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20 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 8:53am

Labour is irrationally attached to the EU – it’s time to move on

We need to articulate what role we wish to play in the world

By Gisela Stuart

Given the tensions within the Labour party and on the left, it might appear self-indulgent to talk about a new internationalism. But the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and when the pieces fall into place, we had better make sure we emerge as a political force that is capable of being in government. The blunt truth is that Labour only has relevance if it is serious about being a party of government with a credible policy agenda. If Labour members want to be part of a pressure group they are in for a shock. There are a lot of other organisations out there that do that job, and they do it better. 

That means the progressive left must articulate in practical and thought through policies what a Labour government would do differently.  

At its heart, Labour is an outward looking internationalist party, and we have not historically spent time tearing ourselves apart over Europe. But we must now recognise that the EU referendum has exposed some unresolved conflicts which we need to address. 

Labour stopped thinking rationally about the developments in the European Union. We saw that all we had to say was “Europe” and the Tories would start fighting. And we knew that the voters hate divided parties. We moved with seamless ease from an anti-common market party in the 1980s to an unquestioningly pro-EU party in the new century. To appear united became more important than critical analysis. Even during the referendum those of us who openly campaigned to leave were airbrushed out of the Labour family picture. This would have mattered little, if it had not also meant that whole swathes of traditional Labour voters also felt they were being ignored. 

When it came to Europe, social democratic principles were no longer applied to a whole range of things. We did not even comment on the way a whole generation of young people in countries like Greece were thrown on the unemployment scrapheap, because the political project of saving the euro demanded it. We also failed to take a dispassionate look at the immigration figures. Insufficient planning for local firms and public services meant not enough people were trained, and recruitment from abroad became a permanent default. Wages were kept low by recruitment from Eastern Europe causing huge problems for communities, but too many on the left refused to acknowledge this. We told our voters they were racist or ignorant or both. 

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Labour must acknowledge these two factors before it can have a European policy fit for government. The British people have voted to leave the political union, but we can and will continue to shape the future of the European continent. The coming years will involve rewriting the rules of our relationship with our European neighbours. I will be on the side of those who fight for the best deal for this country, rather than try and turn the clock back. 

Labour has always been internationalist. In the late 1990s it was Labour which spelt out principles of when intervention is right, and worked on developing a concept of a duty to protect. We now need to return to a willingness to engage, act and when necessary intervene.  What would today’s Labour party have said if faced with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or the conflict in Kosovo?  Whether it is Syria, Libya or Yemen, we need the military and diplomatic capacity to first win the war and then maintain the peace – as well as being able to respond to humanitarian crises. 

We therefore need to be able to articulate what role we wish to play in the world. NATO remains our main military alliance. We have a permanent seat in the UN security council and together with France provide the largest military capability on the European continent. The left needs to move beyond hand wringing and decide not just what it thinks about things, but what it would do about them. 

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This takes me to the final point. As a party we have neglected contacts with our social democratic sister parties because they are seen as “no votes territory”. True at election time, but in the long run it diminishes our reach as an international movement. 

A new internationalism for the left means being an actor in the world. Statements of ideas and values are comforting because they allow a degree of certainty, tidiness and purity. Actions are complicated, uncertain and often involve a balance of moral values. But actions are what government is about and actions are what change things for the good. 

If Labour wants a foreign policy fit for government, it needs to shape institutions, articulate its values and be prepared to take difficult decisions. 

Gisela Stuart is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, and served as chair of the Vote Leave campaign. The full version of this article, which sets out the required shift in the immigration debate more comprehensively, can be seen in the new Fabian publication Facing the Unknown: Building a progressive response to Brexit.