Anyone hoping that Labour Party’s haemorrhaging of northern votes to UKIP or the EU’s sacrifice of Greece to preserve the Euro might lead to a reconsideration of Labour’s reflexive, metropolitan pro-Europeanism must be sorely disappointed with the four candidates jostling for the honour of leading the party to defeat in 2020.
Although there is a groundswell of euroscepticism building across the country – and even though many prominent left-wingers are now calling for “Lexit”, including the ubiquitous Owen Jones – those who aspire to lead the Labour Party remain wedded to their desperate belief that the EU is somehow good for Britain.
Even as the contrary evidence mounts and public pressure for a left-wing eurosceptic political outlet grows, the Labour Leadership candidates prefer to stick to their increasingly hollow-sounding scripts, proclaiming the dubious virtues of political union and the supposed horrors that would befall Britain if we were to regain our independence.
This much became clear during the LBC radio Labour Leadership hustings, when a certain “Nigel from Kent” (yes, that one) phoned in with a question, asking the candidates whether there were any scenarios in which they could envisage campaigning for Britain to leave the EU and voting “no” in the Brexit referendum.
The responses were predictably depressing.
Here’s Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and bland leadership candidate:
If I thought it wasn’t in Britain’s interest then I would vote no, but I just strongly think it is in Britain’s interest. I’ve got a factory in my constituency, a Haribo factory .. and it’s going to be hundreds of jobs, and they told me they’re investing because we’re part of Europe, because it’s going to be exporting to Ireland, to France, and Spain, and they would not be thinking about doing that if we weren’t part of Europe. So that’s hundreds of jobs in my constituency that depend on us being part of Europe
The question back to Nigel is are there any circumstances in which you would vote yes, or are you just so ideologically blinkered and anti-Europe that you always just want to shrink our country, make us turn inwards on ourselves, make a darker, narrower, more impoverished place?
And Liz Kendall, the solitary ray of hope for those who want to see a full repudiation of Milibandism:
No! I mean, what would happen to this amazing capital city of ours if we were out of Europe? What would happen to the manufacturing jobs across the midlands? How on earth would we tackle climate change or work with other countries to tackle terrorism? We have got to make the strong and positive case for Europe. Yes it needs reform, we all know that. But you know, it’s great for jobs, for social protections, for tackling some of the big challenges we’ve got as a country. I am yes, first, last and always.
Jeremy Corbyn came closest of all candidates to expression dissatisfaction with the EU, but even he could not bring himself to say that he would ever countenance Brexit – only that the EU would keep generating more opposition if it continues to behave in a bullying, antidemocratic way:
[UKIP] are the party of despair and cynicism. Nothing Nigel Farage has ever said or will do will build a school, build a hospital, get a new teacher or anything else. All they do is complain and blame it all on a minority, whatever it happens to be. If he’s worried about wages perhaps he should support a much higher minimum wage like the TUC call for ten pounds an hour, and call for really tough regulation of that minimum wage because if there is undercutting and exploitation then that is wrong.
We should also think about the two million British people who have chosen to live in other parts of Europe, happily live there and make a contribution to those societies. What kind of world does he want to live in?
[..] If Europe becomes a totally brutal organisation that treats every one of its member states in the way that the people of Greece have been treated at the moment then I think that Europe will lose a lot of support from a lot of people.
And finally, the uninspiring supposed-frontrunner, Andy Burnham:
I always will believe that being in Europe is better for jobs in our country, our prosperity is bound up in being in Europe, but here’s maybe a difference between me and the other candidates: I think Nigel raises an important issue that we have to address, and that is wages are undercut, certainly that happens in my constituency and in other parts of the midlands and the north, and if we look like we’re not addressing that issue then we aren’t going to win back people who are now voting for Nigel’s party who used to vote Labour. So as part of this renegotiation I believe we need to see legislation through Europe that protects the going rate, protects the wages of the skilled workforce because otherwise Europe begins to look like a race to the bottom.
And that was it. Four candidates, four stubborn refusals to listen to popular concern about Europe, phrased four different ways. Clearly Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were the most tone-deaf on this subject, wearing their europhilia and scorn for eurosceptics as a badge of honour in their responses. Andy Burnham gave the answer of a consummate modern professional politician, which is good if you want the next Labour leader to be Ed Miliband with less of the “weird” factor.
But it was Jeremy Corbyn who disappointed the most, simply because if any candidate was willing to go against the stale political consensus and stand up for the interests of the unskilled and low paid workers over the metropolitan middle classes who now run the Labour Party, it would have been Corbyn.
As it was, Corbyn joined the rest of the Labour leadership candidates in regurgitating the same blinkered pro-EU responses that we have heard time and again – and which have continually failed to convince doubtful eurosceptics.
First we have the now common left-wing conceit that Britain will somehow no longer be part of the continent of Europe if we vote to leave the political union of the EU, and that our trading relationships would be damaged. This is complete balderdash. All of Britain’s natural advantages – geographic location between the US and mainland Europe, the English language, our strong democratic and legal institutions and relatively business friendly climate – will remain if we unshackle ourselves from this unwanted political union. They will not simply disappear in a puff of smoke, and neither would our reciprocal trade and investment with the remaining EU countries, which is just as vital to them as it is to us.
Then there’s the fallacy that choosing to represent ourselves on the world stage rather than through the proxy of a political union, to engage with the world like most other non-European countries, is somehow an isolationist or little-Englander thing to do. This too is nonsense. Brexit is nothing to do with “shrinking our country”, it’s to do with accepting that there is a whole world beyond Europe, and that by chaining ourselves to the one stagnating continent in the world at the expense of forging stronger relationships with the new rising economic powers is both defeatist and economically suicidal in the long run.
Liz Kendall’s anxiety about what would happen to our “amazing capital city” in the event of Brexit was clearly intended to burnish her multicultural, metropolitan credentials, but all it did was reveal the extent to which the modern Labour Party has been entirely captured by the urban-dwelling middle class clerisy, and is no longer able to speak to those who live in the suburbs, the market towns, new towns or villages. This festering problem can only get worse for Labour as time goes on, unless the new leader makes an urgent course correction.
Worse still is Kendall’s “yes it needs reform” refrain, a throwaway line uttered impatiently out of obligation but revealing that she – like her fellow candidates – have not spent even the briefest moment thinking about what that reform should look like. Labour “accept” the need for EU reform in the same way that they “listen” to popular concerns about immigration – that is, they nod along with a blank and uncomprehending expression and then carry on as they were before, without changing their policy in the slightest. If this is listening to the electorate after an election defeat, truly there is no hope.
As one might expect from the Member for Islington, Jeremy Corbyn’s response dripped with sneering contempt for anyone who failed to see the inherent goodness of his naive hippie internationalism. But Corbyn is unable to make the connection between the “brutal” way he acknowledges Greece were treated, and the unaccountable structure of EU government which all but ensures this type of behaviour. If anyone should now be having doubts about the great post-war European experiment it should be Jeremy Corbyn, but turning against the EU now after having supported it for so long is apparently a step too far.
Andy Burnham gives the most mature answer, showing why he would likely be the best performer against David Cameron at PMQs (though this is certainly no indication of being the best leader), but even Burnham’s answer reveals the glaring problem at the heart of the modern Labour Party. Burnham rightly fears what will happen if Labour continue to “look like [they’re] not addressing that issue” of the negative impacts of immigration. But he doesn’t actually want to change anything.
Burnham just wants to make it look like Labour are doing something to address public concerns. Burnham has no intention of actually addressing the free movement of people, or introducing a points-based immigration policy, or doing any of the other things demanded by people concerned about immigration. He wants the problem to go away by tricking people into thinking that he is listening to their concerns. This didn’t work for Ed Miliband when he printed his commitment to controlled immigration on a campaign coffee mug, and it won’t work for Andy Burnham if he becomes Labour leader and tries to win back the voters lost to UKIP.
So what to make of the debate?
Well, at a time when the Labour Party is seen to be melting down and descending into acrimonious civil war, it was perhaps encouraging to see all four candidates actually agree on something. Unfortunately, the thing which united the four candidates was a shared contempt for national democracy, a shared pessimism over Britain’s ability to prosper in the world without external help, and a shared unwillingness to look beyond a stale pro-European consensus which has reigned in British politics since the 1970s.
Labour simply will not be a credible political force again until they cease being so visibly aloof from the concerns and priorities of the average voter. The fact that Liz Kendall, the supposed ‘Blairite’ candidate, is languishing in the polls makes clear that Labour has little intention of apologising for its past fiscal incompetence and ratcheting up the size of the state to unsustainable levels. And now, from this LBC debate, it appears that none of the leadership candidates are willing to meet the British people half way on the subject of Europe or immigration either.
It’s all very well talking about the importance of learning from election defeat and listening to the people, but at some point it becomes necessary to stop pontificating and actually do it. Deeds, not words. But on the issue of Europe, there is little evidence to suggest that the Labour Party is any closer to emerging from five years of collective denial.