It was once Labour that was the Eurosceptic party of British politics – Harold Wilson staged the 1975 referendum in an attempt to heal the divide on his front bench and Labour went on to advocate withdrawal from the EC under Michael Foot in 1983. It wasonly during Neil Kinnock’s leadership that the party and the trade union movement embraced the EU as a bulwark against Thatcherism.
Eurosceptics have been increasingly rare in Labour ever since; Kate Hoey is one of those who endures. The Vauxhall MP and former sports minister has established a new group, Labour For Britain, to lead the drive for renegotiation and, should that fail, to campaign for withdrawal.
“I don’t like the word ‘Britain’ because that excludes Northern Ireland,” says Hoey, who was born in County Antrim, when I meet her in her parliamentary office. “I like ‘UK’. But if you look at ‘Labour FUK’ it doesn’t exactly do very well, so we have to stick with Britain.”
She excoriates her party for failing to publish a set of renegotiation demands. “All the leadership candidates have said that they want to see reform but I haven’t heard any of them spell out in any way what they think needs to be reformed. They talk about it in a way that shows they haven’t really given it any thought because it’s not been necessary. Because there’s been an agreement that the party is pro-EU, none of them can see any possibility of us leaving, so they don’t need to think about it and I think that’s very lazy politics and needs to be changed.”
What Hoey wants, she tells me, is: “To get back to our parliament the right to make its own laws, the right to have complete control of our economy, to decide everything that relates to our own country … and of course that is fundamentally opposed to what the original aims of the Common Market were”. She also calls for an end to the free movement of people (“People from the Commonwealth are completely penalised when it comes to getting their families in to visit them and yet somebody can walk in from Romania or Latvia with no history of involvement in this country whatsoever”) and the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. “That’s what the Labour Party should be doing instead of going off into a little corner and saying ‘No, no it’s all wonderful and we might want to tinker around a little bit’. We are letting down millions of our own supporters, many of whom voted Ukip and will continue to do so until this is treated in a serious way.”
Even more strikingly, Hoey blames her party’s “extremely unpatriotic” outlook for its increasing alienation from its traditional working class supporters. “They feel very strongly about their country and we have been extremely unpatriotic as a party to our country. There’s just a feeling that we’re half-hearted about being British, we’re half-hearted about the monarchy, we’re half-hearted about the way we see our country in the world. I’m very proud of being British and I think the United Kingdom is a force for good in the world and we seem to feel all the time that we have to put ourselves down because somehow that might upset people”.
She continues: “We’ve moved away from the basic decency and values that working class people had and the way that I and others were brought up … All of that seems to be ridiculed now by some of the people in leadership positions and not necessarily because they’ve really believed that but because we’ve been taken over by this kind of London, intellectual, academic-y, liberal-y people who feel that, really, if only we just got rid of all those people out there who ask awkward questions about immigration and ask awkward questions about people living off benefits when they shouldn’t be, that Labour would somehow be wonderful.”
Hoey concedes that she does not expect significant changes from David Cameron’s renegotiation and that “she won’t be satisfied with tinkering”. But while she promises to be involved in the Out campaign, she rejects the calls for her to lead it. “I’m not going to be the leader, I would not want to be the leader of the No campaign. I’m going to be involved and see how things evolve.”
Hoey was proposed to serve as a leader by those Eurosceptics who fear that a Ukip-dominated Out campaign will guarantee defeat. But she defends Nigel Farage’s party against its detractors on left and right. “I don’t have this obsession that Ukip is somehow this absolutely dreadful thing that we must all unite to have a go at. Ukip get nearly four million votes, they come second in all those seats, they’re going to have a part to play in a leave campaign, everybody will have their part to play, everybody’s got different strengths.” She has never been invited to defect to Ukip but praises Farage as “a brilliant communicator when he’s on form”.
On Hoey’s wall are photos of her with former Labour leaders – Foot, Kinnock, John Smith – and one of her at Wimbledon with Margaret Thatcher. As in 2010, Hoey has nominated Andy Burnham for the leadership (though adds that she was prepared to lend her vote to Jeremy Corbyn). “I think he’s matured a lot, he’s learned a lot, I think he’s tougher than he was … Andy is the one who would have the confidence to break out of the mould in lots of areas”.
However, she acknowledges that, given the electoral arithmetic, Labour will struggle to form a government in 2020. “In fact, a nameless person, when I was sitting besides him last week, said he thought we should have a woman leader and I said, I won’t name the person, ‘Well I can’t see so-and-so being prime minister and he said to me: ‘Oh, don’t be so stupid, Kate. We’re not electing a prime minister, we’re electing a leader of the opposition for 10 years’. And that was a fairly senior person.”