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The Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership: What implications for the UK’s EU referendum?

01 Oct 2015
 
The dramatic election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the British Labour Party has made the party’s position on EU membership a key variable in any assessment of the outcome of the UK’s In/Out referendum.

In the leadership debates, Jeremy Corbyn was at best ambiguous about Britain’s EU membership. He was quoted as saying that he would not back a ‘Yes’ campaign if David Cameron’s renegotiations resulted in weakening workers’ rights and he aligned himself with the majority trade union opinion.

It was recalled during the debates that he had voted for Britain to leave the European Community in the 1975 referendum. However, he has since suggested, in an Observer interview, that his preferred position is for the UK to remain inside a reformed community, arguing that “Labour should set out its own clear position to influence negotiations, working with our European allies to set out a reform agenda to benefit ordinary Europeans across the continent. We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands. But that does not mean walking away, but staying to fight together for a better Europe.”

Following his overwhelming victory Jeremy Corbyn was, in effect, confronted by senior party colleagues - including key nominees to his new Shadow Cabinet - demanding a clear position in favour of continuing EU membership. Within days, Hilary Benn, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, emerged to state in a BBC interview that Labour would fight for Britain to stay in the EU “in all circumstances”.   

The new leader contributed an article to the Financial Times on 17 September 2015 in which he strongly criticised David Cameron’s “much-feted” renegotiation.  In a key passage he argued that “tearing up our rights at work” to meet Cameron’s demands would strengthen negative views of the Union but stated that “our shadow cabinet is clear that the answer to any damaging changes that Mr. Cameron brings back from his renegotiation is not to leave the EU but to pledge to reverse those changes with a Labour Government elected in 2020.”  

He went on to state that “Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU.  But we too want to see reform.  Labour wants to see change in Europe that delivers for Europe’s people.  We want to be better partners and put our demands to make Europe better.  We will make the case through Labour MEPs in the European Parliament and our relationships with sister social democratic parties, trade unions and other social movements across Europe.” His emphasis on engagement is an important development in process as much as content which merits attention in the period ahead.   

At the Labour Party Conference a straightforward pro-EU motion was adopted, saying the party “supports the membership of the EU as a strategic as well as an economic asset to Britain”. But delegates also voted for a motion moved by the GMB trade union, which states: “Conference opposes working with any campaign or faction in the forthcoming referendum which supports or advocates cutting employment or social rights for people working in the United Kingdom”. In other words, Labour should be prepared to have its own totally separate ‘in’ campaign.

In his first Leader’s Address to Conference, Jeremy Corbyn made a short reference to the EU:

“And there is nothing good about a Prime Minister wandering around Europe trying to bargain away the rights that protect our workers. As our Conference decided yesterday we will oppose that and stand up for the vision of a social Europe, a Europe of unity and solidarity, to defend those rights.”

In the conference debate on EU motions, Hilary Benn argued that “together we believe that Britain’s future lies in Europe because whatever the disagreements of today or the changes we want to see tomorrow, it has given us jobs, investment, growth, security, influence in the world and workers’ rights. Don’t mess with them, Prime Minister, but be assured that if you do, a future Labour Government in Europe will restore them. We will not be part of a race to the bottom.”  

As Labour moves on from its Conference and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership triumph, and as David Cameron continues with his EU renegotiation, three key questions remain to be monitored and assessed.

First, attention must be given to the emerging shape of the Cameron renegotiation and, in particular, any provisions affecting the Social Chapter of the treaties. The Government is responding to the concerns of British business. While the Confederation of British Industry insists that it is not demanding wholesale repatriation of EU employment laws it argues that “as on many EU issues – the CBI believes in the principle of subsidiarity when it comes to employment law.” It is clear that agreement on changes in EU social policy will be difficult to achieve.     

Second, a critical factor will be the attitude of the trade union movement.  Earlier in the year the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Gorman, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Cameron, saying “Don't take working people for granted by demanding opt outs from the workplace rights that Europe has delivered. British workers are already some of the least protected workers in Europe […] but British workers do value the protections that they have. Our polling evidence shows that if you take rights away, working people are less likely to vote to stay in the EU.”

Third, a major change is underway in the way in which the Labour Party develops and decides on policy. A review is underway looking at how to “empower everyone” in the forthcoming policy debate. Current party policy is firmly pro-EU but Eurosceptics and supporters of Brexit, such as Labour for Britain’ and MPs like Kate Hoey, are likely to have a stronger voice in the new policy-making system. Labour for Britain believes that the United Kingdom should not rule out leaving the EU, if substantial changes are not achieved.

One commentator has written that Jeremy Corbyn’s “gentle Euroscepticism has mutated into full support for EU membership”. Time will tell whether this transformation is permanent.

 

 


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.


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