One question that will almost certainly be asked by political historians when they reflect back on the current age is why passionately pro-European leftists fell in behind a socialist Brexiteer like Jeremy Corbyn. For a few years now, being anti-Brexit has been one of the signature beliefs of the Left in Britain – all while the “absolute boy” of the movement has been vocally and demonstrably pro-Brexit most of the time.
Corbyn’s Euroscepticism comes from a long line of such a feeling within the socialist Left. Tony Benn campaigning to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum is a prominent example; Labour as a party was officially for leaving the European market as late as the mid-1980s. There is an amusing leaflet from when Tony Blair first campaigned to become MP for Sedgefield in 1983 that contains a promise to leave the EEC if a Labour government were to get a majority. This Eurosceptic feeling is ideologically consistent with a socialist outlook as the essence of the European Union is certainly something that is capitalist yet favours a mixed economy. The Single Market is a very regulated environment, which tends to upset those on the libertarian Right; nonetheless, the kind of socialism seemingly favoured by Corbyn, McDonnell and Milne would be totally impossible for an EU member to engage in. Thus, their anti-European instincts and why Corbyn hasn’t been pro-Brexit simply due to political strategy but by instinct and temperament.
Corbyn’s anti-EU feelings themselves go back to the Benn era of leftist Euroscepticism. He also campaigned and voted to Leave the EEC in 1975. He vocally opposed the creation of the EU in 1993. He voted against the Lisbon Treaty. In fact, on every single vote during his time as MP that has had to do with Europe, he has always voted the Eurosceptic direction, including notably in 2011 when he voted against the European Stability Mechanism, joining only 26 other hardcore Eurosceptics in doing so, such as Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell, Peter Bone, Philip Davies, Christopher Chope, Nigel Dodds, John Redwood and Ian Paisley.
His Euroscepticism isn’t something that has lightened over the years either. In 2015, Corbyn said:
“If the EU becomes a totally brutal organisation that treats every one of its member states in the way that the people of Greece have been treated at the moment, then I think it will lose a lot of support from a lot of people.”
During the EU referendum campaign, in spite of nominally supporting Remain he infamously said in a TV interview that his support for the EU was “about a seven out of ten”, which was the most Eurosceptic thing he probably thought he could get away with saying under the circumstances.
Again, Corbyn’s Euroscepticism is completely of a piece with the rest of his worldview; you would have grave difficulties turning any country into a socialist country like Venezuela from within the confines of European Union membership. Given that, his supporters are worth thinking about. Why do they not only stand behind Corbyn but passionately do so, all at a time when on their chief political aim, stopping Brexit, he holds an opposite view?
Beyond Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, it is worth examining the pro-Brexit feelings within the Labour Party itself. As the Tory Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, said on May 1, 2018, after the government had been defeated in the House of Lords in regards to what the final vote in the House of Commons on the terms of the Brexit would mean in practice:
“We don’t have a parliamentary majority that’s for sure, that makes life harder. There are of course quite a number of Labour MPs who represent seats where there was a heavy vote in favour of leaving the EU who I would think were rash, to say the least, if they tried to openly confront the democratic view of their own voters.”
Fox had good reason to hope that several Labour MPs might just be Brexit saviours. A gang of Eurosceptic Labour MPs – Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Ronnie Campbell, Kelvin Hopkins, Dennis Skinner and John Mann to name the most prominent – had been a sort of counterbalance to the pro-European Tories since May’s premiership had begun. From an ideological point of view, their stance made sense for most of them, beyond assumed electoral convenience. It is much easier to make a case for Britain leaving the EU from the left than from the right. They want Britain to leave the capitalist club that would hold back a socialist government. Only Kate Hoey seems to have embraced full on, right-wing John Redwood style pro-Brexit sentiment.
To summarise, it is not only possible to be pro-Brexit and socialist at one and the same time, it is pretty much damn well ideologically necessary.
While young pro-Europeans have focused all of their negative energy on the Conservatives, Corbyn has whipped his party to vote the government’s way on everything related to Brexit that has been presented to the House. He three line whipped the vote to trigger Article 50; he sacked Own Smith for saying Labour should support a second referendum; today, he has a chance to shoot down the EEA amendment almost single-handedly, yet almost certainly will not. Given how shakily the Brexit negotiations have gone for the government, Corbyn’s pro-Brexit machinations have been invaluable to keeping the Brexit show on the road. Yet young pro-Europeans have not turned on Corbyn – at least, not yet.
What needs to be understood by leftists who are passionate about either stopping Brexit or reversing it if it happens is that Corbyn will never be their ally. More to the point, he can never truly be their friend on this issue, since the socialism he wants will never be compatible with being a member of the European Union. Corbyn himself has admitted that one of the reasons the leadership is against remaining in the Single Market is that is would nullify his ability to rollout Labour’s “radical agenda”. As he said at Labour’s Scottish conference in March 2018:
“The European Union is set to make changes of its own in the coming period, especially in relation to the rules governing Eurozone economies and the rights of temporary migrant workers. It would therefore be wrong to sign up to a single market deal without agreement that our final relationship with the EU would be fully compatible with our radical plans to change Britain’s economy.”
Perhaps the biggest thing I can point to regarding Corbyn’s Euroscepticism is this: if he whipped his MPs to back all of the Lords’ amendments to the Withdrawal Bill, he would give himself the best possible chance of bringing down the government. But even that prize isn’t worth betraying the chance to leave the EU on the harshest terms.
The Left must decide: which is more important, EU membership, or at the very least Single Market/Customs Union membership, or socialism? In the words of Corbyn himself, you cannot have both.