Why the British Labour Party lost its way with Europe

By Michael Morgan


WITH the British Labour party now headed by Sir Keir Starmer– a ‘fierce’ Remainer who has recently attempted to flank the Tories from the right by opposing a rise in corporation tax – it is important to address how the Labour party has found itself on the side of the establishment.

Whilst Corbyn offered more hope for socialists over his 5 year period as leader, his policy on the EU in 2019 was in line with Starmer’s – that being a second referendum. If you contrast this with 2017 when Labour opposed a second referendum, it is clear to see why the ‘red wall’ crumbled with much of Labour’s working-class support. 

Corbyn failed to challenge the establishment view on this crucial issue. It is important to ask why there is this discord between Labour’s working-class vote and its policy? 

For many young people, it only seems natural that Labour supports the values of internationalism, open borders and cooperation which they see as being embodied by the EU, and this view of the EU has largely gone unchallenged in recent decades as New Labour took hold of the party.

Instances where the EU imposed austerity on the Greek population who had voted against it, or indeed the EU encouraging privatisations of key industries like water, rail and energy have not been discussed seriously by the British left who herald the EU as a peacemaking, liberal institution at its best, and at its worst our only option to keep worker’s rights.

This is a marked shift from the 1980s when Tony Benn described the EEC as “an undemocratic coup d’état by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty.” As well Michael Foot who talked about “that precious inheritance, given to us by the people who fought for the right to vote, fought for the right to form trade unions … for the right to establish their own institutions” which was at stake in remaining part of the EEC.

Going further back, Clement Atlee, a man who arguably embodies the ideals of social democrats and Fabian socialists opposed membership of the European steel and coal commission which he saw as an attempt to privatise those industries. 

It was no different in 2019, even a programme like Corbyn’s would be seriously student by the EU – and yet the British lefts opinion of the EU has taken a completely different view. 

Contemporary writers who pass as ‘far left’ in Britain today like Owen Jones, or Ash Sakar (famous for calling herself ‘literally a communist’ on TV bear in mind), reluctantly supported the EU despite its neoliberal trappings, as they claimed a tory Brexit would be a disaster for workers rights and that if we left it the Tories would suddenly be able to exploit workers even further. Of course, in part this is true under a tory Brexit – yet the approach of these thinkers is symptomatic of a chronic lack of imagination on the British left and worse, its lack of connection with the organisations of the working class.

Rather than calling for a positive mobilisation of workers to organise and to fight the austerity that had already ravaged areas of the country by 2016 – let alone by the 2017 and 2019 elections – they called to remain in the EU to defend the scraps workers had been left with. Ash Sakar even went so far as to argue for “A remain campaign [which] is no longer about continuity … of neoliberal values at the expense of workers’ struggle … an expression of the conflict between the freedom of people and democratic institutions, and the freedom and protection of capital” in 2019. 

As we saw, however, this did not come to be. In supporting the EU project Corbyn lost many of the working class who perceived it as an undemocratic establishment. 

It is not that these writers have not accepted the neoliberal underpinning of the EU project, but that they fail to imagine a method of struggle against this beyond reforming and reworking it. Rather than trying to foster genuine international socialism, which would require mobilising workers across the EU, they opt for a small defence of current workers’ protections which fails to inspire the working class. 

We must look back to the approach of socialists in the past who took a principled position, they would not support a project that was counter-intuitive to their aims. In reality, all that has changed now is that many have lost belief in the agency of workers to create change for themselves, without the help of capitalist institutions which have oppressed them.


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Featured Image: Pixabay

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