Labour should be more divided on Europe

by Greig Baker

To abuse Boris’s analogy, the ball hasn’t even come loose from the scrum yet, but the referendum means Conservative players are already knocking lumps out of each other. In stark contrast, even as the country weighs it’s biggest and perhaps most controversial political decision in a generation, the Labour party is in one peaceful – almost soporific – voice. The Tories are making a spectacle of themselves and Labour is just, well, spectating.

Although I wouldn’t wish the Conservatives’ internecine battles on anyone, I think Labour’s unnatural unity in the referendum is much more worrying.

In days gone by, fierce message discipline and unity of purpose were conscious (and very effective) electoral tactics for Labour. It is a massive, risible, stretch to argue that the party is now applying the same deliberate approach to the EU referendum.

If senior Labour figures can chase each other down the street – in front of the cameras! – shouting “Hitler apologist”, it’s hard to believe the party has gone into the referendum determined to avoid “appearing” split. In almost every other policy area, and to an unprecedented degree, Labour MPs actively and openly criticise their own leaders – and the leadership returns the favour.

And even if Labour’s monochrome referendum campaign was designed with electoral advantage in mind, it would be hugely mistaken. In the next general election, if Labour keeps pushing Remain now, for every one of its north London MPs who adds yet another thousand to their majority, a parliamentary colleague in north Lancashire is going to have to fight ever harder just to fend off UKIP.

Perhaps unity in the referendum campaign is just a natural condition, born of Labour’s common values? No. However hard you squint, there is no way ‘Europe’ fits neatly into a unified left-wing view of the world, either.

For every argument that the EU encourages trade and reduces prices for the working class, there’s another that TTIP welcomes in private firms who’ll plunder the NHS.

For every person who says we should rely on the EU for workers’ rights, there’s another who says the EU forbids state aid to save Redcar or Port Talbot.

Should we welcome all the world’s dispossessed, or should we stop immigrants undercutting working class wages?

Should we set international trade policy to protect European agriculture, or promote African farmers?

Do we welcome skilled workers, or do we ease the pressures on public services and housing?

Do we reverse Europe’s democratic deficit, or do we hope for international strength in numbers?

Can we solve tensions in the Middle East, or are we letting terrorists in unchecked?

Can we influence climate policies, or are EU trawlers raping marine eco systems?

Of course, the European Union may be the solution to all of these problems, or the cause at the root of them – but surely Labour’s 400,000 members don’t all agree on which it is in every case? Surely, given careful thought, some senior party figures should decide the path to social justice lies through Brussels while others say it judders to a halt there?!

Instead, the very lack of debate, dissension and disagreement within Labour over whether to Remain or Leave the European Union is a worrying and saddening symptom of a wider malaise. Both the Foot ’83 and Miliband ’15 vintages were tested and rejected by the public, so by definition Labour needs some new thinking to get back into power. But new ideas don’t come from a party that wanders into a huge national debate in a near-comatose state, failing to test its own position before trying to convince others to follow it.

It’s striking that so many Labour figures have meekly adopted the same referendum position. For Labour, watching the Tories maul each other may well be a great spectator sport. But who goes into politics just to be a spectator?

Greig Baker is Chief Executive of The GUIDE Consultancy

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9 Responses to “Labour should be more divided on Europe”

  1. David Walsh says:

    As I gather Tony Crosland put in his diary after the USSR became our ally in June 1941 “this is no time for honest verse, when we champion the bad against the very worst”. The same holds for this June too

  2. Anon E Mouse says:

    Labour should be ashamed of themselves over this EU fiasco. They are on the side now of the Tories, big business and unaccountable and unelected elites enriching themselves on working class taxes.

    The sooner the likes of Chukka, Balls, Lady Nugee and all the other posh Islington types just go away and form their own party the better.

    Labour is supposed to represent the workers in this country not university educated prats working in public services that know nothing of the real world outside the London bubble.

    Thank God John Mann, Labour Leave and Dennis Skinner are principled politicians along with those apparently ready to defect next week. Any Labour MP voting to stay in the EU should be deselected by their local party members.

    This vote to leave I think will be a landslide and Labour voters hold the key…

  3. Bob says:

    Corbyn is just a prisoner of the Shadow Cabinet, if he tries to whip them for exit whch in his heart is what he believes in the Labour Party would irredemably fracture.

  4. John p Reid says:

    Quite bob, but I can’t believe, he couldn’t get Mann, Skinner Grham Striger, Jon. cryer, Kate hoey in the shadow cabinet,

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    Dennis wouldn’t want to be in the shadow cabinet and only Cryer of the others would be a likely candidate

  6. Tafia says:

    Cameron has mistimed his Referendum. He should have held it in the late summer of 2019. By that stage the Electoral Commission would have released the new boundaries and Labour would have been engulfed in it’s own civil war as a result.

  7. joh np Reid says:

    I meant as say party chair, graham Stringer?

  8. Bob says:

    Cameron’s problem is that he expected to be in coalition with Clegg again and when he lost his human shield he had to have the referendum or be kicked out of the leadership.

  9. john P Reid says:

    maybe labour are more divided, its just not the PLP or the metropolitan elite who realise how, much the working class heartlands are EU sceptic

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