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. 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser