Labour's pro-Europeans are wilting away

At the top of the party there are no real evangelicals for Europe any more.

There was a time in Labour circles when to be pro-European was regarded as A Good Thing. Actually, it was more than that. Being pro-European was something that those ambitious, clever, upwardly mobile people in the party were proud to call themselves. It was a sign of both moderation and modernisation. Not any more it seems.

Pure naked opportunism mostly explains last night’s decision to side with Tory ultras in calls to cut Britain’s EU budget contribution. Europe is a fantastic inter-party wedge issue for dividing the coalition, but it's catnip for stoking intra-party tension among Conservatives. On the specific issue of curbing the budget, it also, helpfully, gives Labour something concrete to say about cuts.

But this creeping euroscepticism in Labour’s ranks is also partly informed by experience in office. The enduring, lofty ideal of Europe is tempered by seeing the often sclerotic decision-making and undeniable waste up close. As shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander declared this morning: "Europe must learn to do better with less and that is why we voted for a real terms cut." The party’s once self-confident and numerous pro-Europeans are quiescent these days. Lions in winter, with neither grassroots support or much interest coming from the leadership.

The trade unions, once hostile towards the EC for being a "capitalist club", changed their tune in the late 1980s when the commission stated getting interested in social policy and workplace rights and proved instrumental in warming Labour’s attitude to Europe. But that was then. Now, the unions are narrowly focused on holding what they have amid domestic spending cuts. Europe can whistle.

At the top of the party there are no real evangelicals for Europe any more. Ed Balls is famously the architect of the five economic tests, wielded as a crucifix to repel any prospect of Britain joining the euro. Policy review head Jon Cruddas has called for an immediate referendum on EU withdrawal, while Ed Miliband didn’t mention the EU once in his recent party conference speech.

Instinctive pro-Europeans in the party like Denis MacShane now seem like curiosities from another age. Especially when compared to former comrades-in-arms like Gisela Stuart, who now believes Britain should actually quit the EU. There is also, perhaps, a generational shift occurring in the party, away from a post-war class which instinctively saw the European project as a force for good in the world and a bulwark against further conflict, and towards younger Labour politicians who take a far more pragmatic view of Europe.

Part of the EU problem is that it has always been a strategic geo-political partnership, not a popular movement. As former SDLP leader John Hume once put it, the EU is the longest-running peace process in the world. But it is not enough for diplomats, bureaucrats and the Westminster cognoscenti to "get" Europe when so many of the public do not. Europe has always failed to find a popular message and populist messengers. After last night, that challenge is now even harder.

"Ed Miliband didn’t mention the EU once in his recent party conference speech". Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue