With just a few days to go, the Labour Party must make a distinctive social democratic argument for Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. There is a real danger that Labour voters are not being persuaded of our case and that they remain in the dark about the party’s position.
The main focus of Labour’s message has been the rights granted to British workers under the Social Chapter. These include important provisions such as paid annual leave, rights for part-time and agency workers and anti-discrimination laws. It was the last Labour government which signed up to the Social Chapter, in the teeth of Tory opposition. These rights are a vital part of our labour market. As the revelations from Sports Direct this week have shown, without proper protections, unscrupulous bosses will always try to take liberties with their workforce.
So it is right that Labour should point out that if we left the EU, there would be a bonfire of workers’ rights. And yet, if these arguments were enough to win the day, the polls would be showing clear leads for Remain – and they’re not.
There is a more fundamental argument that Labour needs to advance. We must address the real and urgent concerns of voters in Labour areas, who vote for Labour councillors and MPs, but who are toying with voting Leave on 23 June. These voters feel a huge sense of unease about the future for their jobs. They fear for their children’s future. They are concerned about the sweeping changes of globalisation and technological change.
They can feel the ground shifting under their feet and know the Conservatives don’t have the answer. But so far, Labour has not addressed their concerns either. The party has offered a series of small messages, each vital, but no simple, compelling big argument. Indeed, on the big questions of economic change, Labour feels strangely absent.
The fact is that a post-Brexit Britain would face huge economic challenges. There would be a flight of capital, and pressure on the currency. Investors would quickly shift their sights to Dublin, Barcelona or Berlin. Corporate HQs might put up the “closed” signs. Jobs would start to haemorrhage. There would be an almighty political and constitutional crisis.
The Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has warned that leaving Europe could cause a recession. Every economic forecast points in the same direction: leaving the EU would damage our economy and lead to less investment, fewer jobs, higher prices and higher mortgage rates. Even if the economy shrinks by a couple of percentage points, the amount will be greater than whatever gains there may be from leaving the EU. That means that there will be less money for the NHS, for education, for defence and for major construction projects.
And the point Labour must make is this: the people who suffer first, and who are always hit the hardest, are the people who live in Labour areas. People in skilled work. People in public services. People in the finance and service sectors. It would be our constituents on low and middle incomes who would pay the price, not the rich and powerful who can easily escape any economic downturn. That means Labour has a responsibility to stress the dangers to our communities of a Leave vote. It would be irresponsible to avoid doing so.
After all, it is not scaremongering to help people weigh up the huge risks of leaving Europe. However, we also need to make a positive economic case too. We have successfully attracted inward investment from multinational companies, like Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens and BMW, because we are a gateway to the biggest internal market in the world of over 500 million people. Our young people have all kinds of opportunities to travel, work and study across Europe thanks to our EU membership. Our major companies, universities and research institutes all benefit from our membership. Our NHS benefits from the nurses and doctors from across the EU who keep it running day after day.
The bottom line is that the global economy is tilting towards the east and the south. China’s economy is rapidly growing. Countries from Vietnam to Brazil are on the march. For firms in Wolverhampton to prosper, we need to be part of a continental trading bloc of 500 million people, not closing the door on the EU. This is a distinctive Labour message: confident, internationalist, outward-looking. It is about jobs, investment, as well as workers’ rights. It is about how Britain will face up to the challenges of the future, not the past.
If the British public votes to leave Europe, it will be a failure for David Cameron but it will also be a failure on our part. Everybody in Labour, from the leader all the way down to our grassroots membership, has a responsibility to speak to Labour voters and persuade them of the case to Remain.