Andrew Whitaker: Road to Brussels needs a Left turn

Labour former home secretary Alan Johnson could galvanise support for a pro-European push. Picture: Getty
Labour former home secretary Alan Johnson could galvanise support for a pro-European push. Picture: Getty
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THE campaigns to keep Britain in the European Union are conspicuous by their Tory ideology, writes Andrew Whitaker

The issue of the UK’s membership of the European Union has sparked into life in the last few days with somewhat of a scramble to launch campaigns on either side of the referendum divide.

A casual observer of the unfolding battle-lines could be forgiven for thinking there are actually now Eurosceptic and Europhile campaigns in more different guises than there are versions of the world heavyweight boxing title.

The anti-Euro campaigners seem to be at loggerheads already with two rival groups launched, Leave.EU and Vote Leave and a battle between the two to see which should take the lead, although Ukip leader Nigel Farage has been quick to state he supports both.

At the launch of the pro-EU “Britain Stronger in Europe” campaign earlier this week there was plenty of razzamatazz and glitz with celebrities and figures from the worlds of art there.

But one thing that stands out pretty clearly about the leadership of the pro and anti campaigns so far is their pro-Tory or at least centre-right stance.

To take the example of Britain Stronger in Europe: the head of the campaign Lord Rose is a Tory peer who was ennobled by David Cameron - something that will make him seen as the Prime Minister’s man on the Europe issue throughout a marathon campaign. True, there are Labour people playing a role in the cross-party campaign such as Chuka Umunna and Lord Mandelson, as well as other non-Tory figures such as Jude Kelly, the artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre.

But the message coming from former Marks & Spencer chief Rose, as to be expected by a senior Tory business backer, was clearly a centre-right case for EU membership with much talk of so-called free markets and what’s good for big business.

Tory peer Karren Brady, of BBC’s the Apprentice fame and vice-chair of Premier League giants West Ham United, for all her achievements in business and sport, will probably not really do much to dispel such an image.

It’s highly unlikely that the Rose’s campaign, given its Tory leadership, will garner much support in Scotland, with the SNP perhaps likely to launch its own pro-EU group and Scottish Labour still receiving pelters for working with David Cameron’s party in the Better Together campaign ahead of the independence referendum.

From the “Britain Stronger in Europe” leadership there appears to be little talk of workers’ rights that can emanate from the EU or of a social Europe, reinforcing suspicions many will have that Lord Rose is again there as Cameron’s man.

There are already fears that Cameron’s much vaunted pledge to renegotiate the UK’s terms of EU membership will see the Prime Minister come back from Brussels with a deal that centres heavily on the watering down of the EU employment rights available to British workers.

Such a move was at the heart of the last Tory Prime Minister John Major’s stance on Europe when he devoted many a speech to extolling his supposed success in keeping the UK out of the social chapter - a European threshold offering minimum standards on areas such as health and safety at work.

There has already been speculation that under such circumstances some of the major UK unions would abandon their support for the UK’s EU membership and that a significant section of the Labour Party would back withdrawal.

It’s worth remembering that in the 1970s and for much of the 1980s the British left was largely Eurosceptic, with many people viewing it as a “capitalist club”. Labour’s general election manifesto in 1983 included a pledge to pull the UK out of the European Economic Community - the forerunner of the EU.

It was only after years of Thatcherism that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) began to emerge as a pro-Euro body, when it began to see legislation coming from Brussels that was driving up the conditions of UK workers.

However, should the renegotiated terms of the UK’s EU membership put before voters in the referendum expected in 2016 or 2017 include a watering-down of employment protection and conditions, that combined with the way the EU has at times appeared to impose austerity on member states such as Greece despite the Greek population repeatedly voting against it in elections, may make many on the UK left think again.

Of course Jeremy Corbyn’s recent statement that Labour will campaign to remain in the EU is highly significant in ensuring the official party line will be against withdrawal.

It’s against such a backdrop that the Labour Party’s own pro-Euro campaign led by former cabinet minister Alan Johnson could play a critical role.

Johnson is probably one of the most universally liked politicians in the UK, with an affable almost “everyman” like manner who many actually wanted as Labour leader.

Despite his association with unpopular Blairite policies like top-up fees for students, Johnson has a rare popularity for a politician, perhaps of a kind once seen by the recently deceased Denis Healey.

After writing two bestselling volumes of his memoirs, - This Boy and Please Mr Postman - which like Healey’s own memoirs The Time of My Life are full of pathos and charm, Johnson long ago ruled out a return to Labour’s frontbench.

But despite being a different kind of Labour to Corbyn, the pair could actually make a successful combination by making the case for a workers and social Europe rather than one simply for big business. Of course no-one in Labour should ever take political responsibility for the UK staying in the EU on the basis of worse working conditions for working people.

However, those on the left leaning towards EU withdrawal need to ask themselves what would be the net affect on the ground of the UK pulling out for the less well-off.

Withdrawal would at least for the next few years see an isolated UK at the mercy of a Tory government with the biggest austerity and legislative programme rolling back people’s employment rights, such as restricting the right to strike, in decades.

Whatever assertions are made by anti-Corbyn commentators, it’s not a given that Labour will lose the 2020 election and should it win, the party could opt the UK back into EU employment rights in the way Tony Blair’s government did with the social chapter in the late 1990s.