Labour will this week write the latest chapter of the long and tortuous history of its divisions on Europe.
It all goes back to the late 1940s when the left of the party supported ‘the United States of Europe’ against the official line laid down by Ernie Bevin (looking for the elusive ‘extra pat of butter on the plate of the working man’) and others that the Council of Europe was as far on the European journey as the UK should travel. In the mid-1950s it was the ‘modernisers’ of the day who supported Britain’s first application to join the EEC.
The belated attempt by the Wilson government to join in 1966/7 was aborted before divisions came to the fore. But from the day one of the Heath government, membership of the Community became the principal battle ground between left and right in the party: a deep division which saw 69 Labour MPs voting with the Conservative government to ensure passage of the European Communities Bill in 1971/2; the volte face of Labour over holding a referendum on membership; the party campaigning for ‘Out’ in 1975, with the Labour government supporting ‘In’; with Labour’s anti-European stance hardening as Labour fell from office in 1979, contributing to the split in 1981 and gifting the Tories with office for eighteen years.
And then the Labour battleship started its almost majestic U-turn throughout the decade from outright ‘Leave’ to timid ‘Remain’ right through to an endorsement of the single currency. But the divisions resurfaced over joining the single currency: a dissension which stymied Labour’s attempt in office to place itself at ‘the heart of Europe’.
In Opposition once more Labour held the line against a referendum through to the 2015 election. In the 2016 referendum the party, its leadership and the vast majority of MPs campaigned for remaining in the EU, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
This division of opinion about Europe has never been a neat right/left split. Hugh Gaitskell, the champion of the right was the most convincing opponent of Britain’s entry attempt in 1962. Tony Benn proposed the referendum on membership in the early 1970s while still, at that stage, being a strong supporter of the EC. Neil Kinnock, then on the left, moved from being a fierce opponent of membership to proposing support for our participation in monetary union. Leading party figures often changed their minds on Europe, sometimes because of a genuine conversion, or because of changed circumstances influencing pragmatic reconsideration, and sometimes through narrow calculation of personal career advantage. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, veterans from the 1945 parliament and the dominant figures of Labour right through to the seventies, changed their minds on the EC six times. I calculate that Denis Healey had at least eight different positions on the question.
Sometimes the divisions were the result of sincere and passionate conviction. And quite often the debate was of an elevated and occasionally vaulting kind: the passion of Professor JP Mackintosh, the forensic genius of Brian Walden (Labour MPs in the 1970s on the pro-European side), or the great philippics of Hugh Gaitskell or Michael Foot or the later Tony Benn, in rare harmony on the anti-European side.
The division that has now opened up in the Parliamentary labour Party is, in comparison, a miserable affair. The European endgame will not be decided by a genuine clash of ideas but by the mediocre calculation of a party the majority of whose MPs appear quite simply to have lost their nerve.
The party leadership seems to believe not simply that Labour has now to bow to ‘the will of the people’, even though it knows full well that the referendum was won on the basis of lies, ignorance and a gerrymandered electorate, without any serious consideration of the alternatives. It will inevitably lead to significant economic and social damage to Britain, with most harm inflicted on the weakest in society as well as to the potential break-up of the UK. Labour carries on with this ruinous and craven policy despite having been put on warning by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that Brexit would simply be the first stage in the removal of all those environmental, consumer and workplace protections we enjoy through our European Union membership, and, ultimately the dismantling of the welfare state and indeed the NHS, which from the Prime Minister’s silence on the question in the US, could now be put up for auction in cutting the trade deal with her new best friend in the White House. Like a commercial traveller of old, she then hawks her wares in Ankara. Any passing autocratic megalomaniac will do. What price North Korea?
Labour had a number of options for this week. It could have taken the brave principled route of saying the national interest obliged it to oppose withdrawal in principle. Or it could have exploited the opportunity offered by Mrs May’s speech and its Singapore gambit – the UK as an offshore casino economy – and opposed ‘Mrs May’s Brexit’. More cannily perhaps, it could have sought to amend the bill, and made clear that without amendment to provide safeguards and a second referendum (on the outcome of negotiations) it would oppose Article 50.
But, no, it signals that it will support triggering Article 50 in any case, and furthermore applies a three-line whip to force as many MPs as possible to vote against their openly expressed convictions. But this is Labour in 2017, so even the question of the 3-line whip is fumbled: on, off, on again. A party leader who holds an Olympic record for serial disobedience in the parliamentary party, now seeks as incompetently as one would expect to bludgeon his parliamentarians into accepting a party discipline he in thirty years so studiously ignored.
Labour’s manoeuvring is almost charmingly transparent. There is no pretence that this new line serves British interests. Labour’s position this week is motivated purely by the misplaced belief that these acrobatics may save seats in the north of England and the midlands, where the Leave side won in the referendum and where Labour’s position is under threat from UKIP and a resurgent Tory party. It is unlikely that many working class voters will be tempted back into the fold by this latest feeble display of opportunism.
And even in its incompetent manoeuvring, Labour adds layers of confusion and incompetence to its pusillanimity. If voters in the Labour heartlands voted Leave it was because of immigration which has been interpreted, possibly erroneously, as hostility to free movement. So some Labour MPs, hoping to save their skins, have started adopting language on free movement which would not be out of place in the saloon bar deliberations of the UKIP glitterati. But not the leader and his north London coterie: they end up supporting Article 50, even coming out of the single market, while being pro-immigration.
Bit by bit the damage to the UK’s economic future becomes more apparent. Living standards are beginning to feel the effect of the price rises caused by an unplanned devaluation. More companies line up to move business and investment elsewhere. The economic uncertainty starts to bite. And doing alternative trade deals with unsavoury governments with strong protectionist tendencies starts to feel a shaky alternative to unfettered access to the single market. Who is to say that opinion in those northern heartlands won’t start to evolve just as Labour careers off in the wrong direction?
So with not even a hint of principle involved, Labour lines up as an impotent accessory in this act of national self-harm. In so doing, a vain attempt to keep within the fold the one-third of Labour supporters who voted to leave, the party’s managers (if the word ‘manager’ is not out of place) take the risk of alienating the two-thirds of Labour voters who wanted to stay, many of whom remain passionately European and who may well look elsewhere for the appropriate expression of their deeply held beliefs.
Indeed as the charade of Labour as ‘UKIP lite’ flops at the box office, the disgust at its unprincipled conduct among committed Europeans on the most important political question since WW2 could become life-threatening for the party.
Political parties are not immortal. The centre left in Europe and elsewhere is in possibly terminal decline. When politicians become so obsessed with saving their skins that they are prepared to sacrifice their basic principles in acts of incompetent careerism, they unwittingly place their future on the line.
Some people believe Jeremy Corbyn to be the worst leader Labour has ever elected: others take the view that he could well have the self-evidently unique distinction of being its last.
This week we should salute the courage of Labour MPs who follow their consciences, who vote in the superior national interest to oppose the triggering of Article 50, and who may, almost incidentally, be the party’s best hope of survival in this cruel cold climate.