Why Labour is still the Remainer party
Labour’s big ‘u-turn’ was from democracy to the EU.
Why all the media jaw-dropping about the Labour Party’s ‘shock u-turn’ away from Brexit? Labour’s betrayal of the millions of its traditional supporters who voted to leave the European Union should surely shock nobody. After all, Labour has been Britain’s leading Remainer party for the past 30 years. Ever since, in fact, the party made its big turn away from the British working class and democracy towards seeing the Euro-bureaucracy as the force for ‘progress’.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, the ardent Remainer Keir Starmer, now says the UK should remain in the EU Single Market and Customs Union for a lengthy (possibly indefinite) ‘transitional period’ after formally leaving the European Union in 2019. That means complying with EU rules, and remaining under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It raises the real prospect of no meaningful Brexit under a Labour government, led by Jeremy Corbyn or not.
Labour’s ‘u-turn’ looks like effectively overturning the 17.4million votes to leave the EU and endorsing a policy of Remain-by-another-name. But that could only be shocking to those who ignore the party’s recent history of cosying up to the EU elites.
Labour has long been the UK’s leading Remainer party, in a far more meaningful sense than the EU-worshipping Liberal Democrats. Labour abandoned its Eurosceptic policies in the late 1980s and became increasingly pro-EU over the next three decades.
That switch symbolised a more important Labour turn – away from trying to win democratic support for political change from working-class voters and towards imposing technocratic policies via the EU courts and commissions. By 2016 that turn had taken the party so far from its traditional base that, while some 90 per cent of Labour MPs backed Remain, around 70 per cent of their constituencies voted Leave.
A turning point came back in 1988 when Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, addressed the British Trades Union Congress. Margaret Thatcher’s reviled Tories had won a third thumping General Election victory and Labour was in disarray. Delors offered them a vision of a more left-friendly Europe, embodied in the ‘social chapter’ of the forthcoming Maastricht Treaty, which would form the European Union. In response, TUC delegates gave the top EC bureaucrat a standing ovation and rousing chorus of ‘Frère Jacques’.
Labour embarked on a campaign to escape its isolation and loss of working-class support at home by seeking well-heeled allies in Euro-courts and commissions. It sought to compensate for the decline of the British trade unions by getting the European Union to impose rules that Labour could not achieve through democratic politics at home.
By the time New Labour finally got into government under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown from 1997, it had moved so close to the anti-democratic EU that former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and ex-minister Peter Mandelson were appointed European commissioners, while Blair dreamt of being anointed president of Europe.
Has the party’s attitude to the EU really changed under the leadership of anti-Blairite Corbyn? As bag-carrier to leading Labour leftist Tony Benn, Corbyn had a long record of Bennite opposition to the EU. Yet in the 2015 leadership election, he joined the moderate candidates in backing membership. Then, as Labour leader in the 2016 referendum, at the one moment when it mattered most, Corbyn shelved his Eurosceptic principles and supported the establishment’s Remain campaign.
Since the majority of voters (especially Labour voters) ignored his advice and voted to leave, Corbyn and his allies have made noises about respecting the result and implementing Brexit. However, Remainer Starmer’s announcement of the party’s official new position makes clear that Corbyn’s Labour is in the ‘we respect the result, but…’ camp. Which, as I have argued before on spiked, is just the latest version of ‘we back democracy, but…’ elitism-in-disguise.
Of course, Corbyn is no hardcore Labour Remainer. But what he has in common with them is the belief that the undemocratic, unaccountable bodies of the EU can be used to get around the limitations of democratic politics in the UK. Thus he supports the idea of the EU imposing punitive financial taxes on the City of London, despite or perhaps because such measures do not command sufficient political support in Britain. The fact that Corbyn wants the Eurocrats to override UK politics for ‘progressive’ ends does not make it any less anti-democratic.
Labour policy on the EU remains at least as messy and uncertain as that of the pathetic Tory Party. But the underlying dynamic seems clear enough. Corbyn’s new supporters from the Remain-voting metropolitan middle classes have far more clout in the party than ‘old-fashioned’ Labour Leave voters. And remember, Corbyn’s own core left-wing supporters in the Momentum lobby also backed Remain.
Not only has Labour long been the leading Remainer party, but the momentum in the party is now behind the campaign for Remain-by-another-name. Those who seriously believe in Brexit and democracy should take the hint, and leave Labour behind.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
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