With the EU referendum campaign now in full swing much has been made in the press about the divisions within the Conservative Party. After all, Conservative MPs and the cabinet to a lesser extent are split almost evenly down the middle on this issue while there is also a split among the grassroots support, albeit with a clear majority backing Brexit.
In contrast, all of the other major parties have demonstrated near total unity on the subject: the SNP are publicly backing EU membership down to the last, as are the 8 surviving Lib Dem MPs. Similarly, the Plaid Cymru have taken a united stance on the question as have all of the Northern Irish parties with representation in Westminster. Even Labour, a party which trumpets itself as a “broad church” of political opinion and with a history of opposition to the EU from its more left-wing MPs, has overwhelmingly backed EU membership.
Labour’s position on the European Union is a curious one. Initially opposed to EEC, since the 1980s the party’s position has shifted towards being more positive about European integration. Although not quite as Europhile as the Lib Dems, Labour have nonetheless been very supportive of the EU over the years and many Labour MPs are now at the forefront of the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. Under the turbulent and amateurish leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the EU is one area where Labour MPs would like to think that they are united – except they aren’t.
Officially, only a handful of Labour MPs publicly back British withdrawal from the EU Among these are figures such as Kate Hooey, Gisela Stuart and left-wing stalwarts like Ronnie Campbell and Kelvin Hopkins. Aside from half a dozen or so other MPs, there is literally nobody else among Labour’s 232-strong Parliamentary party who has come out for Brexit.
Interestingly, Labour’s two most important MPs, Corbyn and McDonnell, have expressed firm anti-EU sentiments in the past yet both have backed a Remain vote, with Corbyn coming under fire for deleting swathes of Eurosceptic articles from his website. Perhaps even more infuriating for the pro-EU Labour MPs, Corbyn recently missed a national Labour In campaign event to attend a CND rally in London.
In light of their past statements and obvious reluctance to campaign for EU membership with enthusiasm, it is seems likely that Corbyn and McDonnell are merely placating the Parliamentary Labour Party by backing membership and were the two still on the backbenches, it is probable that they would now be making the left-wing case for Brexit (so much for “straight-talking honest politics). This begs the question: if Corbyn and McDonnell are keeping their euroscepticism quiet so as not to cause a ruckus in the PLP, are there others out there?
With the Labour Party so outwardly pro-EU, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if there were indeed a number of shy Brexiteers on the opposition benches. While Conservative MPs will find plenty of like-minded colleagues regardless of their position, the same cannot be said of Labour MPs – publicly backing Brexit could prove fatal to any aspiring MP and severely damage their reputation within the party. For Labour, their unequivocal support of the European Union is now dogma, a political sacred cow.
What makes Labour’s stance on the EU so ridiculous is that there is indeed a strong left-wing case for leaving, a case that was made so eloquently by the late Tony Benn but nowadays gets more attention from the right, such is the extent of contemporary left-wing adoration for the EU. It is undemocratic and it stifles the ability of national governments not only to legislate but also to nationalise. Why then are there so many Labour politicians who crow on about democracy and renationalising the railways yet so few who are willing to stand up to the EU?
The answer increasingly appears to be that for many, supporting the EU is about being on the opposite side to Conservatives. For quite some time now the Conservative Party has been marked by its Euroscepticism; by coming out passionately for the EU, Labour MPs have been able put more ideological distance between themselves and the Conservatives, particularly during the New Labour years when the parties were less polarised.
This is hardly surprising either, as Labour have often defined themselves around simply opposing Conservatives rather than defining what they’re actually in favour of. While there are clearly a number of Labour MPs who genuinely believe in the EU project, one gets the impression that were the Conservatives more pro-EU that in turn would prompt more Labour euroscepticism. Sooner or later, Labour will have to abandon its identity politics and focus on substance.
Ben is an I’m an international relations postgraduate from the University of Kent. Follow him on Twitter: @btharris93
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty