Mujtaba Rahman / Sep 2015
The leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As soon as a Corbyn’s shock victory seemed possible, pro-Europeans worried about the rebel MP’s Eurosceptic credentials. How can Labour present a convincing case in support of continued membership under the leadership of an unreformed socialist who views the institution as a free-market monstrosity? Mr. Corbyn’s sudden fame came as an unwelcome reminder that Euroscepticism was originally the preserve of the Left and that the 1975 precedent of the upcoming referendum was the manifesto promise of a Labour Prime Minister.
The Labour Party has slowly come to embrace the European Union as a means to enforce workers’ rights, environmental legislation and other interventionist policies which it would have a hard time defending in the UK parliament. It is no surprise, therefore, that Corbyn’s diverse Shadow Cabinet team has forced him to consider this at face value. Should the UK decide to leave the European Union under a Conservative government, several fundamental social protection policies would be at risk. Over the past two weeks, Corbyn has shifted his stance on the referendum campaign from unclear to probably endorsing an “in” vote.
This does not resolve the issue, however. Jeremy Corbyn knows he has disappointed many of his older supporters by muting his concerns about the European Union. He still claims he is not writing Cameron’s renegotiation agenda “a blank cheque” by promising to endorse whichever small concessions the Prime Minister manages to present to the electorate. Corbyn’s performances facing the Prime Minister have been underwhelming so far but it is hard to imagine how Corbyn could resist the urge to denounce any concessions obtained on flexibility for business and entrepreneurs. Cameron’s renegotiation team knows this but it also needs to please the many Conservative backbenchers who are on the fence, and most often leaning towards the “out” camp.
Even if Corbyn does reluctantly endorse an “in” vote, his election means the return of a range of political ideas that everyone had thought were dead and buried by the mid-1990s. It’s difficult to know how such policies would play with today’s electorate. The conventional view is that they won’t play well, but a lot of Corbyn’s economic policies do have a populist flavour which could make them seductive to many, and force the government to start engaging in debates (such as about nationalisation), the conclusions to which would otherwise be taken as a given.
By late 2016, Cameron will be an unpopular Prime Minister, facing disappointment from the right and outrage from the left. After an awkward, very public face-off between a Conservative government and hard-left ideology, voters on the left who might have voted for EU membership on idealistic grounds will be much more concerned about what they here of the EU’s free-market policies. Already, Eurosceptics are gaining airtime by remarking that Corbyn’s popular proposal to gradually renationalise the railways would be impossible under EU competition law.
If anything, Corbyn’s election highlights the impossibility of the balancing act Cameron has assigned himself. Ask for guarantees for UK sovereignty, and the concessions obtained will be laughable. Ask for “better regulation,” meaning less regulation, and Corbyn’s front bench will recuperate this as an affront to workers’ rights. Ask for quotas on EU migrants, and most EU members won’t even want to play ball. What Cameron does obtain, he will be able to present as a significant change and it remains likely that the British electorate votes to stay in for fear of the economic fallout of leaving. But referendums are inherently unstable and unpredictable, and Corbyn’s election is the first of several unexpected setbacks in a process which Cameron thought he could control.