At the outset of the UK referendum campaign the point was made that the dramatic election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the British Labour Party had made the party’s position on EU membership a key variable in the outcome.
At the September 2015 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 opposed 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”. Labour was committed to having its own totally separate ‘Remain’ campaign.
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.
As ‘Labour In’ was launched in December 2015 with the former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, as its leading spokesman, it was recognised that the nine million people who voted Labour at the last general election were vital for the Remain side but that there was a real fear among Labour MPs that concerns about immigration were driving many of them towards Brexit.
A critical factor was the approach of the UK trade union movement. As plans for holding the referendum were launched, the General Secretary of the TUC, 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.
As the national campaign began and gathered pace after the February 18-19 European Council, which reached agreement with David Cameron on his reform package, Labour and the unions were largely invisible. The internal debate, verging on outright conflict, within the Conservative Party dominated all media. Early opinion polling saw the Remain side in the lead as the debate focused on economic issues but the emergence of immigration as the dominant consideration led to a significant shift in public attitudes towards the Leave option.
Over the weekend of 11-12 June 2016 it was revealed that the official ‘Remain’ campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, had concluded that an effective fight-back needed an injection of energy and conviction from the Labour /trade union side. David Cameron, it was said, was “passing the baton to Labour’s big hitters to try and lure back working-class voters.” Reports indicated that an all-star cast, from Gordon Brown to Ed and David Miliband, was ready to take to the campaign trail.
Gordon Brown had set the tone for the Labour initiative in a Financial Times article, by recalling that, in the Scottish independence campaign, Better Together “had to do much more than elaborate the negative consequences of the break-up of Britain, We had to set out a positive reform agenda, which eventually led to a new constitutional settlement.” He went on to argue that “there is an evolving agenda for the 2017 UK presidency of the EU which can make a reformed Europe work better for Britain and show how Britain can lead in Europe.” A Remain vote could see the UK “discovering a post-imperial role in the vanguard of the next stage of Europe’s development. In short, we should be leading in Europe, not leaving it.”
Coming home from the US – where he heads the International Rescue Committee, a development NGO – David Milband entered the campaign with a powerful speech on the international dimension of Labour’s philosophy.
Indeed, my essential case to you for Remain is that principle of co-operation across borders is even more relevant today than it was 75 years ago. Think of the great causes of our time and I will tell you why they need international co-operation and membership of the EU. Climate change is the greatest economic, national security and generational threat we face. I was the climate change secretary in the last Labour government. I negotiated for Britain as part of the EU. Take it from me, our membership of the EU does not make us smaller, weaker and less significant, the opposite is true. We walk taller, prouder and have more influence inside not outside the European Union.
The necessity of bringing out a strong trade union vote has been recognised by the General Secretaries of ten major unions in a widely-quoted letter to The Guardian, in which they stated that:
We are writing to make our position clear and urge our collective membership, which reaches over 6 million people, to vote for Britain to remain in the European Union on 23 June. After much debate and deliberation we believe that the social and cultural benefits of remaining in the EU far outweigh any advantages of leaving. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the British trade union movement worked in solidarity with our European partners and fought hard to secure valuable working rights legislation at EU level…..If Britain leaves the EU, we simply do not trust this government if they are presented with an unrestricted, unchecked opportunity to attack our current working rights.
Whatever impact may be achieved by a former Prime Minister, a former Foreign Secretary and ten top union leaders, a successful Labour Party intervention in the closing days of the referendum campaign depends on the personal contribution of the Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. His long record of Euroscepticism had given rise to concern about his willingness to play the essential role of national leader in the referendum debate but, as the campaign has evolved, his voice has become clear in advocating a Remain vote.
On 2nd June he spoke at length about the EU in London. He stated that the Labour Party was overwhelmingly in favour in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. The reasons he cited are as follows:
We believe the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment. But also because we recognise that our membership offers a crucial route to meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century, on climate change, on restraining the power of global corporations and ensuring they pay fair taxes, on tackling cyber-crime and terrorism, on ensuring trade is fair with protections for workers and consumers and in addressing refugee movements.
He concluded with a passionate call to voters citing that:
Britain will be stronger if we co-operate with our neighbours in facing those challenges together. There is an overwhelming case to remain and reform so that we build on the best that Europe has achieved. So please use your vote on 23 June, to vote Remain and then campaign with us for the reforms we need.