Lacklustre and poorly led, the Labour Party is letting down the Remain campaign
IN 1975 a Labour government, split on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (as it then was), put the matter to a referendum. Most of its supporters wanted to leave, so it fell to the pro-European Conservatives to trumpet the case for staying. Margaret Thatcher, their leader, campaigned in a hideous sweater bespangled with European flags and railed against “the parochial politics of ‘minding our own business’”. On the day, two-thirds of Britons voted to remain.
The intervening decades have reversed the politics. The party of David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, is now deeply divided on Europe, so to win the referendum on June 23rd he needs the pro-Remain Labour Party to beat the drum.
Yet with polls narrowing—as we went to press five of the most recent eight had put Leave ahead (see article)—it is failing to do so. Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, is no Thatcher. Hailing from the rump of the old Eurosceptic left, he sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. He voted to leave in 1975 and probably would again if Labour’s pro-EU MPs and supporters let him.
Mr Corbyn did not make his first pro-EU intervention until mid-April, fully two months after Mr Cameron called the referendum. Since then he has been a bit player at best. When researchers at Loughborough University ranked the ten most reported-on politicians in the second half of May, he did not even make the list (partly by his own design: he had spent part of the period on holiday). By refusing to campaign alongside Tories—doing so would “discredit” the party, sniffs John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor—he has ruled himself out of every important Remain event and televised debate.
When Mr Corbyn does bother to intervene, he is a study in reluctance. His “pro-EU” speeches are litanies of complaints about the union. Voters should back Remain, he says, because the Conservatives would not negotiate the right sort of Brexit. On June 2nd he declared Treasury warnings about the consequences of leaving as “hysterical hype” and “mythmaking”.
No wonder that few Labour figures are taking it upon themselves to speak up. The most prominent campaigners are not MPs at all but two big faces from the party’s past: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And even they were absent from the Loughborough list. Following Mr Corbyn’s lead, the party is on autopilot: in an economics briefing circulated to its MPs on June 6th, the risk of Brexit was point number 16.
Stand up and be counted
This is feckless. The choice Britain faces on June 23rd will have profound consequences, not least for Labour voters poorly placed to weather a post-Brexit recession. Yet just 52% of Labour supporters say that they will vote, compared with 69% of Tories. Little more than half of them even know that their party is for staying in the EU.
The consequence could be that Britain votes to quit. Most Tory voters want to leave, and Mr Cameron is ill-placed to woo young and working-class voters. Labour MPs confess shock at the Euroscepticism the referendum has uncovered in the party’s heartlands.
Perhaps Mr Corbyn simply cannot inspire his party and the struggle to uphold the status quo does not interest him. Or perhaps he is deliberately sabotaging the Remain campaign. If Britain left, the Conservative Party could tear itself apart. If there were a snap election, he might stand a chance of forming a Labour government. Yet to treat the future of the country as a question of transient advantage would be shockingly shallow.
Whether born of apathy or ambition, Mr Corbyn’s behaviour does him no credit. If Britain does vote to leave, it will need a strong opposition leader. Sadly, it will not have one.
Economist. Jun 10th 2016.