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How Labour should play EU question

by Hugo Dixon | 29.06.2016

Anybody hoping the civil war in the Labour Party will produce a silver bullet to keep us in the EU should think again.

Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre defence of our EU membership is certainly partly to blame for the referendum result. He is also not a credible prime minister – and therefore could not be an effective leader of the opposition.

Whoever is the new Tory prime minister will need to be challenged as we embark on our lengthy divorce from the EU. So it is good that the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership is likely to produce one of two outcomes: either a new leader; or a split in the party, with a new centre-left group forming its own organisation.

However, neither outcome is likely to be the answer to pro-Europeans’ prayers. The most probable successors, Angela Eagle or Tom Watson, may be pro-EU, but they are also on the party’s left wing and would struggle to win a general election. Meanwhile, a split in Labour would leave the opposition in disarray and might limit its ability to provide effective opposition.

What’s more, it would be electoral suicide for Labour to push for a second referendum – at least unless there was popular clamour for such a move or the options available to Britain changed significantly from what was on the table last week.

That said, the party doesn’t have to sit passively and give the government a blank cheque on Europe. There are three things it can and should do.

First, Labour should insist on the new prime minister producing a proper plan for our future relations with the EU. It could quite reasonably try to stop the government launching formal divorce proceedings by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty until there was a plan. Given the government’s slender majority, it might be able to achieve such a goal with the help of a few dissident Tory MPs.

Second, Labour could refuse to let a new prime minister call a general election until he or she had produced such a plan. It probably has the power to do this since the main way to hold an election before the scheduled date of 2020 is to secure the support of two-thirds of all MPs.

Some people may say it would be undemocratic to deny a premier who had not yet faced the electorate the chance to secure a mandate through a general election. But it would be reasonable to make this conditional on the new inhabitant of Downing Street setting out a Brexit plan.

Finally, Labour should put forward its own plan. At present, the least bad option would be something modelled on Norway’s arrangements with the EU. The Scandinavian country has nearly full access to the single market. The snag is that it has no say over the rules it has to follow, still pays into the EU’s budget and has to offer free movement to EU citizens. Unless this last condition can be modified – and there is some fine print in Norway’s deal that suggest there may be wiggle room – it is unlikely to be acceptable to Brexiteers.

If Labour adopts such a stance and has a new leader, it will be able to be an effective opposition. It may also be in a position to campaign well, if and when the people are next consulted for their view.

Edited by Rachel Franklin

5 Responses to “How Labour should play EU question”

  • What is not clear to me is what is meant by ‘negotiation’. You suggest that Labour should press for a Norway type arrangement and perhaps that is right. However is this a matter for a Parliamentary vote or can the government simply adopts own preferred approach? Secondly, what is the nature of a ‘negotiation’ post the Article 50 triggering? Are we really talking about a negotiation or about the UK presenting its hopes and then leaving the room to be told later what the EU is going to do? That doesn’t sound like a negotiation

  • Why isn’t there a mass campaign to get europhiles to join the Labour Party and stop Corbyn ? I was on the Trafalgar March yesterday and everyone agreed it was as much Corbyns fault as Cameron’s , 4 million signed for a second ref in 4 days. I’m not saying a second ref is feasible but a Eurocentric labour and liberal party is a good start , that 4 mill signatures should be used , Corbyn must go

    • How exactly was this as much Corbyn’s fault as much as Cameron’s?

      1. Did Corbyn insist on a referendum, and then one month after Welsh/Scottish/local authority elections? Not allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote despite their ability to vote in the Scottish referendum election.
      2. Was Cameron having to fend off a coup pretty much all the time? Mind you the only reason was because no-one else relished the job.
      3. Was Corbyn leader of the Labour IN grouping? Labour should have been planning for this for years; UKIP definitely have and it seems as if Lord Ashcroft knows more about Labour’s communities than Labour does itself (certainly not just the last 9 months, but since the Blair era, and most definitely since 2010). And Labour still haven’t learned their lessons, from their behaviour over the last few days (they think the Tories are going to call a snap election – please! They mounted this coup prior to speaking to their constituency parties, hoping to humiliate Corbyn. Doubtless Watson was hoping to take over – the last deputy leader who became acting leader did such a good job …. not.
      I am not exactly that Corbyn was wonderful, but to say that it was equal responsibility is incorrect. He may be shouldn’t have said that he didn’t see an issue with a cap on immigration a few days before Thursday. But then how many ‘core’ Labour voters were watching Sunday politics programmes anyway? The EU is a complicated conundrum, totally ill-suited for a simple yes-no referendum. Cameron had apparently warned the EU in February that it could go either way because of immigration. And yet, we had Alan Johnson heading the Labour IN grouping, hardly the most dynamic of people, but he just seemed bothered about giving leaflets out, whereas the likes of Gove/Farage/Johnson concentrated on very simple messages which Arron Banks had been recommended was what would work.

      Would it made any difference if Corbyn’s team had attended a few more meetings? Done a few more speeches? Give me a break. If anything, Corbyn on one level is actually more in tune with the ‘core’ membership, if there’s such a thing anymore. And that’s the problem. Labour turnout was about 60% in favour of ‘remain’. However, the balance of city; urban was stark and between young and old. There was even a big difference between 18-24, and then 25-34. As expected rural, was Eurosceptic. But what’s concerning is the total lack of scepticism towards the Leave comments and the people who are shocked that no, the NHS won’t be getting an additional £350 million, that immigration might not go down, that fishermen won’t be allowed to catch any more fish, etc. And the likes of the BBC singularly failed to hold the Brexiters to account.

      Removing Corbyn in this anti-democratic manner hardly gets round the fact that the PLP as a whole is not holding the Government to account, and has been behaving disgracefully over the last few days. They should look in a mirror before openly criticising the leader, and think long and hard. Why was he elected in the first place? Who exactly is going to replace him? A few questions could likewise have been posed before setting up Labour IN. There was this assumption that you just have to get some volunteers out, people will be persuaded to vote with the party line (I’m not sure that even works with unions any more). You’d have thought the great laboratory that is the US Presidential Elections might have given people a subtle hint, Podemos, Syriza etc. So the UK was going to be massively different? There is a reason why the Mirror barely covered the referendum – most of the Labour readership were Eurosceptic. The Labour party has been ignoring the immigration issues for years (Ed’s immigration mugs notwithstanding and that was probably courtesy of Lucy Powell, his chief of staff, newly elected MP for Manchester Central and one of the first resignees).

  • It is too early to give up on remaining in the EU. Exit was obtained based on promises that have already unravelled. As more and more people realise that it is bad for Britain – bad for our economy, bad for the NHS, bad for education, bad for jobs, I can see the public (including a great many of those that voted out ) calling for a second referendum, a second chance. We should not obstruct that or make it difficult – in my view that would be undemocratic under the circumstances. It is important we remain open to this – it is not disrespectful to allow people a second vote once the consequences become clearer, particularly because all of the key promises on which the exit campaign asked people to base their decision have proved to be false. Nobody voted for less money available to spend on the NHS, skilled jobs moving away from Britain to other european countries, less tax revenues, inability to curb immigration, a weaker economy, fall in value of the pound, more expensive goods and petrol, billions wiped off of pensions and savings investments, or economic hardship. Let’s see what the public want as the consequences become clearer and let’s be open to that.

  • I don’t agree with a lot in this article Hugo. Labour could oppose Article 50 on a number of grounds.

    1. The referendum was called to help the Tory party not the country.
    2. 63% of the electorate didn’t support brexit.
    3. 16+17 year olds and many Brits abroad were denied a vote.
    4. The vote was won by lies and false promises that are now unravelling.
    5. The so-called ‘project fear’ is becoming project reality faster than many anticipated.
    6. There is no brexit plan that will work which is why the brexit campaign didn’t come up with one and no-one has come up with one since the referendum. No-one in the referendum will have voted for whatever plan that they come up with, so it has no democratic legitimacy.
    7. People would have their EU citizenship removed against their will.