20th April 2016
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“The one issue the Labour Party is united on is Europe” – I keep hearing this mantra rattled off at every opportunity. We are indoctrinated that a divided Conservative Party over Europe will only be to Labour’s advantage and that the civil war ensuing will somehow deliver a fatal blow to whomever David Cameron’s successor might be. Couple this with the incessant left of centre commentary that somehow the EU is our saviour. On the one hand the bastion of workers’ rights and social freedoms but on the other an indispensable catalyst for growth and prosperity. I have tried to steer clear of the economic pros and cons as my personal view is economically the impact of Brexit would be neutral longer term.
I’ll be frank: I have been a member of the Labour Party since the age of 15, give or take the odd absence, and have never been as disillusioned with the state of the party as I am now. I have always been something of a maverick and I accept that my worldview will never be accepted by the Party as mainstream. Examples? Private sector involvement in the NHS & schools and respecting the individual’s right, regardless of background, to choose how they receive the public services to which they have contributed to.
But Europe, or more specifically the EU, is different. It transcends all other domestic policy agendas and the outcome of the forthcoming referendum not only has profound implications for us as a nation but also for Labour as a credible potential party of government.
I have a kept a reasonably open and pragmatic mind on the issue of the EU. My instinct is we should leave based on nothing other than the principle that I believe governments should spend taxes as close to where they are raised as possible. This could as easily be applied to Westminster as it could to Brussels. On the other hand I am influenced by the view that our own democratic institutions are not fit for purpose. If nothing else the European Parliament is at least a partial check on the powers of the Commons and the current Government certainly needs its fair share of checks and balances. The Lords is a glorified talking shop and makes the odd useful intervention, as on tax credits, but the majority perception is it seems to act as a useful receptacle for former MPs in their dotage. No serious democracy should really be retaining such arrangements.
But this misses the point.
There are two issues that resonate with me and why I believe Labour has its strategy on the EU referendum so misplaced.
The Party presents itself as united on the EU, closed to other perspectives and opinions and yet the nation is divided evenly on the issue. Yes, that’s right, you couldn’t make it up. Half the electorate will vote for us to leave and yet Labour have closed the door on their opinion. Those who will vote for us to leave are typically the very voters that Labour needs to win again. We cannot afford to take such an arrogant approach given our current electoral position. The British public, rightly or wrongly, have an instinctive distrust of politicians. From the feedback I have received the ranks of well remunerated MPs and MEPs espousing the evils of leaving the EU is seen by many voters as not only unedifying but reinforces the narrative that we are out of touch. We should have learned this lesson on ‘out of touchness’ from our decisions on immigration and reluctance to tackle the issue head on, but we haven’t.
The Conservatives meanwhile will incur some short term grief and be accused of disunity, civil wars etc. However in my opinion, and perhaps more by luck than judgment, they have stumbled upon a winning approach. An approach that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, will enable a new Tory leader to come in and renew their party and their mandate with the British people. The British people are divided and I believe by and large understand why a party would also be split on such an issue.
The Tories are having the debate that Labour should be having and we will pay the price for our unwillingness to do so. We simply now cannot ‘win’. In the event that, as I expect, we will vote to Remain we will have in the process antagonised those that voted Leave and if we do end up voting to leave we have no Plan B.
There is a difference between leading the electorate and patronising them. It is disappointing that we have gone with the latter option.
However building on from my point earlier about the EU offering a check on the influence of UK government I can understand how this is a tempting argument for remaining. For those currently on the left of centre and fearful of what a Conservative government with a serious majority might get up to the EU is a great comfort blanket. The “nasty Tories” wouldn’t be able to meddle with all the things that, rightly, we have fought for such as in the human rights arena.
The trouble is Labour are great at excuses, great at forums, great at discussions and great at debates (apart from the EU!), but not so good at facing the truth. We talk about listening and learning from defeats but we don’t. Part of the reason why so many Labour members are pro-EU is because we are so scared stiff of our own derisory electoral performances domestically that again we miss the real point. Our domestic agenda is now so utterly out of touch with most of England it is almost unreal. I could descend into a long-winded diatribe on this but will resist the temptation. We were left a legacy by Tony Blair in that he re-shaped the centre ground of British politics – his approach made Labour electable in places like South Dorset, Loughborough and Wellingborough – constituencies which if we carry on as we are will increase already substantial Conservative majorities at the next General Election. Of course the great paradox is that Tony Blair is rabidly pro-EU but it wasn’t his EU positions that made us electable – in fact Labour was successful despite his EU positioning not because if it.
Until we face up to the fact that yes we have a housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean our young people aspire to live in a council home. Yes, the electorate like to be ‘green’ but not at the expense of us losing vital jobs in heavy industry and not at the expense of the poorest in our society paying over the odds for energy laced with ‘green’ taxes. Yes, we like to help those that are in real need, but no, most don’t feel that a couple earning £56k in London should receive subsidised social housing. Until we accept that actually Osborne, despite major shortcomings, has got some of his judgments right then we are going nowhere.
If you are a genuine enthusiast for the EU and its institutions then I salute you and respect your position. I believe we must respect the views of those who are genuine believers. However if you see the EU as a comfort blanket and as an excuse for avoiding asking ourselves the tough questions domestically then I ask you to consider if longer term that is the right approach. By making the tough choices necessary on policy and facing up to our internal vested interests we could achieve a majority Labour Government within an independent UK and achieve so much more than we do now. The trouble is not enough of us believe this.
I do believe this, and for this reason after some long and hard reflection I believe it is for the good of the party domestically, and therefore for the country, that we vote to leave the European Union.
By Ian Jones