Brian Monteith: Labour no longer united on Europe

Jacques Delors convinced Labour to embrace Europe politically. Picture: Getty Images
Jacques Delors convinced Labour to embrace Europe politically. Picture: Getty Images
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CORBYN’S election brings Euroscepticism into Labour’s mainstream for the first time in decades, says Brian Monteith

It was some 27 years ago in the autumn of 1988 that Jacques Delors, the then European Commission President, addressed the Trades Union Congress and sealed a change in the behaviour of the British Labour movement. Delors told delegates that they should not see the European Economic Community as the agent of capitalism, but as a force for socialist regulation of it.

So persuasive was Delors that Brussels could come to the aid of British socialists, who had just suffered their third general election defeat in a row and were reeling from successive trade union reforms, that they signed-up for the European project. Coinciding with a change of policy by the Labour Party NEC in the summer to accept EEC membership as fact, from the time of Delors’ speech Eurosceptics in the Labour Party and the wider Labour movement were to become ever more marginalised.

Eventually, the few Labour politicians willing to give a socialist critique of the EU and its Commission-led drive towards a federal European superstate were portrayed as political curiosities.

Last week at the TUC conference that all changed, and it is all thanks to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader so soon after the Greek Euro crisis began to tear down the old certainties Delors had spun about the EU being a force for good.

Already Jeremy Corbyn and his new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, have been prevailed upon by shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and others to say the party will back EU membership irrespective of what deal David Cameron manages to obtain. While this gives Cameron what is effectively a blank cheque for Labour support, it remains to be seen if it can be cashed in. If the Eurosceptics Corbyn and McDonnell can change their mind once they can change it again, especially if the deal allows for what is considered as the marginalisation of employment rights and the erosion of social contracts. A real debate could open up and with the possibility that shadow ministers will be allowed to voice their own view.

Whatever the outcome the real impact of Corbyn’s election is not so much what he says publicly as leader but that it is now no longer a position of ridicule to be active in the Labour movement and support leaving the European Union. If the new leader could believe for so long in his political career that the EU is part of the capitalist machine to be dismantled then it can hardly be a black mark against activists, trade union officials, backbench MPs and shadow cabinet members.

Many socialist commentators, especially young voices using social media such as Owen Jones, have already been expressing their concern about how the socialist government of Greece could be bullied into accepting the privatisation of state assets and change its pension and employment rights against the will of the people. The failure of even a Greek general election to halt the asset-stripping deal put together by Germany and France at the behest of the EU was a wake-up call to what could happen were the UK – or Scotland – to elect an anti-austerity government. As a result, pressure was already mounting within the Labour Party and trade union movement to review their previously impervious commitment to EU membership when Corbyn was elected.

Anti-EU trade union campaigners told me last week that fringe meetings that once did well to attract a dozen in their audience were packed with delegates wishing to express their support. The trade deal being negotiated in secrecy between the EU and United States has already caused deep concern and fears that it will lead to the loss of jobs in the public sector. A Cameron deal that removes employment rights would, for many, be the last straw.

We should also recall that Delors’ speech was important not just for the revolution it brought about in the Labour movement, but for the counter-revolution it generated from Margaret Thatcher who responded to Delors with her famous Bruges Speech where she said, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

This counter-revolution was not accepted by Tory Europhiles who, being mostly patricians from the Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath school, had never been that enthused about rolling back any state. Thatcher’s speech revealed and defined the growing split in the Conservative Party that ultimately led to her downfall, plagued John Major’s premiership and brought about the birth of the United Kingdom Independence Party.

It was in trying to respond to and heal that split that William Hague campaigned as leader to “Save the Pound” when adoption of the euro seemed all but inevitable, and it is also why David Cameron thought offering a referendum on EU membership would keep his party together.

It has been received wisdom that the Conservatives will be deeply divided over the referendum while the other mainstream parties will be united. The events of last week changes this, with Labour politicians just as likely to be at loggerheads as their Conservative counterparts.

Corbyn will not be foolish enough to share a platform with Tory Eurosceptics for it would give his critics ammunition to undermine his leadership, but can he also stomach sharing a platform with Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson – and Tories such as Michael Heseltine – when they are so hated by the people who elected him to change the Labour Party?

MPs such as Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart will now rise to greater prominence on the talk show and political panels, making Labour Eurosceptic MPs in favour British self-determination respectable again. That in itself is Corbyn’s first big change in the Labour Party. It will not be his last.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain, which campaigns for the UK to leave the European Union.