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Andrew Lilico: How much longer will Labour's pro-EU stance survive?

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In October 1962, as the Conservative government negotiated (unsuccessfully) for Britain to join the European Economic Community, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell declared that Britain's joining would mean "the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!"  In 1970, the Conservatives won the General Election promising to take Britain into the EEC, (though it is worth noting that in 1967 Wilson's Labour government sought EEC membership, but was rejected).  In 1975 the Labour government renegotiated the terms of our membership (or at least claimed to do so) and called a referendum on whether we should stay on the renegotiated terms or leave.  In 1983 the Labour Party fought the General Election promising to leave the EEC.  It was a Labour government in the late 1990s that did not take Britain in with the first wave of euro members (as negotiated by Major - but Blair would have had time to reverse the policy had he chosen to do so) and then rejected UK euro membership in 2003.

However, despite this sustained Eurosceptic word and action, by the 1990s, the new generation of Labour politicians regarded an anti-European Community public stance as part of old-fashioned internal Labour squabbles and felt that being pro-Europe was a totemic indicator of modernity and a concern with bread-and-butter issues.  Furthermore, the Trades Union movement was won round in the late 1980s by the claim of senior European Community officials (especially Jaques Delors) that although traditional labour movement rights and influence may have been stripped away by Mrs Thatcher, they could be restored via the back door of European social regulations.  Also, by the late 1980s the Conservative Right had started to become concerned with the political direction of the European project, which they felt had moved beyond the trade promotion and collective opposition to the Warsaw Pact that they had initially supported.  As the Right became more Eurosceptic, centre-left politicians defined themselves as pro-European in contradistinction.

But pro-European sentiment in the Labour Party has only ever been skin deep.  Labour activists are very rarely Europhiles of the sort one used to encounter in Conservative circles.  Senior figures might express pro-EU sentiments in public, but virtually no-one joins the Labour Party or becomes active in Labour politics in order to give expression to a pro-EU ideology, in the way that many many Conservative activists have been drawn into politics specifically by Euroscepticism.  Labour activists are interested in the NHS or schools or unemployment or the poor or the elderly or perhaps the desire to tax the rich to redistibute wealth.  They aren't pro-EU as an issue in itself.

And whatever Labour public figures might say, Labour voters are very significantly split on the EU.  In the latest YouGov poll, 43% of Labour voters said leaving the EU would be bad for the economy, but 42% said it would be good or make no difference.  41% said leaving the EU would be bad for jobs, and 41% said it would be good or make no difference.  52% say there should be a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU (versus just 29% saying no) and 34% say they would vote to leave (versus 42% for the country as a whole - indicating that Labour voters are only a little more pro-EU than the rest of voters).  Indeed, if Cameron achieved a renegotiation he said was a good deal, far fewer Labour voters (51%) say they would then vote for Britain to stay in the EU than Conservative voters (64%)!

Ed Miliband has said it's a bad idea to hold an in/out referendum on the EU at present.  Well, David Cameron says that too.  Ed Miliband says we should repatriate certain powers from the EU (e.g. regional and industrial policy).  David Cameron says that too (albeit in different areas).  Ed Miliband says it's a bad idea to pre-announce an EU referendum years in advance.  But he has not ruled out having a referendum in the next Parliament or promising a referendum at the next General Election.

In the 1990s, once one major party (the Conservatives, under pressure from leadership challengers, Cabinet splits, and the Referendum Party) promised a referendum on euro membership, everyone else followed.  The Labour Party, knowing the long-standing natural Euroscepticism (indeed, Euroantipathy) of its core vote felt it had to park the issue.

The question now is, once Cameron announces a referendum, will Labour this time feel it must match that at the General Election (or before).  The answer will depend on voter and opinion-former reaction to Cameron's announcement.  If Labour polling analysis suggests it is losing support to the Conservatives over the issue, they will surely seek to park it by announcing their own referendum.  I suspect that is exactly what will be found, partly because of the long-standing and largely settled Euroscepticism of the British public; partly because the concept of having a referendum on this question is extremely popular; and partly because of likely economic developments in the Eurozone.

Eurozone unemployment will shortly reach 12.5%, with levels of above 20% in some countries.  Claims that the EU is "good for jobs" will meet a blank stare of incomprehension from voters that see pictures on their television screens each evening of desperate Greeks and Spaniards protesting at the lack of jobs.  Ongoing austerity will means cuts to public spending of two to five times as much in certain Eurozone countries as is scheduled for the UK.  Labour-supporting public sector workers will look at TV reports of 15% cuts to Eurozone public sector worker pay and police baton-charging public sector strikers and struggle to grasp the claims of their leaders that it's good to be on the side of the police and the bosses, not on the side of the workers.

Thus, in general Labour activists don't care enough about the EU to want to go out on a limb to defend it - that just isn't why they are in politics.  And Labour voters, many of whom are already quite Eurosceptic, are likely to turn more against Europe as Eurozone austerity bites.  If public opinion is against Labour on the EU it isn't going to try to sway that opinion.  It will try to park the issue so it can move the debate onto matters that it does care about.

Labour's notionally "settled" pro-EU stance is shallow.  We should not expect it to last until a 2015 General Election.  By then, all the main parties will be promising an EU referendum.


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