What Labour’s EU referendum campaign should have been

As the EU referendum debate has progressed, the decision facing British voters appears increasingly to be crystallizing around a choice between the economy and democracy. Faced with such a choice, it is unsurprising that neither the Remain nor Leave campaigns have captured the public imagination. To choose between economic security and democratically-accountable government is, of course, no real choice at all. Yet the two campaigns press on by hammering home their strongest points about the benefits and disadvantages of EU membership and drawing a veil of wishful thinking respectively over either Britain’s current economic prospects outside the EU or the EU’s capacity for reform.

There are good grounds for scepticism towards both campaigns. Leading Brexit campaigners offer blithe reassurances about Britain’s rosy economic future after leaving the EU. Yet one cast-iron certainty post-Brexit is that neither Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, nor Nigel Farage would be at any personal risk of unemployment were we to leave the EU. The same cannot be said for ordinary workers who might see their livelihoods and ability to provide for their families curtailed if inward investment into Britain falls, companies re-locate to continental Europe and the country slides back into recession.

At the same time, the Labour In campaign continually seeks to remind us about the benefits of EU membership for our economy, security and employment rights. There is much to agree with here. But although senior Labour politicians acknowledge that the EU is far from perfect and in need of reform, no concrete programme of what such reform might look like is offered, nor is any viable roadmap provided of how such reform could be achieved. Nor is a credible response provided to public concerns about the free movement of labour within the EU which, whilst often taking a practical focus around pressures on public services, reflect underlying cultural anxieties about whether a strong sense of national identity is possible in a country without ultimate control over inward migration.

If Labour is to speak for the majority of the country, it needs to be able to articulate their sense of alienation from the EU and show care, rather than indifference, to questions of national identity. Neither is the case at present. Equally troubling is that Labour’s In campaign has failed to move beyond the impasse of the choice between economic security and democracy.

Another Labour EU campaign was possible based on the following three principles:

  1. Brexit, at this point in time, is too economically risky and will lead to economic consequences that will hurt millions of families across Britain. The annual loss in tax revenue alone from financial institutions re-locating to Paris or Frankfurt from the City of London post-Brexit will have a significant impact on funding for public services.
  2. The reason that Brexit would hit Britain particularly hard is because of structural problems in our economy such as an over-reliance on the financial services industry, the weakening of Britain’s manufacturing base and insufficient exports across the world. These are structural problems, however, not just in relation to Brexit, but problems that need to be addressed if Britain is to build a stronger and more diverse economy better able to withstand future economic shocks such as the 2007 banking crisis.
  3. We should therefore remain in the EU, for now, but with a clear plan to try to change it. An important focus of this would be the free movement of labour, which should either be amended to allow temporary brakes when countries believe levels of inward migration have become unsustainable or to enable a levy to be paid to countries, such as Britain, who need to invest more resources in its public services to meet migration-related demand. If satisfactory reforms can be achieved – which extend further than David Cameron’s recent modest re-negotiation – then Britain should stay in the EU. But if such change proves impossible, Labour should be willing to offer another EU referendum within the next 10 years. In the mean-time, economic policies should focus on strengthening and broadening the British economy so that a future Brexit might prove less of a shock to the country than it would be if it takes place within the next two years.

This is far from party orthodoxy at the moment. But Labour must find a more creative way beyond the false choice of economic security and democracy than it has so far in this referendum. If it remains deaf to people’s concerns about the EU, it risks the same fate as the Labour Party in Scotland after the independence referendum, becoming possibly permanently detached from many of its former supporters.