In the wake of their unexpected, slender majority, the Tories were overly concerned about one thing in May: Europe. It was a topic that had the potential to rip the Conservative Party into pieces, particularly now that Cameron had to hold the referendum he’d pledged to have if he ever found himself in just such a situation. While the backslapping was going on across all sections of the party, this was in the back (or indeed, the front) of every Tory’s mind.
However, it could – ironically enough – be the Labour Party that ends up having the big split within their ranks over the topic of Britain’s EU membership. They are about to elect a leader who, like most on the far-left, is an instinctive Eurosceptic. Cameron’s renegotiation, such as it will be, undoubtably will contain a set of measures that in outlook and design will take Britain’s relationship with the EU in a more rightwards direction: less worker protection by the state, as a for instance. There’s no way that Corbyn is simply going to rubber stamp this and say the Labour Party must fight for a membership of something he never really liked anyway that’s about to become even more free market orientated. He has already said some fairly weak things about the Labour Party under his guidance wanting to stay in the EU, but I think when the renegotiation hits the table, he’ll think long and hard about that position.
If Corbyn does vocally side with the leave bunch, there’s simply no way that people like Umunna, or Chris Leslie, or Emma Reynolds can possibly stand back and keep their mouths shut while Britain slides quietly out of the European Union forever. I suspect that Corbyn will simply allow for people to campaign however they like, with the result being most Labour MPs campaigning for stay in, with Corbyn’s inner circle campaigning for out.
I can actually imagine what this might look like. A couple of years ago I organised an event at Labour conference that was about what Labour’s policy on an EU referendum should be. I had done events at Conservative conference on Europe before, so I figured it would be spicy. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found. Sure, I’d stacked the thing so that it was as adversarial as possible – I had Mike Gapes, as passionate a Europhile as you can imagine, and Graham Stringer, a guy who has already joined the leave campaign visibly. But still – the anger was almost like a person in the room with us. Amongst the crowd you could feel it as well; both the Europhiles and the Eurosceptics were unable to understand the other side of the argument to theirs. They just couldn’t see how those who felt opposite to them on the issue could do so and still be a member of the Labour Party.
The essence of the European Union is to construct a system that makes extremism, both politically and economically, as hard as possible to become a reality, across the whole of Europe. So it makes perfect sense that both the far-right and the far-left don’t really like it; like I say, the whole thing is designed to thwart them. The EU as a concept emerged from the Second World War, and was in large part an idea meant to ensure that such a conflict would never be possible ever again.
A good way of understanding how important the EU is to peace in Europe is to look at Russia and the situation the European Union finds itself in with that country. Then take the idea on the far-left that the EU have agitated Putin by “invading his space” – as if the European Union and the corrupt authoritarianism of modern Russia are somehow exact equivalent forces, simply with one opposing the other with the only difference being a cultural one. As if somehow Russia being at odds with the rest of Europe was some sort of natural order of things instead of actually being an historical anomaly (let us recall that at the end of both world wars, Russia and Britain fought on the same side as one another). Europe used to be a bunch of orbits of influence, each in potentially aggressive conflict with one another; looking at the one remaining 20th century style situation in Europe spells out just how badly we need the EU.
So the issue that was supposed to be the fly in the ointment regarding Tory hegemony for the next who knows how long seems ready to hurt the Labour Party in the same way, if not worse. Which can only be seen as good news for the Conservative Party.