For decades everyone assumed that Europe would break the Conservative party. Instead it came close to breaking Labour.
June 2016 led to a bitter second leadership election and polarised the party. That was followed by delays, negotiations, the snap 2017 election, knife-edge votes, court cases and mass demonstrations.
But December 2019 delivered the final blow. A Tory party purged of all independent voices won a majority of 80 and Boris Johnson is driving Brexit through, regardless of cost and reason.
Labour’s failure goes back many years. Through European elections under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the NEC were told that European issues turned voters off. So we talked about education, housing, the NHS.
When the European Union agreed advances in employment rights – paid holidays, parental leave, the working time directive – the UK government tried to water them down, then grudgingly implemented them, then finally claimed credit. Any new leader would have struggled after so much neglect.
Labour also never reconciled tensions between the pro-European membership and significant sections of our former core vote. In 2017 both Leavers and Remainers could believe that we were on their side. By 2019 “constructive ambiguity” was no longer tenable. The compromise on a second referendum, thrashed out at conference, and signed off by the leader, satisfied no-one. And that referendum could have been lost again.
Labour is now bereft of MEPs on the NEC and links with the Party of European Socialists will have to be maintained through informal connections, twinned cities and indeed the Labour Movement for Europe.
The deadline for an extension has passed and we are heading inexorably for a hard or, worse, a no-deal Brexit.
Labour’s European policy will have to evolve towards the next general election in 2024, but meanwhile we cannot let the Tories blame the consequences on Covid-19, or on perfidious Brussels. The rights of European citizens within the UK and British citizens in the EU, must be defended.
More widely, with Covid-19 creating borders within the Schengen area and far right populism on the rise, the European project itself is challenged. Sadly Britain is now a bystander and can only offer solidarity and wish our friends well.
By Ann Black - Labour NEC candidate, former NEC member 2000-2018 & LME member
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