Labour’s terror of “Europe” will cost the party votes

Denis MacShane / May 2019

Photo: Shutterstock


The rain was pouring down in London so I gave a lift to a friend, like me a former Labour MP, who I saw forlornly in the pelting rain outside our local supermarket .

His only subject of conversation: who to vote for on 23 May when Britain goes to the polls to elect 73 UK MEPs? His mind was made up. Green. I reminded him that the Greens had got 15% in the 1989 election years before UKIP ever existed.

But while thirty years later the Green agenda was now top of politics the ways to policy change is as ever through winning power and a single-issue party however well it does in European Parliament elections – whether Greens or Farage-UKIP – may influence the direction of political travel but will not shape hard policy decisions.

But like so many Labour friends he was disillusioned by Labour’s failure to seize control of the Brexit agenda. Labour MPs, past and present, party activists have been agog listening to the cacophony of competing, confusing, contradictory voices from Labour bigwigs on all aspects of Brexit.

There is a clear enough policy adopted and agreed by the Labour Party conference for a public aka people’s vote. When a few Labour MPs walked out in February in protest over Labour’s handling of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn briefly slipped off the fence and came out a little more clearly for the need for the people not the elites in Westminster and Whitehall to decide.

His deputy Tom Watson seemed clear as did the shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry. 

Corbyn himself cannot give up his 1970s faith in socialism in one country.  He appears to have interpreted this as meaning EU membership has to be excluded even though there are several EU member states with much more progressive socially fairer government policies than anything ever essayed in Britain. 

But there seemed to be enough top Labour figures using words that separated Labour from Mrs May. But then Labour’s National Executive Committee met on the eve of the local government elections ten days ago, crashed into reverse gear and relegated a public vote to something that might happen, possibly, not for sure, after a general election and certainly not on the principle of staying in Europe.

The party conference resolution said “Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”

This is not contingent on Mrs May’s unworkable Brexit deal, or some future Labour deal, it is clear instruction to start “campaigning for a public vote.”

Now at the formal launch of Labour 's European Parliament election manifesto all Jeremy Corbyn could manage was  "We accept Brexit. If we can't get a sensible deal, along the lines of our alternative plan, or a general election, Labour backs the option of a public vote."  Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ official campaign slogan of "Bollox to Brexit" is rude and crude has been worn by millions marching against Tory-UKIP anti-Europeanism has not got a single weasel word in view. 

Labour's policy on Europe is now reset on Corbyn time, turning back the clock as if the party rank and file had not made its position clear.

Tacticians will say such fence-sitting is necessary to keep voters in Labour constituencies in favour of Brexit happy. As Labour’s hero and founder of the NHS, Aneuran Bevan, said “When you sit on the fence long enough, the iron enters the soul.”

That is what happened in the municipal elections as Labour voters deserted the party in droves to vote LibDem and Green as a clear expression of anti-Brexit commitment.

Labour is nine years into an unpopular Tory government which has imposed austerity cuts on all public services and the poor and yet Labour lost council seats. 

After I dropped off my friend I went home and found the Labour European election leaflet had arrived. It has a very large picture of Jeremy Corbyn. I counted 207 words in all on the 4 pages of the leaflet. The word “Europe” was just one of those words. The rest were a denunciation of domestic Tory policy.

Fighting a European election with a one word mention of Europe is not going to win back the lost voters who in addition to the LibDems, the Greens, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists now have the Change UK list of impressive experienced European political activists to support.

Is it too late? Unless Labour decides to stand with its membership and most of its MPs and take heed of Mary Creagh MP’s point that in her northern constituency of Wakefield there are more Remain voters than in Oxford and unless Labour notes that in solid working class Liverpool there was a 58% vote against Brexit in 2016 and speaks up for those workers whose jobs will disappear with Brexit then Labour will find it hard to win the votes it needs on 23 May to show the country is it a party serious about the future of the nation.

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

May 2019

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