Labour has forgotten its eurosceptic heritage and left the working classes behind

Labour’s autumn political broadcast Our Town told viewers “we lost control” and “we’ve been sold short by a political and economic system that has been unchallenged for far too long.” Labour’s bait-and-switch broadcast was a clear attempt to reconnect with blue-collar Leavers in marginal English seats. Yet these voters are amongst those most alienated by Labour […]

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Labour’s autumn political broadcast Our Town told viewers “we lost control” and “we’ve been sold short by a political and economic system that has been unchallenged for far too long.” Labour’s bait-and-switch broadcast was a clear attempt to reconnect with blue-collar Leavers in marginal English seats.

Yet these voters are amongst those most alienated by Labour as it cartwheels over the horizon to the left, turns its back on 70% of all Labour constituencies and elopes with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ campaign.

Indeed the neglect of Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition shows the party has left its erstwhile working-class supporters behind.

Activists at Labour’s Annual Conference in Liverpool who agitated for a ‘People’s Vote’ seemed oblivious to their party’s history of opposition to the European Project.

The first post-war Labour government opposed participation in the European Coal and Steel Community. Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said: “If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan Horses will jump out.” Labour Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison said of the Community: “It is no good, the Durham miners will not wear it.”

Former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee summed up Labour’s antipathy to ‘ever closer union’ when he observed: “The idea of a politically integrated Europe is historically looking backward… We have always looked outward, out to the new world, and to Asia and Africa.”

Attlee’s successor Hugh Gaitskell told the 1962 Labour Party Conference the aim of the founding fathers was federation” and “if we go into this, we are no more than a state, as it were, in the United States of Europe, such as Texas or California.” This meant “the end of Britain as an independent nation state” and the “end of a thousand years of history”.

Tony Benn called for a referendum on entry in 1970 and wrote to his constituents: “It would be a very curious thing to try to take Britain into a new political entity… by a process that implied that the British public were unfit to see its historic importance for themselves.”

Harold Wilson was forced to seek a renegotiation of Britain’s Community membership and called the European Communities Referendum of 1975. The Parliamentary Labour Party had previously voted against joining. Labour’s Conference had split two-to-one against the Common Market. Seven Cabinet members campaigned as ‘Antis’ and Wilson’s wife Mary voted out.

And under Michael Foot, Labour advocated leaving the Common Market without a referendum, a policy that subsequently became a manifesto pledge.

Fast forward to the present and the Sunday Times reported recently that Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Member of Parliament for 58% Leave-supporting Hayes and Harlington, had held secret talks with the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign and has hosted Alastair Campbell and ‘People’s Vote’ Communications Director Tom Baldwin in his House of Commons office.

National director of Momentum Laura Parker attended a rally in November in support of a second referendum.

Then The Times discovered a motion that is being circulated among Constituency Labour Parties calling for a Special Conference with one motion on the agenda for a ‘People’s Vote’ with Remain as an option.

It is ironic that the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn is slowly moving towards their third-way Blairite doppelgängers on a second referendum.

Then again, why wouldn’t they? They are equally worlds apart from these totemic figures of post-war Labour history in having no attachment to parliamentary sovereignty and little real connection to Britain’s working-class communities.

Labour is now a very different party from what it once was. The very notion of Labour as a party for blue-collar voters is a social, cultural and electoral anachronism.

Firstly, when Labour talks about “Our Town” it doesn’t really have in mind the sociology of Leave-voting Macclesfield or Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Labour’s imaginary ‘town’ is the parallel universe of ‘high status city dwellers’ and faux left opinion formers living in metropolitan London.

Labour is politically dependent on the metropolis. In the six months following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, 81,000 Londoners joined his party, double Labour’s total membership in Wales. Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry and McDonnell all sit for London constituencies (two in the London Borough of Islington alone).

They share the same geographically narrow worldview as that of Stronger In whose four principle staffers grew up in London within two square miles of each other. Two went to the same school. One was the son of a Labour Home Secretary and another was Lord Mandelson’s Godchild.

And whereas in the 1970s less than a third of Labour MPs were graduates, now 90% are. When the mask slips, it reveals a prejudice about working-class Leave voters such as when Huddersfield’s Labour MP Barry Sheerman claimed “better educated people” voted Remain and when Owen Jones talks about ‘gammons’.

Secondly, Corbyn’s bien pensant ‘Global Villager’ values don’t resonate in the Brexitlands of Wales, the Midlands and the North. Harold Wilson told Bernard Donoghue: “I don’t want too many of these Guardianisms. I want my speeches always to include what working people are concerned with.”

Yet the modern left’s disillusionment with the workers has become a post-Brexit antipathy. The social democracy of earlier generations has given way to identity politics, a political style that increasingly inflects the voice of Continuity Remain.

Consequently, the pro-EU left can’t understand blue-collar political interest in sovereignty and democratic oversight of our laws, borders, trade and money.

Thirdly, the ‘peak Corbyn’ electoral coalition was beaten by the Conservatives in C2DE vote share, prompting the New Statesman to write of Labour’s middle-class populism: “the property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves for having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances.”

Former Vote Leave Co-Chair and former Labour MP Gisela Stuart did her party a service when she said Brexit was a “wake-up call” to Labour. But the party’s Remainist ‘People’s Vote’ tendency would re-empower the ‘lobbyists, multinationals and Brussels elites’ Labour Leavers voted to dispossess.

Indeed, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, before the Brexit victory, nearly one in two workers felt ‘people like them’ no longer had a voice in the national conversation and Brexit won in 140 heavily working-class and historically Labour districts.

Flirting with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ is therefore potentially disastrous for many Labour MPs. A recent IQR survey for Global Britain of the 25 most marginal Labour seats found 19 Labour candidates would face defeat if Labour attempted to frustrate Brexit and 63% of voters said MP’s decisions in Parliament should respect the result.

Labour should heed the advice of UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis who recently told Labour’s leadership to “never, ever forget your base.” Supporting a coup against five million or so of the party’s Leave voters would reinforce the perception that those who voted to take back control in the referendum would stand to lose the most control, in the political and cultural sense, from a Labour government that will only speak for Remoania.

Ironically, Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition was channelled by Vote Leave in its referendum broadcast featuring images of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan in which voters were asked to “imagine our money being spent on out priorities”, which we could do if we voted to taken back control.

By contrast, Labour’s Our Town is part of the “give back control agenda” of a party that has long forgotten the people it was founded to represent.

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Daniel Hannan: I want to support May’s plan. But I can’t. It proposes a way of leaving the EU that’s exactly the wrong way round.

Instead of leaving the Customs Union but retaining chunks of the Single Market – we shall end up staying in the Customs Union but leaving most of the Single Market.

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.

I have been watching the dégringolade of Brexit with – if such a thing is possible – even more agony than the rest of you. It’s not just the frustration of seeing mistake after avoidable mistake being made by our side. It’s not just the tossing away of a generational opportunity to relaunch Britain as a global trader. It’s something else. You see, I had always expected, at this stage, to be one of those Leavers who could warmly back a compromise deal.

As regular readers of this column will know, I never liked the idea of a WTO Brexit. I wrote here on the day of the referendum itself that, whichever side won, it would need to accommodate the large minority which had voted the other way]. I have spent two years suggesting various compromises that both sides might live with. So when the clever and amiable David Lidington urges us to back the withdrawal deal on grounds that “the 52 per cent get control of laws, money, borders + out of CFP; the 48 per cent get closer trade partnership with EU than Canada or any advanced economy + cooperation on police & security,” I really want to agree.

Liders, after all, is more or less taking the line I have been taking over the past two years. A 52-48 vote, as I kept telling anyone who’d listen, was not a mandate for a radical break, but for a phased and partial recovery of powers. When critics complained that we’d be left “half in, half out”, I’d retort that that was pretty much the way the nation had voted, and that there was no dishonour looking for a middle way.

But here’s the thing. When I suggested accepting a half-in-half-out settlement, I assumed we’d aim to keep the good half and junk the bad half. The Eurosceptic demand, down the years, had always been “common market, not common government”. That was the position of Teddy Taylor and Dick Body and, before them, of Neil Marten and Enoch Powell, of Hugh Gaitskell and Clement Attlee. It seemed a safe bet that the government would respond to the 2016 vote by seeking something along those lines. I wanted Swiss-style EFTA membership, but I was prepared for pretty much any reasonable compromise.

Yet, incredibly, Theresa May has come back with a deal that keeps the worst aspects of membership and junks the potential advantages. Instead of staying in the common market but leaving the EU’s more federal policies, we are doing the reverse. We propose to leave the common market but keep, as much as any non-member can, the obligations imposed on us by the European Arrest Warrant, the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the rest.

Instead of doing a Switzerland – leaving the Customs Union but retaining chunks of the Single Market – we shall end up staying in the Customs Union but leaving most of the Single Market. In other words, we shall prejudice our trade with the EU 27 while simultaneously making impossible trade deals with anyone else.

If you had asked three years ago whether leaving the EU while keeping the Customs Union was desirable, you’d have been laughed at by all sides. It had always clobbered Britain uniquely as the member state that did the most trade outside the EU. The idea that we might stay in it while giving up any say over it, obliging ourselves to follow all EU concessions to third countries without any incentive for those third countries to reciprocate to us, would have been too absurd to contemplate.

How have we ended up in this humiliating position? In Labour’s case, the answer is sheer opportunism. The party was anti-Customs Union until February of this year on the impeccable grounds that, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, “it is protectionist against developing countries”. It reversed its position when it scented an opportunity to win a parliamentary vote, but I still haven’t heard a single Labour MP come out with a convincing defence of the new policy. Indeed, debating some of them, I’m left wondering whether they have any grasp of what the Customs Union is. Labour now seems to be anti-Single Market but pro-Customs Union on no better grounds than that it doesn’t like the word “market” but does like the word “union”.

The Government’s position is even odder. Having promised on more than 20 occasions that Britain would leave the Customs Union, the Prime Minister now presents as a victory the fact that the backstop would keep the whole UK in that subordinate position. In fact, of course, this was the EU’s aim all along. The row over the Northern Ireland border was invented as a way to grip the UK in the tight clamp of the Customs Union, giving EU exporters preferential access to our market while simultaneously allowing Brussels negotiators to use that market as a negotiating counter to get better terms for their own countries.

The claim that the Customs Union is temporary depends on our faith in two things: the Prime Minister’s negotiating ability and the EU’s generosity. On the basis of the record of the past two years, is that a gamble you’d make? The other EU states are not hiding their glee at our surrender. Emmanuel Macron has already said that he will veto a future trade deal – that is, keep us in the Customs Union – unless we open our fishing grounds to his skippers. It takes only one country to wield a veto at that stage, so Madrid might make a similar threat over Gibraltar, Dublin over Ulster and so on. Britain would by then have handed away its £39 billion and all its leverage. Are we really supposed to believe that the EU would terminate a position that is, as Donald Trump correctly says, advantageous to the 27 but excruciating for Britain, out of sheer goodwill?

I can’t speak for every Eurosceptic, but most of us voted Leave because we wanted a freer, more democratic and more global Britain. We didn’t want to sever all our links with our European allies. We simply wanted to be free to stand aside as they pursued their goal of political amalgamation.

The deal that will come before Parliament doesn’t offer that outcome. Quite the opposite: it would lead to a Britain that is as constrained as now, but less commercially engaged. The only Leavers who might support such a deal are those Old Labour voters who want a protectionist Britain and fewer foreign workers. Yet, as far as I can tell, even they don’t like it.

Supporters of the deal are (with the exception of the brilliant but, on this occasion, mistaken Rory Stewart) not really trying to make a positive case for it. Instead, they are reduced to telling us that the alternatives are even worse and that everyone is sick of the whole business. They’re wrong. The alternatives have not been tried, and most Leavers only ever supported Brexit as a means to an end, not an end in itself. This agreement delivers an outcome worse than either staying or leaving. It has been negotiated by people who never liked what they were doing, never understood why anyone might have voted Leave (other than on anti-immigration grounds) and defined their success as coming back with something – anything – to which they could attach the label “Brexit”. They have misjudged the electorate; and they have, I think, misjudged the MPs whom that electorate returns.