within Labour.
The outright ideological Lexiters (who object to the EU as a capitalist project) within the Labour party during the referendum of 2016 were relatively few. The case for Lexit was articulated by smaller radical groups outside the party. Both Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonell, have been historically sympathetic to this mind-set. However, the hostility of both to the EU project has moderated. Their current policy offer is really one of social democratic reform, which would be compatible with EU law, rather than anything more radical. Although they would doubtless love to be rid of the constraints of EU competition policy they have been compromising on many fronts as power draws near. Furthermore, even if we assume that they are still Lexiters, is their grip really so strong that they could prevent their MPs from voting differently? Corbyn lost a vote of confidence within the parliamentary party by 172 to 40 in 2016. Although he has recently maintained discipline (mostly) within the shadow cabinet, he has been unable to control his MPs, many of whom continue to attack him relentlessly. It does not make sense to argue that that he has an iron grip on the party when it comes to EU issues when he is openly disdained at other times. To understand Labour’s support for Brexit we have to look at the party more broadly.
Pro-Brexit voices within the Labour party, exemplified by Kate Hoey and Frank Fields, draw more on a traditional nationalist populist opposition to the EU than a leftist internationalist stance. Their focus is on traditional ideas of national sovereignty and on immigration and their rhetoric here bears more resemblance to UKIP than to Marx. From a more moderate perspective there are former Remainers, such as Caroline Flint, who have been converted to the cause of a hard Brexit. Flint has, in response to the vote in her constituency in the North of England on Brexit, taken a hard line on freedom of movement and also rejected the idea of a customs union (which Corbyn has accepted). Other more pro-EU figures such as Stephen Kinnock (from a pro-European background) push for a soft Brexit (the EEA option) but reject the idea of a second referendum. Many more have come out in support of a second referendum.
It was this nationalist/populist element that drove the Labour party’s twists and turns during the formative years of the UK in Europe. (The Labour Government initially supported joining the EEC in the 1960s but recanted as an opposition party and strongly opposed entry in 1971). Tom Nairn offered a coruscating account of a how a strain of populism and nationalism underpinned much of the left wing opposition to the ‘capitalist’ common market (which was certainly no more capitalist than the UK). This Euroscepticism he argues (echoing the present day) was easier than confronting the economic and social challenges facing the UK. Upon regaining power the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson supported remaining in the then EEC, but allowed a referendum in 1975 (in which his cabinet and MPs were divided). Only in the late 1980s under Neil Kinnock did the party take its place in the pro-EU social democratic European mainstream. However, even under New Labour, Euroscepticism continued. It was Gordon Brown, not Nigel Farage, who called for ‘British jobs for British workers’ in 2007.
In brief, it is not a case of Lexit radicals running the Labour Party, rather different degrees of Euroscepticism and electoral pressure have steered the party on this path. Clearly, the tide has begun to change and Corbyn may well eventually support a referendum. He is bound to recommend voting against any deal May brings back, as it cannot possibly meet the six tests Labour has set. Most of his MPs will surely comply. It may be that a crash out, and recession, would hand Corbyn the keys to Downing Street but once he is inside, he will find himself responsible for all of the painful trade-offs Brexit involves. The prospects are not good for a Corbyn government that wants to pursue radical economic reforms (by British standards) while also leaving the single market. Markets would punish the UK brutally and probably discredit the radical left for another generation. There is a potential grand bargain with business for Corbyn, in which in return for the single market and customs union, they would acquiesce in his domestic agenda. From the EU’s perspective, it needs to do more than overpower the UK but instead to consider the socio-economic roots of Euroscepticism throughout Europe. More proactive measures are needed to deal with youth unemployment, and the monetary union needs more fundamental reform. At the moment, most European left-wingers still accept the EU framework, but in the future, a combination of left and right-wing populism may yet create a crisis that dwarfs Brexit.
Dr Patrick Holden is an associate professor in the school of Law, Criminology and Government in the University of Plymouth.