• Labour and the European referendum results 1975 and 2016 – a brief comparison
  • Brexit – Touchstone for the Corbyn Leadership?

  • By Thomas Kachel | 29 Mar 17 | Posted under: Great Britain , European Union
  • The decision of the Labour Party’s electorate to elect Jeremy Corbyn Labour leader for the second time within 12 months was a temporary victory for the left of the party and gives it a respite. Despite the continuous attacks against Corbyn after the shock outcome of the Brexit referendum, the new old new chairman has been able to strengthen his position in the party.

    Corbyn continues to make his political mark, steering the party away from neo-liberal fixation with the so-called ‘middle ground’, towards a left-wing political strategy and policies that arise from this.

    The Question of Europe has always been an issue that has bedevilled the Labour Party in its strategic outlook for the future. What specifically does the European referendum say about Labour and the Corbyn leadership? There is no doubt that the loss of the Brexit referendum did great additional damage to the Corbyn leadership. However, as became apparent in the aftermath of the referendum, the position of the Corbyn leadership towards the referendum has turned out to be much more astute in the long run than the often hysterical retrospective criticism from inside the party and the press commentariat suggested. What’s more, if we review these responses and put them in the context of the political conflict about his leadership, the issues around Brexit can soon be deciphered as a new battle ground between right and left within social democracy. As this article will argue, more than anything else, the question of Europe has become an instrument of inner-party contention, as the core electorate of the party attaches less and less practical value to UK’s EU membership for their own lives.  

    Under friendly fire

    After Jeremy Corbyn’s first and decisive victory in the leadership elections of 2015, the internal conflicts in the Labour Party seemed to ebb away, and the attacks on Corbyn receded somewhat. Corbyn appointed a politically broad range of candidates to his Shadow Cabinet (the principal body for the formulation of policies of the Labour Parliamentary Party, the group of Labour MPs in the House of Commons). Many representatives from the centre of the party were included, and even outspoken Blairites like the former Lord Chancellor under Tony Blair, Lord Falconer, who was reinstated to the shadow post.  Angela Eagle, who positioned herself early as an opponent of Corbyn’s foreign policy, was appointed Shadow Defence Secretary. Corbyn went away from generic rhetoric, and started concentrating on concrete political proposals. Amongst some conflictual communication, this shadow cabinet was able to develop a number of concrete policies, e.g. the proposal to tackle unemployment and under-investment in neglected regions of the UK in the UK by setting up a publicly owned investment bank, or the plan for a massive construction programme for social housing to address the spiralling prices in the UK housing market. Plans were also commissioned over how to take the rail franchises back into public ownership.

    At the local elections in May 2016, Labour was able to hold on to the overall number of elected councillors’ seats, contrary to largely pessimistic forecasts by the press which presumed an electoral disaster for the Labour leader. At 31 per cent, Labour became the largest party in London again, and won the mayorship of the capital (The bad result in Scotland, where Labour was beaten into third place even by the Conservatives, can be seen as the result of the long-running general disenchantment of the Scottish electorate with Labour[1]).

    After some manoeuvring, the new Labour leadership also found a broad-based agreement on the way in which the party was to be positioned for the EU referendum. Partly reflecting the conflictual history of Labours’ relationship with the European Question, and partly for reasons of the new overall political situation in the EU in the wake of the banking crisis and imposed austerity, the Corbyn shadow cabinet converged on the assessment that it was not possible for Labour to lead an all-out affirmative campaign in favour of the EU, and therefore declined the invitation by the government-sponsored ‘Stronger in Europe’ campaign to participate in it. Rather, the new Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn decided to fight the referendum under the slogan: ‘Remain and Reform’ – indicating a willingness to take on board criticisms of the way in which the EU had developed in the last decades, while at the same time clearly stating a broadly pro-European vision. At that point in time, in May and beginning June 2016, Labour had drawn just about level with the Conservatives in the opinion polls. 

    On the morning of 24 June, the result of Britain’s Brexit referendum surprised Europe: With a clear margin of 52,4 per cent, the UK population expressed its wish to leave the European Union. This result represented a convergence of many political developments in Britain (and Europe) – but nonetheless, many rightwing Labour MPs, and many commentators in the mainstream media, had already determined a single main suspect responsible for the unwanted outcome: Jeremy Corbyn. A new barrage of reproaches and abuse was levelled against him, from the allegation that he had not campaigned hard enough to the reproach he had been lukewarm on the EU – and led to a vote of no confidence in which 172 MPs of the Parliamentary Labour Party withdrew their support.

    Labour and Europe

    For a long time, the European Question has been a divisive issue in British politics, and for the Labour Party too, even though this has been generally less publicly reflected than the divisions within the Conservatives. Indisputably a number of factors have interacted to produce the result that occurred in 2016. However, in order to address the questions about Labour’s – and Corbyn’s – conduct on Europe, some more enduring determinants concerning the behaviour of the Labour electorate in this referendum can be illustrated by briefly assessing the other British Europe referendum – the EEC membership referendum of 1975.

    The campaign of 1975 had proved in many ways more divisive for the Labour Party. For one, several of the ministers of the then Labour government (amongst them the leader of the Labour left, Tony Benn) decided to suspend their work for the government, and to campaign against membership, as indeed did the Trades Union Congress (the umbrella organisations of the unions). The economic situation was likewise rather volatile. Bitter industrial relations disputes and the fuel crisis made their impacts felt.

    However, the 1975 results show that some of the Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the English North consistently showed an 60 to 70 per cent band of percentages of the vote in favour of ‘remain’.  Labour voters in 1975 largely followed the advice of the party leadership.[2]

    The reasons can be seen as twofold: Firstly, the Labour Party was still largely trusted by working-class voters. It had built up a record of managing the British economy and its decline post-empire on the whole quite reasonably. The negotiating position of the unions was strong; therefore real wages had increased, and social protection was attainable for the overwhelming majority of the working class. Secondly, the EEC could still be seen then as an instrument of continuing this political path and securing the future of the welfare state. As a look into the official material of the Labour government then shows, the campaign displayed a focus on material welfare. The text concentrated minds on the advantages of membership, with a very pronounced focus on the social benefits (as much as on commercial success) when staying in.[3] In other words: In 1975, it seems the campaign was able to win over the majority of the Labour electorate with the argument that the EEC (later the EU) was a project that palpably generated material benefits for majorities in society – the lower middle and the working class. Based on this argument, Labour could deliver the working class vote – alongside the urban middle-class radical electorate – for the electoral coalition which constituted the successful remain vote in 1975. 

    The economic situation in Britain in 2016 could not be more different. Real wages have been stagnant for the past 25 years, and even suffered a dramatic reverse through the economic crisis that was started off by the banking meltdowns of 2008/09,[4] whilst the super-rich in the UK were able to double their wealth since then.[5] Against that background, the official line of the campaign of the Conservative government resorted to vacuous platitudes of ‘progress’ and ‘21st century politics’. The official argument did not put forward a narration of its own, but concentrated on negating the argument of the ‘Leave’ camp, not without tactics fear-mongering.

    The domestic political situation preceding the referendum posed many problems for Labour. The problems that dominated the debates prior to the referendum cut across Labours different electoral reservoirs. Fort the middle-class radical voter, immigration is predominantly seen as an enrichment, not a threat. Working class voters tend to take the opposite view, due to increased competition for semi- or unskilled jobs in the labour market. Likewise, social depravation is felt much more poignantly in the de-industrialised areas of the English North.

    Three statistics stand out: Firstly, the regions. All English regions outside London voted in their majority to leave, and even in those metropolitan areas which in a majority opted for remain (like Manchester and Liverpool) the dynamics of ‘leave’ become clear: the further away from the city centres, and the less affluent the neighbourhood, the more likely was a leave majority.[6] Secondly, annual income. The statistics clearly underpin the finding of the Guardian Columnist John Harris that ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in, if you haven’t you vote out’.[7] Thirdly, formal education: As John Curtice, one of the few left-wing pollsters in the UK, describes, university graduates  in their majority voted to remain (59%), non-graduates in their majority opted to leave (65%).

    It seems that in contrast to the 1975 referendum, the outcome of the 2016 poll reinforces the notion of a protest vote - what is obvious in the comparison is the fact that it is the traditional working class that delivered the votes for the ‘Leave’-side. It has – in this issue at least – formed a powerful coalition with the reactionary Conservative electorate in the rural south of the country.

    Reviewing the differences in the political situation between 1975  and 2016, reason for this was, most importantly, that a credible  argument about a materially prosperous personal future for a majority of the British people could not be made. The low wage liberalised economy was going to continue no matter what, and voices that made the inbuilt insecurity of this economic order an issue were not heard in the mainstream British political discourse of ‘21st century politics’. A positive vision of Europe, let alone a political programme that would prioritise social protection, increased welfare and raising living standards (which was still the case in 1975) would have been very difficult to project following the way in which the EU institutions conducted the management of the financial crisis in Southern Europe. 

    What is clear from the account and the comparison of 1975 and 2016 is, first and foremost, that, to a party like Labour, turning the European question into an idealistic article of faith completely misses the point, because it misunderstands the way in which large parts of the party’s electorate relate to the issue: essentially as a question of functionality for the betterment of one’s own personal social situation. Secondly, it transpires that in 2016, unlike 1975, large swathes of Labour core voters do not any longer accept the premise that the EU is a project that is aiming and/or able to better their social situation. This position mirrors the large disillusionment that is expressed by working class voters throughout Europe, as much in the de-industrialised parts of the North as in the countries of the European South, where the neoliberal policies have combined with the EU fiscal diktat to lead to wholesale impoverishment of the state and of whole sections of society.

    Fighting hard Brexit – Labour and its electorate after the referendum

    The feverish internal opposition in the Labour Party to Corbyn triggered a second leadership ballot immediately after the EU referendum. However, Corbyn won with an even higher margin of votes than in the first ballot. Still, Corbyn continues to be confronted with contradictory dynamics within the Labour electorate which the referendum brought out in the open. Labour has lost electoral support quite substantially in the months since the referendum, and is trailing the Conservatives under Teresa May badly.[8] It also lost an important constituency (Stoke and Copeland) in Northern England to the Conservatives in a by-election – at a time when opposition parties normally win these votes with ease. However, as research suggests, the party’s Brexit stance is only a rather minor issue in the party’s woes. Indeed, the Labour leader has been commended widely for picking the political stance on Europe most likely to appeal to a cross-section of the Labour electorate: Pledging to respect the settled will of the British people to leave the EU, while training to fight a potentially catastrophic hard Brexit that would ‘leave working class people all the worse off’, as Corbyn puts it.[9] Despite noisy opposition by a few, the Labour leader ensured that the party was able to communicate that position when Brexit was debated in Parliament. Whilst the right of the party continues to attack Corbyn, and blames all misfortunes on him, there seems to be no credible contender to challenge him for the time being.

    The deeper problem however is that of the prevailing disconnect between the Labour heartlands, its core electorate and the party. It may be unjust but it seems that the new leftwing Labour leadership is reaping the whirlwind of disengagement that the last twenty years of ‘globalisation management’ by New Labour sowed. The referendum rejection has demonstrated that the EU has apparently lost its function which it was still credited with back in 1975 – to be a tool for the promotion of the interests of a majority of working-class or lower middle class voters. Today, it is seen as too distant and too established to promise relevant benefits to under-privileged communities outside London: The poor think they don’t need the EU. The vote is a powerful reminder of these voters’ expectations, which Labour is at risk of disappointing for good. UKIP and others stand ready to provide a right-wing alternative. Thus, Labour must take heed of John Curtice’s advice: ‘Telling working class people that they have to put up with the consequences of globalisation is simply not good enough. Labour needs to take note – whoever leads it.’


    [1] After successive scandals with Labor politicians, and a successful campaign by the Scottish nationalists, who scored mostly with classic social democratic policies, the electorate in Scotland had been horrified to see that the Labour party under Corbyn’s predecessor, David Miliband, was teaming up with the Conservatives to run a common campaign against Scottish independence – a move Corbyn had opposed strongly at the time. This most obvious failure to dissociate Labour from the Conservatives, a party deeply hated in many sections of Scottish society, proved a lasting mistake, and brought the party close to being ‚finished in Scotland‘ (in the words of famous Scottish playwright, director and leading intellectual Irvin Welsh – cf. Guardian, 23.05.2015).

    [2]See: ‘How the regions voted in the referendum’, The Guardian, June 7, 1975.

    [3] Britain’s advantages within the EEC were very much couched in terms of material and social benefits. See Britain’s New Deal in Europe, Official manifesto of the British Government, esp. the chapter ‘Our partners in Europe’.

    [5] See ‘Super-rich have doubled their wealth since economic crisis’, Sunday Times, 26 April 2015, quoted in Owen Jones, Chavs, p. ix.

    [8] Latest polls suggest a 16 point lead of the Conservatives over Labour – the biggest margin since.

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