Labour should be more divided on Europe

To abuse Boris's analogy, the ball hasn't even come loose from the scrum yet, but the referendum means Conservative players are already knocking lumps out of each other. In stark contrast, even as the country weighs its biggest and perhaps most controversial political decision in a generation, the Labour Party is in one peaceful - almost soporific - voice. The Tories are making a spectacle of themselves and Labour is just, well, spectating.

Although I wouldn't wish the Conservatives' internecine battles on anyone, I think Labour's unnatural unity in the referendum is much more worrying.

In days gone by, fierce message discipline and unity of purpose were conscious (and very effective) electoral tactics for Labour. It is a massive, risible, stretch to argue that the party is now applying the same deliberate approach to the EU referendum. If senior Labour figures can chase each other down the street - in front of the cameras! - shouting "Hitler apologist", it's hard to believe the party has gone into the referendum determined to avoid "appearing" split. In almost every other policy area, and to an unprecedented degree, Labour MPs actively and openly criticise their own leaders - and the leadership returns the favour.

And even if Labour's monochrome referendum campaign was designed with electoral advantage in mind, it would be hugely mistaken. In the next General Election, if Labour keeps pushing Remain now, for every one of its north London MPs who adds yet another thousand to their majority, a parliamentary colleague in north Lancashire is going to have to fight ever harder just to fend off UKIP.

Perhaps unity in the referendum campaign is just a natural condition, born of Labour's common values? No. However hard you squint, there is no way 'Europe' fits neatly into a unified left-wing view of the world, either.  

For every argument that the EU encourages trade and reduces prices for the working class, there's another that TTIP welcomes in private firms who'll plunder the NHS.

For every person who says we should rely on the EU for workers' rights, there's another who says the EU forbids state aid to save Redcar or Port Talbot.

Should we welcome all the world's dispossessed, or should we stop immigrants undercutting working class wages?

Should we set international trade policy to protect European agriculture, or promote African farmers?

Do we welcome skilled workers, or do we ease the pressures on public services and housing?

Do we reverse Europe's democratic deficit, or do we hope for international strength in numbers?

Can we solve tensions in the Middle East, or are we letting terrorists in unchecked?

Can we influence climate policies, or are EU trawlers raping marine eco systems?

Of course, the European Union may be the solution to all of these problems, or the cause at the root of them - but surely Labour's 400,000 members don't all agree on which it is in every case? Surely, given careful thought, some senior party figures should decide the path to social justice lies through Brussels while others say it judders to a halt there?!

Instead, the very lack of debate, dissension and disagreement within Labour over whether to Remain or Leave the European Union is a worrying and saddening symptom of a wider malaise. Both the Foot '83 and Miliband '15 vintages were tested and rejected by the public, so by definition Labour needs some new thinking to get back into power. But new ideas don't come from a party that wanders into a huge national debate in a near-comatose state, failing to test its own position before trying to convince others to follow it.

It’s striking that so many Labour figures have meekly adopted the same referendum position. For Labour, watching the Tories maul each other may well be a great spectator sport. But who goes into politics just to be a spectator?

Add comment


No comments.

Receive exclusive reports and news

GUIDE on Twitter