‘I will be voting to leave the European Union’. It is a sentence which almost always attracts gasps of horror from my fellow students and dons in Oxford, one of the most pro-EU cities in Britain. But, polls show that at least 40% of the British public, many of whom voted Labour in the last general election, agree with me.
My decision to vote ‘Leave’ is based on my belief in democracy, socialism, and a political economy which protects the living standards of the British working class. As a Labour member since I was eighteen, I will be voting to leave the EU not in spite of the principles which led me to the Labour Party but because of them.
Here I want to set out the reasons why I believe there is a strong Labour case for leaving the EU.
Euroscepticism and the Labour Party
Euroscepticism has a long tradition in the Labour Party. Figures from the party’s left, right, and centre have campaigned at various junctures against Britain’s membership in the EU or its predecessor organisations, including Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, and many other ‘giants’ of the party. Until last year, Jeremy Corbyn himself had been a lifelong Eurosceptic.
In the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, Harold Wilson recognised that there were legitimate arguments for and against among Labour Party members, allowing the party to divide. Among Labour MPs, 137 voted to stay in the EEC, while 145 supported leaving. The balance tipped further among party members. At the Labour Party conference in April 1975, 35 per cent voted to stay in the EEC, while 65 per cent voted to leave. While some trade unions campaigned to remain, many others strongly supported Brexit. As David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger write in their book on the 1975 referendum, ‘Union branches or sometimes trades councils formed the nucleus of anti-[Common] Market activity in many localities’. (1976: 107)
While Labour MPs and members today are unquestionably more pro-EU than before, many traditional Labour voters are Eurosceptic. Only ten per cent of Labour Party members support Brexit, but up to one-third of people who voted Labour at the last general election want to leave the EU.
As I have argued elsewhere, as a matter of electoral strategy, the Labour Party must signal to the millions of traditional Labour voters who vote to leave the EU in June that, after the referendum, there is still a place for them in the Labour Party. At the moment, it is simply doing its best to drive them away.
My first objection to the EU is that I believe it will seriously encumber a future Labour government from achieving a socialist programme. The recently deceased Denis Healey once argued, ‘No Socialist Party with the prospect of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority’.
There are current Labour policies which cannot be achieved while we are in the EU:
- Labour’s renationalisation agenda – for the railways, the postal service, and so on – is not achievable under current EU rules. The EU requires private competition, and full-scale renationalisation is not allowed.
- State aid to bail out national industries, such as the steel industry, is prohibited.
- Labour’s pledge to end exploitative zero hours contracts and end the casualisation of labour would face challenge as a result of EU directives which forbid member states from implementing ‘unjustified’ and ‘disproportionate’ restrictions on agency work.
- Local Labour councils have been hugely delayed by state aid expenditure limits imposed by the EU in providing financial services through credit unions for those on low incomes.
- Attempts to promote stronger procurement rules in terms of social criteria such as paying the living wage have been limited by EU procurement and competition law.
The problem is not just the EU placing hurdles on what Labour can achieve in power. As Paul Mason has pointed out, ‘The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era’.
In recent years, the EU has been actively working against left-wing objectives with alarming speed and aggressiveness:
- The EU Commission, along with the other members of the troika, have attacked the right to collective bargaining and trade union activity in several EU member states. They have forced cuts to public sector pay, reduced or frozen minimum wages, and restricted collective pay agreements in the name of greater market competition.
- The treatment of Greece has been contemptible. EU institutions and actors deliberately drove Greece into deeper recession, imposed austerity, and forced privatisation measures in direct contravention to the democratic will of the Greek people and their government. As a Greek minister recently lamented, ‘Nobody in the government agrees with this agreement but we have signed it’.
- The European Central Bank is committed by treaty to prioritise deflation and stagnation over growth, leading to gross levels of unemployment throughout the continent.
- The ECJ’s ruling in the Viking Line case allows companies to use their address in one EU country (e.g., Estonia) to avoid trade union obligations in the country where they do business (e.g., Finland) if those labour rights make the business contract ‘less attractive’.
- The ECJ has restricted the right to take industrial action when it limits a firm’s ‘freedom of establishment’ in another EU member state. In the Laval case, a Swedish trade union was prevented from taking industrial action against a Latvian firm which refused to obey Swedish trade union agreements for higher pay, holidays, and other social insurances.
I agree with Jeremy Corbyn when he wrote in 2009, ‘The [EU] project has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy.’
While I am the first to admit that the Labour Party’s prospects of forming a government in the near future are not propitious, I know that the party will eventually emerge from its internecine struggle and present itself ready for government — as it has done after every period of civil war in its history. When this happens, I do not want a Labour government fighting with one hand tied behind its back by an increasingly pro-austerity, pro-privatisation, and anti-trade union European Union.
My second objection is that the EU often works against the democratic will of its member states. The EU executive has regularly overridden the will of national democratic electorates and governments. Their arrogance was captured in a comment made to the Greek finance minister after the election of the Syriza government: ‘We can’t possibly allow an election to change anything.’
Tony Benn described the EU as a coup d’état by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty. The EU is dominated by a political elite who do not trust their own people. This attitude is shared by some on the Left in Britain who lazily assume that the EU is the only institution which can ‘protect us’ from Conservative governments. But, while we in Britain can easily vote out a Conservative government, there is nothing we can do about an EU Commission controlled by the Right.
The best way to protect ourselves from a Conservative government is for people in Britain not to vote for one. It’s a simple matter of democracy. It is down to us, through our own democratic institutions, to fight to expand social protections
Labour supporters often point to the social rights provided by the EU as evidence of the need to stay in. But, there is no law from the EU for workers which we could not secure ourselves. In fact, as the Labour MP Gisela Stuart has pointed out, many of the rights for workers and women which are credited to our EU membership were actually initiatives of Labour governments. Many UK social rights preceded and provide stronger protections than the EU directives.
There are those on the Left who fear that by leaving, we will lose these rights. But, we must have greater faith in the British people. As Michael Foot said during the 1975 referendum, ‘And I say to our country — our great country — don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilise our resources and overcome our economic problems. Of course we have. We can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time’. The Labour Party must revive its confidence in our parliament and people to set the path forward.
A final concern, about which I have written elsewhere, is the pressure of unregulated EU free movement of labour on the wages and job opportunities of low-skilled British workers. Since 2004, the EU has added thirteen countries in eastern and southern Europe, which has generated uneven labour flows across the EU. While there are compelling reasons from the perspective of poorly paid (or unemployed) workers in eastern and southern Europe to relocate to higher wage economies in the west and north of Europe, there is little incentive for British workers to go to the post-2004 EU countries where the quality of life is lower and minimum wage is as low as £1.36 per hour, if it exists at all.
This one-directional, east-west free movement has serious implications for the value of labour in the United Kingdom. What is the effect on the labour value of a construction job in the UK when a builder from Bulgaria comes to Britain and is accustomed to doing a job for much less than an existing British builder would expect to be paid? A study from UCL found that immigration depresses wages below the twentieth percentile of the wage distribution, but leads to slight wage increases in the upper part of the wage distribution.
The Labour MP Emma Reynolds argued in Progress that Labour should support EU free movement because Labour is ‘an internationalist party’. I would argue, however, that EU migration policy is narrow and discriminatory. It is not internationalist to prioritise (white) Europeans at the expense of people around the world who have much stronger historic and cultural ties to this country. In fact, studies (e.g., Manacorda et al 2012) show that the negative impact of wage depression from recent EU migration has been disproportionately shouldered by immigrant communities already in Britain, a major reason why Labour MP Khalid Mahmood is working to persuade British ethnic minority communities to vote to leave the EU.
It seems likely that the one-third of Labour voters from the last general election who want to leave the EU are disproportionately drawn from the Labour party’s historic – but increasingly perilous — working-class base, and there is little doubt that these economic concerns are a major explanation for their dissatisfaction. Polls show consistently higher support for the EU among middle-class professionals than those in working-class categories. While a majority of AB and C1 (i.e. middle-class) social group voters wish to remain in the EU, a majority of C2 and DE (i.e. working-class) voters want to leave. While 78 per cent of university graduates want to remain in the EU, only 35 per cent of those with few or no qualifications do. To his credit, when he was Labour leader, Ed Miliband acknowledged that immigration is a class issue. However, as long as we remain in the EU we cannot protect the very people the Labour Party was formed to represent.
If we want to take control of our national economy to protect British workers and to achieve socialist goals, then we must vote to leave. A vote to leave the EU is consistent with Labour values. Above all, I hope that those traditional Labour voters who feel compelled to vote to ‘Leave’ in June will feel that Labour is still their party. It’s a matter of existential importance for the party, but I fear the worst.
Butler, David & Uwe Kitzinger. 1976. The 1975 Referendum. London: Macmillan.
Healey, Denis. 1950. European Unity: A Statement by the National Executive Committee of the British Labour Party. London: The Labour Party.
Manacorda, M, A Manning, & J Wadsworth. 2012. The Impact of Immigration on the Structure of Wages: Theory and evidence from Britain. Journal of the European Economic Association 10:1 (Feb), 120-151.