The post-referendum Labour Party is at war with itself. A series of resignations, designed to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, has left the Party hampered by in-fighting and without the energy or focus to make sense of its relation to its members. In this guest post, Richard Tuck argues that the voters are ahead of the Party when it comes to recognizing the EU as an obstacle to any such reckoning.
In the current deep crisis of the Left, the Labour Party is in acute danger of making an historic mistake. There is a widespread sense in the Party that it has failed to represent its old electoral base, and plenty of its leaders talk in vague terms about reconnecting with the northern English working class, but there is very little recognition among them of the central difficulty in doing so. The failure of representation is not merely the consequence of the cultural gulf between the leaders of the Party and the old working class, brought about as much as anything by the shuddering halt to upward mobility in the last forty years; it is intimately connected to the practical consequences of Britain’s membership of the EU, and in areas which have nothing to do with the question of immigration upon which everyone is so transfixed.
To see this, ask yourself the following: could a British politician of the Left at the moment, while Britain is still in the EU, propose the actual measures which Bernie Sanders has campaigned on in the United States? There are three proposals which Sanders put at the heart of his movement: pull out of or radically modify NAFTA and do not enter the TPP; greatly increase the tax on the big Wall Street banks; and introduce free state college and university tuition paid for largely by the Wall Street tax. None of these would be feasible for a British government within the EU. The EU is itself Britain’s NAFTA or TPP, and it also decides all questions of trade for Britain with the rest of the world, so there is no question of a British Bernie within the EU even thinking of such a thing. A British government could theoretically change the tax regime on the City, but the free movement of labour and capital within the EU would permit the banks simply to transfer operation to a friendlier tax regime elsewhere in the Union without anything of the trauma which would afflict Wall Street banks if they fled the US to avoid a Bernie tax. And even something (one would have thought) as parochial as free college tuition is not to be entered into lightly by a Britain within the EU: the EU enforces the principle that no distinction can be made between home and EU students when it comes to college fees, so free tuition funded by British taxes for British students (assuming that the banks could be made to stand still long enough to be taxed) would mean free tuition for students from across the EU funded by the British. Scotland has managed this on a small scale, though with the significant anomaly that it can charge fees to English students but not to other EU ones, but it is inconceivable that a scheme of this kind could be put in place for the whole of Britain.
The point of this comparison is that the Left should not be misled into thinking that the abyss which has opened up between the Labour party and its old electorate on the EU is purely a cultural one, nor that it is all about immigration. Though the voters of the northern cities may not have articulated this, and may only have a vague instinct about it, it is a fact that policies which outside the EU would seem obvious possibilities for a modern left wing party cannot be considered by a Labour Party within the EU. This is to say nothing of the kind of nationalisation which the Attlee government introduced, which would in most cases be straightforwardly illegal under EU law – as would the creation of the NHS if we were to try to do it today, since it involved the mass expropriation of private property, in the form of the old hospitals, which the European Court of Justice would almost certainly prohibit. We are used to thinking that the actual policy differences between modern political parties in Britain are wafer-thin, and that only on constitutional matters such as the EU and Scottish independence are there radical conflicts; but there is a concrete reason why that should be so, which is that membership of the EU necessarily locks countries into a certain kind of economic and social order which precludes at a national level left wing policies which even in the US – the US! – can attract a major following and offer the hope of a new kind of politics.
If the Labour Party insists on presenting itself as essentially a pro-EU party, as there is every danger it will do as I write, it will never be able to offer the voters anything other than a watered-down version of what the Conservatives will be offering them; and we have seen where that has landed them so far.