Andrew Whitaker: So what’s Corbyn’s EU stance to be?

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn . Picture: AP
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn . Picture: AP
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Recent calls by senior Labour figures such as Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall for Jeremy Corbyn to take more of a role in the pro-EU campaign suggest that pressure will grow on the Labour leader to make more interventions as referendum day gets ever closer.

Since Cooper and Kendall were among those defeated by Corbyn in last year’s Labour leadership election, the pair have not exactly been supportive with their refusal to serve in the shadow cabinet, unlike the other defeated candidate Andy Burnham.

Both Cooper and Kendall are principled and committed pro-Europeans, although it may cross the mind of some “Corbynites” that it’s curious that politicians who disagree with the leadership’s direction to such an extent that they refuse to serve on the party’s frontbench, are among those shouting the loudest for Corbyn to take on a more prominent role in the pro-EU campaign,

At the same time it’s true that Corbyn has had little to say on Europe and it’s therefore perfectly legitimate and reasonable for Labour MPs to call on the leader of the party to do more to campaign for the UK staying in the EU, having committed himself to doing so.

To his credit Corbyn has handled his relationship with the leader of Labour’s official pro-EU campaign Alan Johnson very well, giving the former cabinet minster free reign.

Corbyn also appears to understand that despite political differences with Johnson, the former minister having a reputation as a Blairite in the last Labour governments, he is the ideal figure to lead the pro-Labour EU campaign due to a terrific “everyman” media and campaigning style.

However, the calls will continue for Corbyn to speak out more and there will be those within Labour who will suggest that his stance in favour of remaining in the EU is not a particularly enthusiastic one and is largely a fall-back position.

It may be the case that Corbyn will continue to stay relatively quiet on the issue in the weeks to come and let Johnson remain Labour’s main voice on the issue.

But with the Tories starting to fight like stray dogs over Europe once again, in a way that may yet become reminiscent of the troubles that gripped John Major’s governments in the early and mid-1990s, we should not be surprised to see the Labour leader start to go in harder on the issue than many expect.

Corbyn will be aware of the conventional wisdom that suggests that if Labour voters stay home on 23 June, the Brexit side could carry the day.

Figures like Boris Johnson and David Cameron are now at each other’s throats so much over the EU that the rift is starting to resemble an Old Etonian mafia turf war.

Both Johnson and Cameron are each making their own right wing pitch to their own party respectively for Brexit and remaining in the EU, with the Prime Minister constantly talking about the UK’s right to restrict welfare rights for immigrants, and the London mayor using ever more dramatic language comparing a Brexit to escaping from jail and into the “sunlit land beyond”.

Corbyn will not want a right wing agenda to dominate the campaign, and will know that a failure to give Labour supporters a reason to turn out and vote in favour of remaining in the EU could mean a Brexit.

That’s why it may well be that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell could make what prove to be decisive interventions as the campaign goes on. Perhaps it will follow a similar pattern to the independence referendum when Gordon Brown took on a bigger role in the anti-independence campaign in the final stages.

Interventions on the theme of workers’ rights within the EU from Corbyn and McDonnell may take on similar significance to Brown’s famous eve-of-referendum speech in Glasgow, which many people credited with swinging the tide towards the No side.

There have been thinly veiled suggestions that Corbyn’s heart is not really in the pro-EU campaign and that a Brexit would not really be at odds with his perceived eurosceptic leanings, albeit held from a left wing point of view.

Corbyn, like many people who were active within Labour and the unions in the 1970s and 1980s, is influenced by euroscepticism, that was once the dominant view of the left.

Labour’s 1983 general election manifesto included a pledge to pull the UK out of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) – a prime example of the left’s suspicion about European integration. Figures like Tony Benn and Michael Foot were both in favour of Britain coming out of EEC, or Common Market as it was often called, in the referendum held by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1975.

The euroscepticism was motivated by concerns about a “democratic deficit” in Europe, and fears about the prospect of powerful and unelected EEC bureaucrats overruling laws passed by democratically elected Labour governments.

The EEC was even regularly described by many on the left as a “capitalist club”, as if the same were not true of the UK itself.

But as the Tories remained in power throughout the 1980s and for much of the 1990s and the only real employment rights on offer were those coming from Europe, the attitude of the left shifted.

Liz Kendall was right this week when she told the BBC that there were “some on the left of the party who may be prevaricating” about Britain’s EU membership.

Such attitudes were fuelled by the way the EU last year effectively forced a democratically elected government in Greece to embrace austerity despite it being rejected by voters in the country.

But Corbyn now has an opportunity to put forward a vision for a different type of EU, which puts employment rights and minimum standards of welfare provision at its heart, as opposed to an isolated UK ruled by a Tory government pursuing harsh austerity and restrictions on trade union activity.