The UK Labour Party has officially embraced a strong 'Remain' position in this month's EU referendum. The party has invested its full resources, including money, party staff, and volunteers. In many parts of the country, the Labour Party is the mainstay of 'Remain' campaign activity.
There are two reasons why Labour might come to regret its unqualified europhilia. The first is a question of electoral survival. One-third of Labour supporters will be voting 'Leave' on 23rd June. Most of these come from the party's working-class base and are at serious risk of defection to other parties, especially UKIP (UK Independence Party). The second reason is programmatic. Labour is badly mistaken in its belief that the EU is an unqualified friend of socialism and working-class politics. As Jeremy Corbyn wrote in 2009, before his volte face on the issue earlier this year, 'the [EU] project has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national parliaments'.
Having experienced a catastrophic loss of support in Scotland following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, one would think that the Labour Party might be more cautious about its approach to this month's EU referendum. The vote in Scotland showed how a referendum can reshape the partisan landscape. Partisan realignment following referendums is not guaranteed, but it is also not unheard of. The examples of independence referendums in Scotland and in Quebec are instructive. Both involved major questions of national identity, in which parties took clear stances. Voters who disagreed with their party's stance by the time of the referendum stopped supporting that party in subsequent elections.
For example, in Scotland in 2014, 35% of people who voted Labour at the previous general election defied the official party line and voted for independence. According to the British Election Study, 90% of these people defected from Labour and voted SNP at the next general election. In contrast, of the 65% of Labour supporters who voted 'No' to independence, only 13% defected to the SNP. As Edward Fieldhouse and Chris Prosser have written, 'the referendum did not simply reflect Labour's problems in Scotland but further contributed to those problems, resulting in almost total annihilation in terms of Parliamentary seats… [P]arty alignments appeared to crystallise along the independence cleavage'.
A similar process could be happening with the current EU referendum in England.
Many in the Labour Party look at the divisions within the Conservative Party over the EU with glee, assuming that the Tories will face severe electoral repercussions after the referendum. This is premised on the old assumption in politics that divided parties never win. But, as many audiences outside of Britain will be familiar, referendums operate on different electoral logic to general elections. When the country is split, it is sometimes wise for a party to be as well.
What Labour elites seem to overlook is that David Cameron has wisely followed the playbook of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, Harold Wilson recognised that there were legitimate arguments for and against among Labour Party members and allowed the party to divide. In a Commons motion on membership, 137 Labour MPs voted to stay in the EEC, while 145 supported leaving. Much like the current Tory Cabinet, most of Wilson's Cabinet voted to remain, but well-known Cabinet ministers such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, and Peter Shore took prominent roles in the Brexit side during the referendum.
This time, Labour is offering nothing to the roughly one-third of people who voted Labour in the last general election who will vote for Brexit. With only a few weeks to go before the referendum, only 53% of Labour voters are definitely supporting Remain.
It seems likely that Eurosceptic Labour voters are disproportionately drawn from its historic (yet increasingly perilous) working-class base. Polls show consistently higher support for the EU among middle-class professionals than those in working-class categories. While a majority of AB and C1 (ie. middle-class) social group voters wish to remain in the EU, a majority of C2 and DE (ie. working-class) voters want to leave. While 78% of university graduates want to remain in the EU, only 35% of those with few or no qualifications do.
The tragedy of its current position is that Labour has the historic and intellectual resources to prevent likely defections to UKIP. Euroscepticism has a long tradition in the Labour Party. Figures from the party's left, right, and centre have campaigned at various junctures against Britain's membership in the EU or its predecessor organisations, including former leaders Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, and Michael Foot.
Today, there remain compelling reasons from a Labour Party perspective to leave the EU. These include the EU's pro-marketisation agenda, threats to trade unionism by EU courts, and the unfair movement of labour.
On the first account, there are current Labour Party policies which cannot be achieved while Britain remains in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn's re-nationalisation agenda and pledge to rescue the failing British steel industry are prohibited under EU law. Furthermore, Labour's pledge to abolish zero-hours contracts would face challenge as a result of EU directives which forbid member states from implementing 'unjustified' and 'disproportionate' restrictions on agency work.
Second, EU courts have eroded trade union rights. The European Court of Justice's ruling in the Viking Line case allows EU companies to use their address in one EU country (eg. Estonia) to avoid trade union obligations in the country where they do business (eg. Finland) if those labour rights makes the business contract 'less attractive'. In addition, the ECJ has restricted the right to take industrial action when it limits a firm's 'freedom of establishment' in another EU member state. In the Laval case, a Swedish trade union was prevented from taking industrial action against a Latvian firm which refused to obey Swedish trade union agreements for higher pay, holidays, and other social insurances.
Finally, since 2004, the EU has added 13 countries in eastern and southern Europe, which has generated uneven labour flows across the EU. While there are compelling reasons from the perspective of poorly paid (or unemployed) workers in eastern and southern Europe to relocate to higher wage economies in the west and north of Europe, there is little incentive for British workers to go to the post-2004 EU countries where the quality of life is lower and minimum wage is as low as £1.36 per hour, if it exists at all.
This one-directional, east-west free movement has serious implications for the value of labour in the United Kingdom. What is the effect on the labour value of a construction job in the UK when a builder from Bulgaria comes to Britain and is accustomed to doing a job for much less than an existing British builder would expect to be paid? The effect is uneven, with positive benefits for the well-off but not for the working-class. A study from UCL found that immigration depresses wages below the twentieth percentile of the wage distribution, but leads to slight wage increases in the upper part of the wage distribution.
The Labour Party's strident, single-minded position suggests that most Labour politicians either do not realise or do not care about the political implications of the referendum campaign. It seems that some in the party are satisfied with Labour committing suicide to save the EU. Yet, as long as Britain remains in the EU, the Labour Party cannot protect the very people it was formed to represent.
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