Denis MacShane / May 2018
First it was five Labour MPs in the North-East of England and now four Labour MPs from the North West and the Mayor of Liverpool have issued an appeal to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support a new consultation with the people on whether to amputate the UK from Europe.
A myth of the London commentators and BBC Westminster reporters who cover Labour’s approach to Brexit is that once you leave the smart salons on metropolitan centres like London and a few university cities the rest of the core Labour vote is solidly pro-Brexit.
In fact, the picture is far more nuanced. It’s true that in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum two years ago Labour was shell-shocked at the strength of white working class support for Brexit.
Yet Europe and the reaction of its working class base to Europe has always been tricky for Labour. As late as 1983, the official Labour policy in its election manifesto was to pull out of the European Community. Clement Attlee, his successor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, James Callaghan and Michael Foot were all hostile to European integration though Callaghan lived with being in the European Community as part of the price of staying in power in the 1970s.
Harold Wilson walked both sides of the street but Neil Kinnock was elected Labour leader in 1983 as a strong Eurosceptic thought he later became strongly pro-EU with all the zeal of a convert.
Labour had to wait until 1992 to get its first principled pro-European leader in John Smith followed by Tony Blair. Jeremy Corbyn’s views on the EU were formed in the 1970s. A revealing essay on his foreign policy by Steven Bloomfield in Prospect shows a man passionate about many injustices around the world but without interest in or knowledge of Europe.
It is hardly a secret that immigration has always been toxic for Labour. From the days of Transport and General Workers Union dockers in London marching on Westminster in 1968 to support Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” speech to the rise of UKIP and BNP votes which won both racist parties MEP and council seats in the north after 2000 Labour has had to live with the fact that part of its voter base will vote against immigration whether BAME or European.
Jeremy Corbyn responded with his version of “Brexit Means Brexit” by insisting that the UK would have to leave the Single Market in order to stop free movement. He could have set up a commission to examine ways of changing the UK’s internal labour market rules so that tougher controls and more support for British workers could become Labour policy in line with EU nations that regulate more effectively incomers from other European states.
But imaginative and innovative thinking is not Labour’s forte at the moment especially after the June 2017 election which boosted the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” excitement about the imminent possibility of Labour forming a government. That has now died away. In the local government election on 3rd May, the LibDems and Greens won more seats with their strong anti-Brexit message than Labour did with its fence sitting on EU membership.
In London particularly, none of the four Tory boroughs targeted by Corbyn were won by Labour despite having massive Remain majorities as voters two weeks ago saw Labour as little different from the Tories on Europe. There will not be an election until 2022 so Labour has to decide what line to take on Europe - a decision it has been putting off since the Brexit plebiscite in June 2016.
Slowly Labour MPs and councillors have come to realise that the bulk of their members and voters are not pro-Brexit. 63 per cent of Labour voters want to stay in the EU.
Trade unions led by the TUC say the UK should stay in the Customs Union and Single Market in order to stop a job destroying end to foreign investment and automatic access to the world’s biggest market for made-in-Britain goods and services. The Royal College of Nurses, for example, representing 435,000 health workers has come out for a “People's Vote" as they know better than anyone the disaster that will hit the UK National Heallth Service it it cannot rely on European doctors, nurses and hospital or old age care professionals.
That said there are still many Labour MPs who remain nervous and like Corbyn are waiting for public opinion to change without making any effort to lead or shape public policy on Brexit. Now ten of their number in the working class heartlands of Labour voting Merseyside and North East constituencies are showing a lead.
Paradoxically it would make sense for Labour to say “Ask and Trust the People.” The alternative is for Brexit to dominate British politics for years to come. That will leave Labour divided and a divided party rarely wins power. Labour putting itself on the side of those who want the people to be consulted could be a game-changer.