It is not just the populist right who clash ideologically with the European Union.
In 2013, a senior Conservative politician was overheard referring to Eurosceptic activists as “swivel-eyed loons.” Intended as a disparaging remark, some traditionalists wore the label proudly. Michael Fabricant, the party’s former vice-chairman, uploaded a picture of the late bulbous-eyed comedian, Marty Feldman, as his Twitter avatar.
The comments came after 116 Tory MPs defied the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, by voting for an amendment to protest his lack commitment to a referendum on EU membership before 2015. Those on the right of the Conservative party were appalled by the delay.
Hard Brexiteers continue to be stereotyped as demented, frothy-mouthed, “swivel-eyed” monsters. Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that climate change minister, Claire Perry, had used the term in a group WhatsApp conversation with other Tory MPs.
But often overlooked is euroscepticism on the left – with Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn providing an obvious starting point.
Corbyn voted to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum and has railed against European institutions consistently since becoming an MP in 1983. In parliament, he voted against the 1993 Maastricht Treaty and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty.
During the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Labour leader was lukewarm in his support of remain. In one chat-show appearance, Corbyn claimed to be “seven out of ten” on the EU, and was conspicuously absent throughout the Brexit campaigning period.
Corbyn is not isolated amongst left-wing intellectuals over the question of the Europe. The New Left Review, one of the most influential political science journals in the world, had been hankering for ‘Lexit’, a handy – if a little ungainly – neologism of ‘left wing’ and ‘Brexit’, for some time.
The journal’s former editor, Perry Anderson, argued that the EU was an authoritarian and neoliberal project, bent on “enforcing a bitter economic regime of privilege for the few and duress for the many.”
A right wing institution?
At the core of the European project is dogmatic commitment to the free-market. Since the 1970s, European markets have becoming increasingly integrated. The creation of a single currency, Masastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the Stability and Growth pact have driven this trend. Directives at the European Central Bank and the European Commission have now all but banned the Keynesian economic model – the very bedrock of social democracy.
With increased integration comes increased competition. EU states are now forced to compete for investment from multinationals more than ever before. In order to gain a competitive edge, states are forced to lower corporation tax, cut labour costs, weaken unions and compromise on environmental and social regulations. The result is spiralling inequality.
Some intellectual voices on the left, including Alan Johnson, have also argued that the failure of the EU to work democratically, in the interests of the majority, has created a “breeding ground for the far right.” In the US, many analysts have attributed the election of Donald Trump to anger at the unequal impact of globalization in some disaffected caucuses. The unequal spread of Economic integration benefits is perhaps a source of discontent here too.
Despite his long held opposition to the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is expected to announce a major policy shift next month. He is reported to be holding a meeting in early February with Labour bigwigs, in which he will discuss the prospect of remaining part of some sort of customs union.
For Corbyn this would draw clear battle lines to fight a Conservative party, currently floundering in chaos. It would appease pro-Europe sections of the Labour party. But such a policy shift would also represent a sacrifice of values for the Labour leader and some of his comrades.
A recent YouGov poll shows that – 11 months after the referendum – growing numbers of Brits believe that the government is duty-bound to leave the European Union. The ‘pro-Brexit electorate’ reportedly now stands at roughly 68%.
And the two UK-wide parties campaigning for a referendum on the Brexit deal, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, are currently polling at 10% and 1% respectively.
So, with just over two weeks to go until Britain goes to the polls, is it time for remainers to let go of Brexit?
The Brexit Election. With the Lib Dems scoring poorly and the collapse of UKIP, two-party politics seems to have returned to Britain, and neither the Conservatives nor Labour are standing in the way of Brexit.
The Tories – unflinching in their belief that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – are currently polling at 43%. In recent weeks Prime Minister Theresa May, herself a former Remain campaigner, has struck a markedly more belligerent tone towards the European Union.
Labour, led by the (not-so) closet Euro-sceptic Jeremy Corbyn, have decided not to oppose the referendum result either, to the dismay of some of its MPs. Their Brexit plan – to retain access to the EU single market and the customs union while taking no further part in freedom of movement – looks completely unfeasible, especially given that European Parliament has made the indivisibility of the four freedoms (labour, movement, goods and services, and people) one of it’s ‘Red lines on Brexit.’
But that doesn’t seem to matter. Labour’s manifesto pledges – to scrap tuition fees, tax the rich, and nationalise industry – have proved very popular, and the party has climbed to 38% in recent polls.
Besides, Brexit is no longer headline news. Even before the terrorist attack in Manchester, the national conversation had turned away from our split with the European Union.
Understandably, Theresa May’s ‘dementia tax’ U-turn and Labour’s £48bn worth of spending promises feel far more relevant than something that’s been kicking around for almost a year.
The Brexit debate feels like old news – Labour MP Jess Phillips recently said that her constituents were more concerned about ‘gogglebox.’
The options. Apart from the SNP in Scotland, the only UK-wide parties campaigning to give the British public the final say on the Brexit deal, via a second referendum, are the Lib Dems and the Green Party.
The Greens – with joint-leader Caroline Lucas their lone MP – are polling at 1%. Lucas was impressive in the recent ITV ‘leaders debate,’ it’s just a shame no-one was watching.
The Lib Dems – who were hoping to corner the pro-EU market by putting their second referendum promise front and centre – aren’t doing particularly well either.
Polls have the so-called ‘Remain party’ on 10%, despite having cast themselves as the only party that would stand up to the Tories’ Brexit plans. Either the appetite’s not there, or traditional party loyalties are keeping people from voting Lib Dem.
The fact is, even the staunchest remainers may find it hard to vote for the Lib Dems. Their collusion with the Tories in the 2010 coalition government still hangs over the party, and potential voters may have been put off by the furore surrounding Tim Farron’s views on gay marriage.
It’s not hard to make a case for moving on from Brexit. Everyone else has, so let’s stop banging our heads against a wall, and save ourselves the headache.
Hoping for anything other than a hard Brexit – with Theresa May likely to strong and stable her way to victory – is altogether too painful.
But it’s not all as bleak is it seems.
For a start, YouGov has been criticised for the ambiguous wording in its ‘Re-leaver’ poll, casting doubt over statistics that have been widely used as evidence for the public’s acceptance of Brexit.
People that chose the following option were classified as ‘Re-leavers’:
‘I did not support Britain leaving the EU but now the British people have voted to leave the government have a duty to carry out their wishes and leave.’
‘Note the subtle “I did not” versus “I do not,”’ said Helen De Cruz, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University. ‘What if people still do not support [Brexit] but think it’s inevitable?’
This feeling of inevitability breeds despondency, but it needn’t.
Even if reversing Brexit seems unlikely, several campaigns have sprung up to fight the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ pursued by the Tories, assuming Theresa May is still PM on June 9th.
Open Britain – a pro-EU campaign launched in the aftermath of the referendum – has drawn up a Brexit ‘attack list’ of 20 seats held mostly by pro-Brexit Conservative MPs in districts that voted Remain.
They are urging ‘anyone who opposes a hard Brexit’ to campaign for the candidates they have endorsed in these constituencies, in the hope of having as many pro-EU voices in Parliament as possible.
Set up by Gina Miller, who successfully challenged the government’s right to invoke Article 50 without Parliamentary consent, the campaign has set up a tactical voting platform to encourage people to vote strategically in their local constituencies.
So far, they have used crowd-funded money to back 16 candidates, including Nick Clegg and Caroline Lucas, and will be visiting marginal constituencies and advertising in seats where progressives may pip the Tory candidate.
Many of the candidates supported by Open Britain and Best for Britain are Labour politicians who have vowed not to tow the party leadership’s official line.
With candidates more likely to campaign according to what their constituency voted in the referendum, the Parliamentary Labour Party’s disunity should benefit remainers: a vote for a Labour candidate does not necessarily mean a vote for a Corbynite view of Brexit.
Remainers would do well to adopt the ethos of these campaigns and vote for the local candidate most likely to knock David Davis down a notch next time he airs his distain for the EU.
For some, this may mean moving beyond party allegiances, but if ever there’s a time to do so, it’s now. Every Remain MP in parliament will be another dissenting voice.
A vote for a Labour candidate does not necessarily mean a vote for a Corbynite view of Brexit.
Regardless of media narratives and polling figures, for the millions of people whose future will be dictated by the Brexit negotiations, this is still a one-issue election.
‘The wound is healing’ wrote Anne Perkins in a recent Guardian article, and in part she’s right – some remainers have chosen to move on. For sanity’s sake – if nothing else – that is, perhaps, the sensible thing to do.
But many others haven’t moved on: Brits who live on the continent – many of whom weren’t allowed to vote in the referendum – who are ashamed by the jingoism of the Brexit negotiating team, business owners who rely on trade with the EU, the of thousands of European nationals working in the NHS, the vast majority of young people who voted to remain and are worried about what U.K-EU relations will look like when the people who instigated all this are dead and gone.
To these people – who are directly in the firing line – there is one fundamental issue going into this election that frames everything else.
They are not over Brexit; they may never be.
That, more than anything, will determine who they vote for on June 8th. And so it should.
Today, at the Labour manifesto launch, leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that his party had a plan to make ‘Brexit work for ordinary people.’
British voters must choose, he said, between two very different types of Brexit: a Labour Brexit ‘that puts jobs first, or a Tory Brexit that will be geared towards the interests of the City of London and risk making Britain a low-wage tax haven.’
Many undecided voters on the left are weighing up a different choice, however, between voting for Labour and voting for the Liberal Democrats.
While the Lib Dems have come out in favour of holding a second referendum on the final deal, Labour have been criticised for their unclear stance on Brexit, the defining issue of this election.
The proposals outlined today have the potential to make or break the Labour campaign.
So, in amongst the scrapping of tuition fees, tax hikes, and nationalisation of industry, what is Labour’s Brexit strategy?
We have distilled all the relevant pledges from their manifesto – which is the 3rdlongest in the party’s history – so that you don’t have to.
Labour won’t fight the referendum result, but will seek to build a ‘close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations.’
They plan to:
‘End Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit’ and instead prioritise ‘retaining the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union.’ (Remember this for later).
Guarantee ‘existing rights’ for EU nationals in Britain, and ‘secure reciprocal rights’ for Brits living in the EU.
Reject ‘no deal’ as an option in the Brexit talks.
Continue to work with European nations on climate change, the refugee crisis, counter-terrorism, and other cross-border issues.
Maintain the UK’s ‘leading research role,’ and retain membership of European organisations such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency.
Seek to ensure British students continue to participate in the Erasmus scheme.
Maintain food quality and welfare standards to keep Britain from being ‘flooded with cheap and inferior produce.’
Replace the Conservatives ‘Great Repeal Bill’ (link) with an ‘EU Rights and Protections Bill’ to safeguard ‘workers’ rights, equality law, consumer rights and environmental protections.’
‘Power can feel just as remote and unaccountable in Westminster as it does in Brussels.’
Protect the EU-derived laws that benefit the UK, such as ‘workplace laws, consumer rights and environmental protections.’
Legislate to ensure that national security and criminal justice provisions are not jeopardised by Brexit.
Retain membership of Eurojust and Europol, and carry on with European Arrest Warrant Arrangements.
Negotiate a Brexit that benefits the whole of the UK by introducing ‘presumption of devolution,’ whereby EU powers will be devolved ‘to the relevant region or nation,’ because ‘power can feel just as remote and unaccountable in Westminster as it does in Brussels.’
Ensure no part of the UK feels the strain of the withdrawal of EU funding for the rest of this Parliament.
Labour would guarantee Parliament ‘a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal.’
Make sure there is ‘no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and that there is no change in the status or sovereignty of Gibraltar.’
Welcome scrutiny, working with, not against Parliament. ‘On an issue of this importance the Government can’t hide from the public or Parliament,’ by guaranteeing it a ‘meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal.’
Labour says it aims to prioritise ‘growth, jobs and prosperity’ in trade negotiations, and ‘makes no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets.’
Britain’s immigration system must change, Labour claim, but they will ‘not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures,’ while stating that ‘freedom of movement will end.’ (Remember this, too).
They also aim to:
‘Implement fair immigration rules, and put an end to ‘indefinite detentions.’
Work with businesses to ‘identify specific labour and skill shortages’ and create new ‘migration management’ systems. This system could include ‘employer sponsorship, work permits and visa regulations.’
‘Refugees are not migrants. They have been forced from their homes, by war, famine or other disasters.’
Protect the immigrants already working in the UK, raise their vocational skills and training, and end the migrant labour and workplace exploitation that ‘undercuts workers’ pay and conditions,’ by ‘cracking down on unscrupulous employers.’
Ring-fence public services instead of ‘pretending cuts are a consequence of immigration.’
Continue to welcome international students – who generate billions of pounds of income and help boost the economy, without including them in immigration numbers.
‘Uphold the proud British tradition of honouring international law and our moral obligations by taking our fair share of refugees. Refugees are not migrants. They have been forced from their homes, by war, famine or other disasters.’
Labour go on to say that they ‘values [migrants’] contributions, including their tax contributions.’
‘The UK’s future prosperity,’ says the Labour manifesto, ‘depends on minimising tariff and non-tariff barriers that prevent us from exporting and creating the jobs and economic growth we need.’
Labour plans to:
Hold a ‘national debate’ on Britain’s future trade policy, making sure ‘transparency and parliamentary scrutiny are part of all future trade and investment deals.’
‘Retain unrestricted access for our goods and services.’*
*This would be a real bone of contention for the European Parliament, who stressed the ‘indivisibility of the four freedoms’ (freedom of movement, goods, trade and services) in their recent ‘Red Lines on Brexit’ statement.
This sentiment has also been echoed by Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Labour, however, wish to end to freedom of movement but keep the benefits of the Single Market, the Customs Union, and the same terms regarding goods and services.
They also plan to:
‘Work with global trading partners to develop free trade and investment agreements that remove trade barriers and promote skilled jobs and high standards.’
‘Build human rights and social justice into trade policy.’
Put an end to dumping on British markets.
Provide grants, as well as an ‘export incentive scheme,’ to help Small and Medium-sized Enterprises grow.
‘Boost British exports and support priority industrial sectors’ using ‘export credit, finance, insurance and trade promotion tools.’
Grow the digital economy and easy ‘cross-border data flows’ whilst ensuring national and personal data protection.
Invest in ‘new green technologies and innovative low-carbon products.’
Incentivise investment into the UK.
And finally, review international investment treaties and oppose ‘parallel investor-state dispute systems for multinational corporations.’
Funding. In total, the Labour Party has vowed to spend £48.6bn (BQ) in its new manifesto, which would be funded by extra tax revenue.
Theresa May has described the plan to finance the pledges as ‘nonsensical,’ saying the sums sounded like they had been ‘dreamt up by Diane Abbott.’
But perhaps we should move beyond this ‘accountancy’ approach, says Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation.
‘This manifesto is really about significantly increasing the tax take to spend significantly more, but rather than getting our calculators out, we should really be debating the desirability or otherwise of a larger state.’
‘The election itself will tell us whether or not it proves popular with the electorate, but there is at least a clear debate to be had. And you don’t need a calculator to have it.’