“Vote for us and we’ll give you an in/out EU referendum.” This was the message David Cameron was sending to the euro-skeptic wing of the Tory party during his recent speech on Britain’s role in the EU. Many have characterised this move as a desperate attempt to win back support from the right wing of his party, currently being seduced by UKIP. The fact of the matter is that the wheels have started turning in a process which may eventually bring Britain out of the EU, something the euro-skeptics have wanted for years.
How should those of us on the left respond to this - beyond a knee-jerk dismissal of any idea put forward by a Tory government? The country as a whole remains deeply divided on the issue of Europe. Many people want out. Still more want a change in the relationship between Westminster and Brussels. The right seem to have made up their minds on Europe but the left remain deeply divided on this crucial issue.
Of course there are plenty of pro-EU lefties. A lot of us see the European Parliament as to the left of our own and see EU laws as important protections against aggressive neo-liberalism. Restrictions on working hours prevent British firms from forcing employees to work twelve-hour days at minimum wage, which they would certainly do if possible. All of this was recently underlined by TUC leader Frances O'Grady when she claimed that the Tories’ EU policy woulderode workers’ rights. There are also a lot us on the left who value our relationship with our European neighbours and believe that British culture has become enriched by the flow of migration across Europe that the EU allows.
However some lefties are certainly very much against the EU. Some are suspicious of its origins as a free trade agreement. It has been labeled as a “capitalist club”, an organisation that seeks to make life easier for multinational corporations. The EU has also been blamed for the decline in the British manufacturing industry as more firms relocate to Eastern Europe where wage costs are much lower.
Economics aside, there is also a tendency amongst some members of the left (usually from the working class left, but by no means always) to want to protect British culture. These are the lefties who want restrictions on immigration, a viewpoint that is extremely divisive on the left, as illustrated by the reaction to Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour. It also worth noting that the right-leaning Blue Labour also want to withdraw from the EU.
Strangely enough the debate on the EU was not always framed the way it is now. In the 1980s, it was the left who opposed membership to the European Economic Community as it was then and the right who supported it. Granted, back then it was much more a business agreement aimed at growing the economies of Europe and less of social venture. A key strand of the Labour party’s 1983 election manifesto was Britain’s withdrawal from the EEC. This manifesto, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, has long since stood as an example of Labour at its most left wing. Many euro-skeptic Labour supporters see the policy of leaving the EU as a descendent from the old Labour policy of leaving the EEC.
The Labour party’s relationship with Europe has come to be seen by many as emblematic of how the party has changed for the worst since the early 1980s, especially under Blair. There are lefties who believe that the Labour Party has turned its back on its roots of protecting the indigenous working class from exploitation and fighting for socialism, in favour of supporting immigration, European integration and liberalism. These supporters seek a return to working class old-Labour values - although they are by no means all working class themselves.
Clearly the Labour party has turned its back on socialism in favour of liberalism but the rest of the point I do not concede. However, significant working class social conservative support has moved from Labour to the Tories (and in some cases the BNP) since the early 1980s, partly due to the left’s response to the issues of immigration and the EU. There are many who argue that a return to working class old-Labour values can bring back some of the support Labour lost under Blair and Brown.
This leaves the Labour party in a quandary. The country is divided on the EU, as is the party. There is no clear route to popularity and electoral success and neither is there a clear ideological line to follow. This partly explains why Labour’s response to Cameron’s pledge has been decidedly lackluster. The Labour Party does not want to be caught on the wrong side of the debate and choosing either side would alienate a large pool of potential votes.
There is no escaping the fact that the country and the left remain deeply divided on this key issue which is coming to define modern politics. There are good arguments either way from a left wing point of view but I must reject the argument that the EU is against the best interests of the working class and that the left has turned their back on the poor. EU labour laws mentioned above are a clear example of how the EU protects against the exploitation of the poor and the working class. This is especially true now that the power of the trade unions has been diminished so much. In the 21st Century, the definition of the poor and the working class needs to be expanded to include immigrants (from the EU and otherwise) who are typically the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. It is for the benefit of all poor people that the left should fight, and I feel that the EU is a key part of this fight as it allows us to rise above the opposition of our domestic Conservative government.
It is clear that the EU is changing in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis. Becoming more integrated socially and fiscally seems to be the desired course of action. Britain needs to know whether we support this process and how to shape and develop its implementation, or whether we want nothing to do with it. During the course of the debate to come on EU membership the left needs to find a clear point of view to support ideologically and politically. We need to do better than giving people simply what they want, as this might not be the best course of action. As lefties we need to stop being divided on the issue of the EU and clearly stand for something.