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A dangerous moment to be distracted

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe

One of the reasons for the result of the Europe referendum in Wales was the distraction of the Remain-supporting parties by the proximity of Assembly elections only a few weeks before in which they fought each other. There is a danger that the contest for the leadership of Welsh Labour this autumn will once again distract Wales’s governing party in the run-up to the “meaningful vote’ on whatever deal with EU emerges from the negotiations.

One can but hope that Labour in Wales does not take its eye off the European ball, for it needs to be applying real pressure on the UK leadership of the party at this crucial juncture.  

There is a perception that Labour is more sympathetic to Europe than the government party, and there is some weighty evidence for that. But pinning down the party’s stance on Europe has been like putting a finger on mercury. Even Euro-anoraks like myself struggle to find a definitive statement. We are reduced to reading runes, detecting a nuance here or a new inflexion there, in the hope that one day a clear goal will emerge from the mist.

Of course, sometimes it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but I hope not in this case since Labour is the only party that has the power to stop Brexit. So I ask, can its current delphic approach really be in the interests of the country or, indeed, of the party? It surely does not aid communication with the public or assist the national debate or even improve Labour’s electoral prospects.

Labour now has a membership of 80 percent of which are in favour of staying in the EU. The proportion of its voters who share this view has risen from 66 percent to 73 percent in recent months. The overwhelming majority of younger members that are its future desperately want to remain citizens of Europe.

The complication, and the charitable explanation for such ‘constructive ambiguity’ as still exists, is that 70 percent of its Parliamentary seats are thought to be in areas where a majority probably voted to leave. This is the circle that Labour thinks it has to square. But it is at least arguable that the further it leans towards Brexit, far from uniting the party, rifts could actually be deepened.

After all, there is a world of difference between the situations of Conservative and Labour parties. In the former, there is a crazed but formidable phalanx of extreme Brexiters for whom the severing of our links with Europe has been their life’s work.

The same cannot be said of the current Labour Party particularly, and ironically, after the explosion of membership during recent years. The primary rift is at the very top: Corbyn and McDonnell on one side and Keir Starmer on the other, both sides drag anchors on the vessel of each others’ true convictions.

It is true that Mr McDonnell chose, for the first time, not to rule out another referendum, although he would still prefer just a general election. It is hard to know whether this was said just to tease Remainers, or to keep them in line, or because his own thinking really is moving on.

The issue for Labour, and for Welsh Labour above all, is this. Why would a Labour Party, with its progressive social goals and its tradition of internationalism, want to take a fatalistic approach to the 2016 referendum result? There is absolutely nothing in that for the very people that Labour says it stands for. Every single thing a Labour government – whether in London or Cardiff or Edinburgh – might wish to do would be more easily achieved, and more effective in its application if we were done within the EU rather than outside it.

If it wants to fix regional inequalities within the UK it needs the EU’s cohesion funds. If it wants to address poverty in all its manifestations it needs every inch of financial headroom it can muster. If it wants to tame globalisation and to tackle the power of multinationals on tax or standards, it needs the clout of the EU (as we have seen with Apple and Google).

If it wants to change the economic orthodoxies that have put such a heavy brake on growth and employment, especially in the UK and the countries of southern Europe, it needs a change in the underlying policies not only of the UK but of the EU too.   

And electoral risks? If the party were to go into the next general election not just with the present lack of clarity, but also with a continuing commitment to abide by the 2016 result, the basis of which will almost certainly have come to look ridiculously outdated, would it really help its cause?

If it were to be elected and have to implement Brexit, might it not also have set itself up for a truly torrid first term that could end up as its only term of office. Traditionally, Labour governments have struggled for credibility and trust on the economic front. In the early years of government, they can face hostile market pressures that have a capacity to derail the best policy intentions.

If Labour wants to implement a radical manifesto, then it needs the means to do so. It needs the most favourable economic climate it can engineer. That must surely mean rejecting Brexit.  

So why, in such circumstances does the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, continually perpetuate myths about Europe that seem to be a mirror image of the myths that have been peddled for decades by the Euro-hostile right? ‘Blame Europe’ is the trope, whether used by the right or the far left, that has got us into the mess we are in. It is surely high time it was discarded since it is neither accurate nor constructive nor even cleverly ambiguous. Ambiguity, whether real or mythical, does not require or justify untruth.  

Corbyn and McDonnell’s stubborn adherence to this myth of the EU as an obstacle to Labour’s plans may be a legacy of their past, but many academics have concluded the belief has no basis in fact. Corbyn’s continued repetition of the myth is as unworthy as Boris Johnson’s refusal to disown the ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ slogan on the Brexit battle bus.

It’s not the case that Labour will not be able to do what it wants to do if it remains in the EU, but rather that it will not be able to do what it wants to do unless it remains in the EU.

To be fair, every party keeps one eye on its electoral prospects, but if constructive ambiguity, based on a tone that has rarely been better than grudging towards the EU, were delivering a 20-point lead for Labour in the opinion polls one might have to bow to the tactical genius of its leaders. But the fact is that not only did the party not win the last general election, but it is currently merely running neck and neck with one of the most disastrous governments since Lord North lost the American colonies.