- It may be clichéd to suggest that the EU operates a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. However, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer’s recent announcement of an open-ended commitment to membership of the single market could be regarded as an indicator of this. Starmer is recruiting the EU to be Labour’s overseas political ally, replacing the USSR. It’s just like old times.
Perhaps it is the EU that has recruited Labour. The EU seems to interfere in its member states’ politics using ‘salami tactics’, a slice at a time. Thus today’s slice is the opposition party wanting semi-permanent single-market commitments. A few slices later, it will be a re-run of the referendum. A study of how every referendum delivering an anti-EU outcome has been successfully nullified would be interesting and useful.
Given that referendums operate on a binary choice, the percentages for and against the proposition will usually, if not always, be higher than those received by any party in a multi-party election. Thus a party would be incentivised to convert the large support for or against a proposition into support for the party either to defend the outcome or to overturn it. Elections following a referendum are, in effect, an informal re-run of the referendum. This explains the success of the SNP in 2015, and its relative failure in 2017. Mrs May’s call for a General Election this year could have been a way to suck the poison out of the political system.
Labour’s policy change may be informed by the last time it started losing votes. In the 2005 General Election, the Lib-Dems profited from their policy of opposition to the Iraq invasion. Labour voters boycotted the vote or defected to the Lib-Dems and the Greens when their party no longer represented their opinions on the matter, or was regarded as having a leadership complicit in a war crime.
So Labour may be trying to head off the Lib-Dems before the depleted but resolutely pro-EU party can make the running as it did in 2005. Labour has spent the last 40 years trying to move away from its traditional support base of the declining white working class and towards identity politics and the rising self-loathing urban middle class. A pro-EU stance makes sense as it chimes with its newest supporters, whose experience of actual labour is restricted to keyboard-punching, screen-swiping and working out ways to be rude about Donald Trump.
The irony is that Labour is, in effect, allied to the EU at the precise time that it has its most anti-EU leadership. Unlike the Conservatives, who had a consistent leadership policy of membership of the EEC/EC/EU from the Macmillan Cabinet decision of July 1961 until the referendum result in June 2017, Labour has swerved all over the place on Europe in the last 56 years. The reason for this has to be that Labour is a more ideological party than the Conservatives, and its ideology, Clause IV notwithstanding, is in permanent flux.
Another example of this ironic flux is that Britain’s nuclear deterrent was initiated by Labour politicians who are revered to this day. Yet this did not stop Labour disowning the nuclear deterrent as a government policy for close on two decades. Labour now has a unilateral disarmer as party leader while party policy supports the deterrent, and indeed supports civil nuclear power while the same leader is a vice-president of an organisation that opposes it.
So long as Labour is pulled between ideology and reality, it can never truly make up its mind about policy. Sometimes people, such as the girls in the Labour heartland of Rotherham who were gang-raped over many years, suffer because of this. Conflicted Labour councillors decided to have no policy and instead to ignore or suppress the issue of drugged and repeatedly violated teenagers on their watch.
Labour’s historic difficulty in securing an EU policy has to be because the issue at hand is not actually ideological. It is technocratic. Labour has problems with policy when it cannot find any ideological anchor. The only concept concerning the EU that conforms with Labour’s ideology is that it is a ‘club’ of capitalist nations. It has rules restricting socialistic state intervention in commerce, champions the private sector, and forbids Bennite siege economies. In this context, the most reasonable ideological position for Labour would be for Britain to leave the EU. But, alas, that policy position has been taken by the Conservatives, so Labour cannot, as a matter of principle or ideology, support it.
In the final analysis, Keir Starmer’s position seems to be more about opportunism and oppositionism than genuine thought-out policy. But that’s politics. Or, at least, Labour’s politics.