Dejected delegations returning from Europe now flood the news daily but Cameron’s failed visit in 2015 should not be forgotten. Cameron sought ‘a new settlement’ with the EU. One which would save his party from civil war, and avoid a referendum. The Labour party has failed to remind its voters they were reforms they wouldn’t have wanted.
The Cameron Code.
The reforms Cameron sought in Brussels centred around four ‘concrete’ pledges. These were, like any political relationship, inherently ideological demands. The first was immigration policy: specifically migrants place within the UK benefits system, with no mention of expats drain on the Spaniards. The second was to ensure no second class membership for non-Eurozone countries, though of course special treatment in the form of immunity to bailout damage. The third demand was an alteration in the mechanism of European legislation primacy, in such areas such as working time directives, social policy, the environment and crime. Further to this, Cameron wanted to assuage the patriotic ire surrounding the infamous ‘ever closer union’ clause. And finally the UK sought a vague certainty of less waste and better budgetary management. The Telegraph provides a good review of Cameron’s success in achieving these changes. However ultimately the 2016 referendum and his subsequent exit from politics testifies to his failure.
On referendum day voters got two choices: Remain or leave. 52% opted for the latter and the new incumbent Theresa May triggered article 50. Shortly after, ‘I’m not going to be calling a snap election,’ translated into the 2017 general election. May dubbed it the Brexit election before stultifying debate, promising the Conservatives would deliver a ‘good Brexit,’ not a bad ‘Brexit.’ It appeared only 46.5% wanted the, thoroughly descriptive, ‘good Brexit’ she was offering. Her entirely unelectable opposition were 3.7% of the vote, or a more favourable arbitrary geographic spread, from forming a strong and stable government.
There is now as many Brexit options as there are politicians claiming electorate clairvoyance. There is a contingent, headed by the Liberal Democrats, still stalwartly fighting to remain in Europe. Then there are about a thousand Brexit camps: from the ‘we should leave because voters said so, but it is ridiculous and we should make it as superficial as possible’ Soft traitors, to the ‘EU should pay for the British Isles to be made seaworthy so it can sail to the pacific ocean’ hard Brexiteers. Corbyn and the Labour party have struggled to place themselves on this continuum. They have been criticised for criticising the parodic Brexit negotiations, without offering a clear alternative.
A Tale of Two Demographics.
Corbyn’s commitment to the remain vote was questioned throughout the referendum. While Corbyn’s commitment to the leave vote, and a ‘good’ ol’ fashioned Brexit, was questioned throughout the election. The Labour leader has been a long time eurosceptic and voted against membership and almost every closer entanglement since joining. Yet the vast majority of contemporary Labour party members want to remain in the EU, most polls putting this figure at around 85%. Amongst the wider support, those who voted for the Labour party at the last election, this figure dwindles to only 58%. The prevailing demographic narratives appear to be class, age and geography. The most ardent leavers come from the working class, industrial northern heartlands. They are those old enough to share Corbyn’s historic grievances with the EU. It is in these constituencies that Labour have attracted UKIP voters, who largely left the imploding party to swell both the Conservative and Labour ranks.
On the other side of the fence on which Corbyn sits precariously are the insurgent Corbynistas. The young people who have flooded to party membership and have largely been responsible for both his meteoric leadership campaign and surprise general election growth. These young, cosmopolitan, middle and working class supporters know the EU through erasmus years and through European friends. The boxes they saw on referendum day were shaped by the polarising political climate and resound in the calls to ‘build bridges not walls.’ It was these supporters Corbyn galvanised in his Glastonbury address and these supporters, scared by race baiting, that were unhappy with his half-hearted commitments to the remain camp. For many in the Labour party Brexit has become the stick in the spokes of unity. Corbyn needs to square the circle of his disparate base. It’s nowhere near as hard as it may sound.
The Good, The Bad and The Socialist.
What is confining the Labour leader is the most insidious element of neoliberalism, the depoliticisation of politics. Inherent in the robotic ‘good Brexit/bad Brexit’ rhetoric is the death of ideology. Corbyn simply needs to remember why he opposed the EU. He must make the reasonable assumption that the dyed in the wool reds, and the came out in the wash purples, of his northern constituencies are cut from the same tweed. Disillusionment with big banking, dwindling living standards, falling wages and wealth inequality were major for the disillusionment that caused Brexit. It has fuelled a rise in nationalism. As ever, racism is not the answer, but the EU does share in the blame. Corbyn was never a Johnsonite Brexiteer, he is ever a socialist. He needs to return to his ideological opposition to the European project with greater ambition. We can change the world only if we engage.
When Corbyn said in parliament ‘The Treaty on European Union takes away from national Parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers,’ he was right. When he shouted down the bailouts to the Greeks saying that ‘there is no future for a usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage,’ he was right. He said that their was a ‘gross exploitation’ of migrant workers, causing ‘awful tensions’ and ‘undercutting labour markets,’ he was right. He would find few amongst his remain contingent who disagree with these socialist criticisms of the European Union. His immigration stance does not demonise the migrants but criticises those abusing and profiteering from the free movement of labour to the detriment of both foreign and British workers.
Corbyn addresses the major concerns of those who voted to leave, but satisfies those who refused to accept Cameron’s consensus. This group are largely internationalists and environmentalists who want change in the globalist world they inhabit, not confined to this island like their pre-internet parents. In this conception the reforms Cameron tried to illicit from Europe hit the right themes, but entirely the wrong ideology.
Squaring Circular Stars.
On the continent there is no-one more critical of the EU than Yanis Varoufakis. The short lived Greek finance minister, but eternal thorn in the side of Brussels, has decried the inflexible and brutal EU monetary institutions. He is also a committed socialist and once threatened Grexit, long before Brexit became common parlance. It may seem strange then that he toured the UK in 2016 imploring Britain to remain in the EU. But he believed that the UK had the power to change Europe for the better, and to save Greece. He joined John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas in proclaiming ‘Another Europe is Possible.’ Corbyn aligned with this vision promoting a remain ‘agenda for progressive reform in Europe: to increase democratic accountability, tackle tax avoidance and climate change, and strengthen workers’ rights across the European Union.’ He has already squared the circle.
He should re-adopt this platform amidst the chaos of Brexit. Cameron failed to get conservative reforms from the EU, this has too quickly reduced the public discussion to remain, as we are, or leave, as we like. The Labour party can satisfy its eurosceptics and eurodreamers alike by talking about how we will change Europe by remaining.