If it is to be a "one nation" party, Labour must support an EU referendum

Miliband is making a strategic mistake by aligning the party with an EU political elite intent on exerting control over all 27 members states, regardless of the wishes of each electorate.

What does the one nation ideal mean for Labour’s approach to an in-out referendum on our EU membership? The term 'one nation' surely implies an end to class war politics and an equal voice in the democratic system for individuals from all sections of society. Rule by elites who act in their own interests at the expense of the rank and file, is the main danger to be avoided. If so, on what principled grounds could a one nation political party oppose an EU referendum?

Well into the 1980s Labour was sceptical about the EU. When I was a member of the party in Newcastle upon Tyne at the time of the 1975 referendum, the overwhelming view of members was that the Common Market (as it was then called) was dominated by the interests of business corporations. Rank and file workers counted for little. This view prevailed into the 1980s and was empirically confirmed by the actions of the Thatcher government in 1986.

The claim that the common market was largely an economic co-prosperity zone had some plausibility at the time of the 1975 referendum. It was possible for a nation to veto decisions that were against the interests of its people. So long as this safeguard remained, the EU might have developed into a mutually beneficial system of international co-operation. But the big countries wanted to be able to impose their wishes on other member states. The turning point came with the Single European Act of 1986, which was actively supported by the Thatcher government. The national veto was replaced by qualified majority voting (QMV) in a dozen key areas, including the single market, monetary co-operation and social policy.

In her book Statecraft, Thatcher explained that she supported the wider use of majority voting because she wished to force the other EU countries to eliminate "non-tariff barriers" to trade, which "operated through different national standards on health and safety, regulations and public procurement policies which discriminated against foreign products, and over-elaborate customs procedures". She wanted the power to outvote other countries, because she thought Britain would gain at the expense of other EU members, especially in providing services. Without the increase in majority voting, she said, "the programme itself could not have been driven through in the face of vested interests in member countries whose governments would have been under immense pressure to use the veto".

Her intention had been to impose de-regulation, but ten years later she admitted that harmful regulation had increased. She acknowledged two mistakes. She had naively believed that powers given to the EU to force through the single market would not be used for other purposes. And she had misunderstood the intentions of other leaders. The single market for them was "a device for centralising more decision-making in the hands of Europe".

In truth, she fell into a trap set up the centralisers. They knew she wanted to deregulate to strengthen the single market, and offered her the chance to coerce other EU members, with the intention of using the self-same powers to force the hand of Thatcher and future British governments. In the end, the Single European Act not only failed to extend the single market, Thatcher concluded that its powers had been "abused in order to push corporatist and collectivist legislation upon Britain by the back door". Her intention had been to impose de-regulation on other countries "by the back door" but they had turned the tables on her. The overall effect had been to "reduce Britain’s ability to compete successfully".

The Conservative Party, which had once prided itself on its patriotism, had under Thatcher been willing to surrender self-government for the paltry gain of a bigger market share for UK service providers in other EU countries. Thatcher at least admitted her mistake and perhaps her admission may serve as a warning to the current government. They could usefully take into account the alternative view that Thatcher advocated in Statecraft. She argued that the strategy of a "level playing field" was not as attractive as it sounded. Harmonisation often entrenched unwise regulation. A better approach would have been to allow different nations to compete to discover the best conditions for enterprise. She quotes J.S. Mill, who had argued that Europe owed its success to the ‘plurality of paths’ followed by different nations.

In saying this, she got close to understanding one of the strongest arguments for democratic self-government, one that was stressed constantly by liberal writers including Hayek, the thinker most admired by Thatcher. Human imperfection was such that we should be wary of giving any agency coercive power. In particular, our institutions should avoid granting exclusive or monopoly power, and instead should allow for reflection, double-checking, and the correction of mistakes in the light of experience. We should aim for an open society in which different ideas can be tried out, and in which creativity and innovation can flourish. Just as a competitive market allows consumers to compare companies, so national independence allows comparison between national systems, including their regulatory regimes. Moreover, democracy depends on nations. They make the ideal of government by consent a realistic hope, and the accountability of leaders a practical possibility.

One country could choose to have greater respect for trade unions and stronger workplace protection and set an example to others of what it believes to be best. Another could have light-touch regulation and offer itself for the critical judgment of other peoples. Over time each can learn from the other.

Until the 1980s it had been the policy of Labour to preserve national independence and Ed Miliband’s use of the term 'one nation' seemed to suggest a renewal of that tradition. But at present, Labour’s leadership is in danger of making a strategic mistake by aligning the party with an EU political elite intent on exerting control over all 27 EU nations, regardless of the wishes of each electorate. The ‘one-nation’ theme of recent speeches surely implies respect for the democratically-expressed views of the people of each nation. Not, it seems, if they want to secure independence from the EU. And yet it was Thatcher who willingly surrendered our powers of self-government. Moreover, David Cameron is no better than Thatcher. Cameron has advanced no principled defence of our independence and tacitly upholds the command-and-control mentality of Europe’s self-chosen elite. Labour is missing a chance to be the voice of the public spirited majority.

David Green is director of Civitas

Workers walk over a giant EU flag in front of the Parliament building in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.