Socialist Worker

Jeremy Corbyn is wasting a golden opportunity by backing the European Union

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2500

Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons last year

Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons last year (Pic: David Holt/flickr)

It’s probably hard to make a good speech when you’re uncomfortable with the message you’re communicating.

That’s why Jeremy Corbyn made such a dull and uninspiring presentation launching Labour’s pro-European Union (EU) campaign last week.

For most of the time Corbyn maintained a lofty impersonal tone. He reported, “Labour is convinced” about some Remain views and that, “The Labour Party is overwhelmingly for staying.”

It’s certainly true that the large majority of Labour MPs back Remain. But those who are for Leave point out that throughout their time in parliament both Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell backed anti-EU motions.

In this they were simply following the anti-EU position of their political mentor, Tony Benn.

During the 1993 debate on the EU’s Maastricht treaty Corbyn said it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community”.

Corbyn has also said that he voted against the EU’s predecessor, the Common Market, in 1975.

Seeking some argument he could actually connect with last week, Corbyn insisted, “Workers need to make common cause across national borders”.

But one group of workers he did not talk about at all were those in Greece. That would have involved admitting that the EU had acted as the enforcer of austerity and the wrecking ball against democracy when Greeks voted for an end to neoliberalism last year.

Refugees did get one mention when Corbyn spoke of the challenge of “huge refugee movements across the world”. But he couldn’t discuss the EU’s role—pushing back refugees, throwing up barriers and repelling people through the intimidating effect of mass drownings.

During his battle for the Labour leadership, Corbyn hinted he might support leaving the EU. He said he had “not closed his mind” to exit and was opposed to giving David Cameron a “blank cheque”.


At one hustings he said, “I think we should be making demands—universal workers’ rights, universal environmental protection, end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, end the race to the bottom in wage protection”.

It turned out the way to make Corbyn back the EU was to elect him Labour leader. He compromised to keep at least some of the right vaguely on side.

The reappointment of Pat McFadden as shadow minister for Europe was seen as the first victory for Labour’s right under Corbyn’s leadership. The announcement that the party would campaign to stay in the EU followed.

McFadden eventually resigned, but was replaced with another strongly pro-EU figure.

If Corbyn backed Leave, it is highly likely that the vote would be to break from the EU. Polls suggest that Corbyn is far more trusted on the issue than Tories on either side.

His support would banish completely the myth that only the right wants to exit. He would particularly appeal to young people who presently see the EU as a left wing project.

And, as former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke said last week, “The prime minister wouldn’t last 30 seconds if he lost the referendum”.

Corbyn insists a Leave vote would boost the right. But with the political feeling in Britain at the moment it is more likely it would see Cameron’s resignation, turmoil in the Tory party, the loss of their parliamentary majority and an early election. This offers the hope of the end of the Tories before 2020, surely something to be grasped.

There are principled socialist reasons to be against the EU. But it’s also true that Corbyn’s decision to back Remain may be life-support for a Tory government for nearly four years.

Labour saved Cameron over the Scottish independence referendum. It should not make the same mistake again. More than ever, it’s right to fight for Leave—and to persuade as many Corbyn supporters as possible that they should be with us.

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