The biggest decision facing Britain for a generation comes before voters at the end of the month. The question is simple: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The only choice is ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. There is no third way, no protest vote option, no ‘reopen nomination’. The issues involved, however, are far from simple. Not that the public cannot be trusted – far from it – but putting an issue of such complexity into a strict binary is an abdication of responsibility. David Cameron is asking the public to do what he could not: put the interests of the country first. Those of us on the left now find ourselves in a battle we did not want but cannot afford to lose.
But it is not just the Conservatives to our right that may hinder the fortunes of the campaign, but our comrades on the left. It is not just welcome, but to be celebrated, that Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Jones and others have changed their position on the EU. Reminding people of their about-turn is important and one of Labour In’s great strengths. Taking a position ‘on balance’ rather than ‘on principle’ is hardly something Labour’s modernisers should play down. There is a certain strength to Corbyn’s ‘warts and all’ message. But the country does need to see more of him leading from the front on this. As Alan Johnson says in interview with Progress this month, ‘There’s a lot of loyalty to the Labour party: “If the Labour party say that then I’m going to think again about it”.’
But on Labour’s left we still see a continued reluctance to secure our European future. So it is time to once and for all nail the argument: there is nothing leftwing about leaving.
Two arguments are regularly deployed: that the EU is a ‘big business club’, and that it is ‘undemocratic’.
First, when the CBI, Institute of Directors and more line up for ‘Remain’ it is easy to argue that this confirms the worst. But look at those who want to leave. It is not the businesses that join trade bodies and want to work with others – and who are in agreement with the Trades Union Congress on this question. It is the go-alone, exploitative businesses. Those who want no interference from any outside body, and who you find on the donor list of Brexit organisations. For them, leaving is the first move in a two-step dance: Britain leaves Europe, then Britain dismantles its legacy social provisions.
In one sense, George Osborne is right: there is a global race. But he only wants Britain to compete in the race by being cheaper, with even lighter-touch regulation. About this he is wrong, but not alone. Almost all the natural pressure of international trade is for lower standards – corporations want to pay lower wages and for others to pick up the tab on environmental consequences. They want global chat rather than international action on tax avoidance. The EU is the only stable and effective international structure committed to higher standards, not constantly lower ones. As even former Green party leader Caroline Lucas has said, ‘It is the EU which is introducing caps on bankers’ bonuses, stronger action on tax evasion and avoidance, and more lobbying transparency’.
When inward investors come to the EU one of the few things they cannot consider is where workers’ rights are at their least – because the social chapter means they are equally high. The same is true of many environmental standards. They must look instead at skills and access to other markets. When it appeared the Paris climate change talks might go the same way as the Copenhagen talks before them it was because Barack Obama knew the EU was ahead of the pack and was able convince China to take action.
Second, the argument that the EU is undemocratic is mounted by both hard-left and the United Kingdom Independence party. The conflict comes from the fact the EU is not in fact a superstate, and therefore European voters do not have a single democratic body that overrides democratically elected member state governments – the sort of democracy even the most fervent Remainers are not pushing for. Outers make out that their aversion to Europe is that Britain cannot do as it wants – renationalise the railways, say the left, or close the borders, say the right. But they cannot have it both ways. The EU is either a supranational polity or it is not. The frustration of Europe is its very democracy and the balance of powers between the Council of Ministers (elected governments), the European parliament (the direct say of the people) and the commission (appointed by the former and confirmed by the latter). These institutions are not nimble because they are democratic.
Finally, the hard-left also suggests solidarity with Greece as a reason to quit – yet, despite everything, the people of Greece did not even want out of the euro, let alone Europe. ‘TTIP’ is held to be both pro-business and anti-democratic. Neither is true. The jobs and opportunities that come from a deal could be transformative for those the left wish to represent but it is because of Socialist and Democrat members of the European parliament that the worst excesses of the deal will not become reality and our public services will get the protection they need. Leave, especially when Labour is so far from power, and a trade deal with the United States negotiated by Cameron’s more rightwing successor will be worse than anything agreed by the EU.
Finally, the idea that voting ‘Leave’ to finish off Cameron is madness. He is going anyway. A more imminent departure will almost certainly mean a Brexit-backer takes over. Under these circumstances the left will learn the hard truth of ‘be careful what you wish for’.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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