If the Scottish independence referendum has taught us anything, it has shown the ability of a vote on a non-partisan question to reshape the subsequent partisan political landscape. As with the Scottish referendum, the referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued EU membership is likely to generate a high level of interest and engagement, argues Richard Johnson. Turnout could well exceed general election levels. It could also spell electoral disaster for Labour in the next general election.
Many in the Labour Party assume that the party’s unified stance in favour of remaining in the EU will be politically beneficial, particularly in contrast to a Conservative Party which is divided on this issue. However, I predict that Labour’s unwillingness to engage with a left-wing Euroscepticism could lead to the alienation of the roughly one-quarter to one-third of Labour voters who oppose British EU membership, leading many of them to turn away from the party at the next general election. Meanwhile, the fact that the Conservatives straddle the issue will allow them to appeal to both sides and emerge from the referendum campaign in a much stronger position than Labour.
Today, in spite of a leader who has been ambivalent towards European integration for most of his political career (Jeremy Corbyn voted against the Lisbon Treaty), there has been virtually no room allowed for debate within the party over EU membership. It does not appear likely that any member of the Shadow Cabinet will campaign against our continued membership. Eurosceptic backbench Labour MPs have not been given any official platform from the Labour Party. Their ‘Labour Leave’ group has been dismissed as a rogue organisation by members of the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC). Instead, the current official position of the Labour Party is unqualified support for continued membership in the European Union. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn has said, ‘We will be campaigning, and are campaigning now, for Britain to remain part of the EU…under all circumstances’.
This position sits in stark contrast with the history of the party, which for many decades was characterised by a significant Eurosceptic wing which sat alongside a pro-integrationist flank. Both were given room to voice their opinions within the party and to the public. Opposition was once voiced by senior Labour figures from all ideological wings of the party, including former leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Michael Foot, as well as Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, and Peter Shore.
A classic statement of a Labour Eurosceptic position was voiced by Denis Healey in a 1950 pamphlet European Unity: ‘No Socialist Party with the prospect of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority’. The twelve-page document was approved unanimously by the Labour NEC, with the Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the Foreign Secretary Ernie Bevin present. But, Healey’s argument, once dominant in the Labour Party and the labour movement more broadly, has steadily been cast aside since the late 1980s to the point that Labour-supporting Euroscepticism is now met with confused horror by many Labour politicians and activists.
Yet, for a small group of Labour activists and for many more who vote Labour (but are not members of the party), the tradition of Euroscepticism on the British democratic Left remains as relevant as ever. Indeed, there remain strong social, economic, and political reasons from a socialist, Labour perspective not to be a member of the European Union.
Part of the disconnect is explained by the shift within the party membership to a solidly pro-EU position. In April 1975, the special conference at Blackpool which debated Labour’s position in that year’s referendum on continued EEC membership voted 2-to-1 in favour of exit. It would not be surprising if the result were the reverse today. A Labour MEP told a gathering at the Labour conference in September that 97% of Labour members were in favour of remaining in the EU.
The views of Labour members, however, must not be conflated with Labour voters. While 97% of Labour members might wish to remain in the EU, polling shows that 27-33% of people who voted Labour in 2015 want to leave. It seems likely that the one-quarter to one-third of Labour voters who are Eurosceptic 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 (i.e. middle-class) social group voters wish to remain in the EU, a majority of C2 and DE (i.e. 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.
As a party, Labour has always attempted to attract support from both middle-class and working-class voters. As Ivor Crewe has put it, the party has always been ‘a coalition of Hampstead and Hull’. In previous years, commitment to common objectives of greater welfare provision and economic redistribution have united these two camps. But, the EU referendum is poised to raise — clearly, brutally, and emotively — the salience of an issue on which they are pitted against each other.
The referendum campaign will become, in part, a campaign between the winners and losers of globalisation. While senior Labour politicians seem to feel comfortable speaking to pro-EU middle-class voters who have seen the visible gains of EU membership, they have little to say to Eurosceptic working-class voters who have suffered on the other end. The Labour Party’s message to these voters is little more than ‘you’re wrong’.
It seems odd that the Labour Party would choose this issue, of all things, on which to be so totally inflexible and to pick a fight with its voters. In recent years, for the sake of electoral advancement, the Labour Party has compromised on public spending, welfare, private sector involvement in public services, nationalisation, and so on. But when it comes to the EU, Labour is totally inflexible, even when it’s bad politics.
Lessons from Scotland
The party’s strident, single-minded position suggests to me that most Labour politicians either do not realise or do not care about the political implications of the referendum campaign. While many senior Labour politicians have realised that the Scottish independence referendum campaign had seriously harmful political ramifications for the Labour Party, I believe that they drew the wrong inference for why such harm occurred. Most blamed the fact that the ‘no to independence’ campaign was cross-party and have, therefore, concluded that the pro-EU campaign which Labour runs must be its own unique ‘Labour IN’ campaign.
While an alliance with the ‘Westminster establishment’ parties in Scotland was likely unhelpful for the Labour Party, I do not believe it was the only reason the Scottish referendum went so badly for Labour. The real fault of the Scottish referendum campaign was to campaign so strongly and exclusively for one side. By the time historically Labour supporters cast their ‘yes’ votes, they had been led to conclude that support for independence was incompatible with support for the Labour Party.
In fact, one could argue that the collapse in Labour support between the 2010 and 2015 is largely explained by ‘yes’ voters switching from Labour to the SNP. The overwhelming majority of ‘no’ voters who voted Labour in 2010 also voted Labour in 2015, as the British Election Study shows. Of Scots who voted Labour in the 2010 general election, 35% voted YES to independence. In the 2015 general election, a staggering 90% of these people voted SNP, while only 9% stayed with Labour. In contrast, of the 65% of 2010 Labour voters who voted NO in the referendum, 75% stayed with Labour in 2015, while only 13% voted SNP.
As with the 35% of 2010 Labour voters in Scotland who voted ‘yes’ to independence, the Labour Party currently offers little to the 27-33% of 2015 Labour voters in Britain who want to leave the EU. After they vote against EU membership in 2016/17, will this segment of the Labour electorate continue to vote Labour at the next general election? Or, will the EU referendum teach these voters that opposition to the EU membership is incompatible with support for the Labour Party? Labour cannot afford to lose one-quarter to one-third of the people who voted for them in 2015. Yet, I believe there is a very strong chance that Labour could be sleep-walking into another referendum-induced election catastrophe.
Note: This article was first published by OXPOL, and gives the views of the author, and not the position of BrexitVote, nor of the London School of Economics.
Richard Johnson is a DPhil candidate in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He researches elections and representation in the USA and Britain. He has co-authored (with Ashley Walsh) a book on labour history: Camaraderie: One Hundred Years of the Cambridge Labour Party, 1912-2012.
 D Healey, European Unity: A Statement by the National Executive Committee of the British Labour Party, London: The Labour Party, 1950.
 W Lipgens & W Loth, Documents on the History of European Integration vol 3, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1988, 746.
 John Curtice, Britain Divided? Who supports and who opposes EU membership, The UK in a Changing Europe, November 2015, p 11.
 Curtice, 2015, 2.