On June 24th the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, plunging the UK into political and constitutional, as well as economic, chaos. In normal times, one may have expected the Labour Party, as the main opposition to the government, to be able to capitalise on the forced resignation of the Prime Minister, a sharp downturn in the UK economy and tumult within the Tory party. Yet, these are not normal times. Instead, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has ripped a hole in the Labour Party that threatens its very existence.
Following the result, a large number of Labour MPs resigned from the Shadow Cabinet and triggered a fresh election for the leadership of the party, citing Corbyn’s apparent weak leadership during the referendum campaign and the sacking of Hilary Benn (who was plotting a coup against Corbyn) as their reasons for doing so. Corbyn looks set to win again easily, yet his potential victory poses a serious challenge to the Labour Party; it pits the leadership and the hundreds of thousands of largely pro-Corbyn new members against the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Whatever view one takes on Corbyn as leader, given this deadlock, there can be no doubt that his re-election will throw up serious questions about the ability of Labour to continue operating as a cohesive parliamentary organisation. This piece is not intended to be about the Labour Party’s constitutional crisis but rather its politics in light of the referendum. Yet, as the above discussion illustrates, the two have become disturbingly intertwined. Nevertheless, it remains important to understand what Labour’s strategy and vision are for the UK and Europe post-Brexit, and what are some of the key challenges the vote to leave has thrown up.
The post-Brexit settlement
Labour’s campaign during the EU referendum was half-hearted and struggled to make an impact. It is no secret that Corbyn has been very critical of the EU in the past: he voted to leave the EEC in 1975, voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, and even refused to rule out campaigning to leave the EU during Labour’s 2015 leadership election. He did (at least publically) alter his view, however, after becoming party leader and Labour campaigned to ‘remain and reform’. However, Corbyn’s vision of a new Social Europe, which includes better worker rights and environmental regulation, gained little traction with the wider public.
Of course, the debate over the UK’s relationship with Europe did not simply end on 24th June. Given Corbyn’s critical stance on the EU, Labour were probably never going to contest the decision to leave and Corbyn has more recently ruled out offering a second referendum. Yet, to the surprise of most, on the morning of the result as others including David Cameron and Boris Johnson called for calm, Corbyn seemed to appeal for a swift invocation of Article 50. He has since retracted his statement, yet it is difficult to not view it as a natural result of his underlying distaste for the EU and eagerness for the UK to leave.
Whatever the relevance of the remark, the party has since been making more sensible noises about the need to make its mark on the Brexit negotiations and not allow the Conservatives to dominate proceedings. In a speech by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and an article in the Guardian newspaper by Corbyn, Labour has begun to set out its ‘red lines’ for the negotiation of the post-Brexit settlement. In these statements the party has admitted Brexit will mean the end of free movement of labour and people. Although it has called for debate on other areas, including the upholding of existing workplace protections and continued freedom of trade between the EU and UK, it has not voiced strong opposition to the end of free movement. Whilst Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham successfully led a motion in Parliament that looks to secure the right to remain for EU nationals already in the UK, the party under Corbyn remains sceptical of the principle of free movement, which it sees as too often the ‘freedom to exploit cheap labour’ (Corbyn 2016).
The vote to leave has also had significant consequences for the nature of the British economy and its growth model; following the vote to leave, the chance of the UK falling back into recession in the next 18 months could be as high as 50 percent (NIESR 2016). Part of the necessary task for Labour in the coming months is to prepare itself for this coming crisis. Corbyn has begun to set out what a post-Brexit British economy under Labour would look like. Labour’s new 10-point ‘vision for Britain’ includes significant fiscal stimulus measures such as £500bn investment to secure full employment, the building of 1m new homes, a new universal public ‘National Education Service’ and a more progressive taxation system.
A public investment programme and fiscal stimulus package will be a necessary part of any progressive programme designed to fuel growth and avoid a future slump. Yet, the task ahead will be to ensure that such as a programme is seen by the public as both future-orientated and a safer bet than what has been offered since 2010. Corbyn has often been ridiculed for seemingly supporting an economic programme designed for the 1970s. The vote to leave the EU may have taken the UK a step closer back to that decade, but in order for Labour once again to become a force that can help to shape the political and economic settlement it is vital that it shrugs off this perception.
A fractured party, a fractured electorate
It is important to remember, however, that talking straightforwardly about ‘Labour’s European politics’ is difficult. The party is seriously divided at this moment in time. Whilst Corbyn’s politics may even be more comfortable within a post-EU Britain, his leadership challenger Owen Smith has positioned himself as a firmly pro-EU candidate, suggesting that he would offer the public a second referendum once the terms of the Brexit negotiations are established.
The possibility of delivering a second referendum remains dubious in theory, whilst in practice, given the strong prospect that Corbyn will remain leader, it is even more unlikely to become Labour policy. Yet, there is a more troubling issue at play here. Paradoxically, Corbyn was both closer to the general electorate than other leading Labour figures, and yet simultaneously a lot further away. His more critical stance towards the EU may resonate with ‘leavers’, yet there can be no doubt that an anti-immigration sentiment, and the desire to ‘take back our borders’, was perhaps the defining issues that shaped the result, whilst Corbyn remains one of the most actively pro-immigration MPs in Parliament.
Whilst he should be applauded for his campaigning as a progressive on this issue, it is clear that immigration remains a difficult issue for Labour’s European politics. There is a clear worry here that much of Labour’s traditional core vote has felt cut adrift and reacted by voting out, pointing to the emergence of an ‘open-closed’ cleavage that cuts across the traditional Left-Right divide, based on attitudes towards the EU, globalisation, immigration, etc. Corbyn’s ‘remain and reform’ platform attempted to address this by speaking of the need for better labour market regulation, to prevent the displacement of British workers as a result of cheaper labour coming from the EU, yet the message wasn’t heard.
Much more work needs to be done to convince the majority that voted to leave that Labour is the party that best represents them in the post-Brexit environment. It is not enough to offer a second referendum and hope that the fractional majority is reversed, and with it the decision made in June.
A significant aspect of achieving this is, however, to ensure that Labour doesn’t lose touch with Europe itself. Corbyn met with Party of European Socialists leaders in early July to discuss the referendum result, but currently Labour is not talking enough about Brexit as a Europe-wide issue. There can be no doubt that the EU needs reform and that the opacity of some of its institutions did not help the ‘remain’ cause. Yet, by casting itself adrift from the European political landscape, the UK has indulged in form of anti-politics, and its dangers are two-fold. It suits an increasingly parochial, nationalistic political dynamic that will bolster conservative and populist parties, especially as they ride their tanks on to Labour’s lawn with more progressive, compensatory economic rhetoric (as the Conservatives and UKIP have both sought to do already). Yet, equally, it emboldens the anti-European politics of the emerging far-right across Europe, and in doing so challenges Labour’s sister parties. The right response to this populist threat is for the European socialist and social democratic parties to articulate a progressive alternative message together. Labour cannot redraw the political battle lines around the British Isles. It must remain part of this conversation.
Four key challenges lie ahead for Labour and its relationship with Europe, then: to take charge of Brexit negotiations to ensure a more ‘social’ settlement; to prepare for economic uncertainty in the UK; to address the rising discontent amongst those who voted to leave; and, to continue to engage with and support its European partners. At the moment, however, it isn’t doing any of these particularly well. The European question may have served to pull Labour apart further. Yet, if the party wants to address the post-Brexit landscape adequately, it must first get its own affairs in order.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (2016) ‘National Institute Economic Review Press Release: Prospects for the UK economy’, No. 237 August 2016, [available at: http://www.niesr.ac.uk/sites/default/files/NIESR%20Press%20Release%20-%20UK%20Economy%20-%20Aug%2016%20-%20EMBARGOED%20untile%20Wednesday%2000.01am.pdf]
Jeremy Corbyn (2016) ‘We can’t leave the negotiations with Europe to the Tories’, The Guardian, 8 July 2016, [available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/08/jeremy-corbyn-labour-negotiations-europe-tories-exploit-cheap-labour]