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Analysis #7

Why Does the British Left Love the EU?

James Aber, Lee Jones and Richard Tuck

11 June 2018

Today it seems that being "left-wing" means being pro-EU, while wanting Brexit can only be "right-wing". As a network of political leftists, The Full Brexit obviously disagrees. There is a strong tradition of left-wing Euroscepticism, reflecting core values of popular sovereignty and democracy. The British left's retreat from these values, and the working classes it once represented, underpins its affection for the EU. But this is a love affair that must end if the left is ever to revive its fortunes.

The British left clearly struggles to imagine a future for itself outside of the European Union. Most people who identify as left wing tend to see the EU as the only means of “locking in” at least some of their basic policy preferences; without it, they fear total right-wing victory. To them, Brexit reflects parochial nationalism at best, or revanchist racism at worst, while the EU signifies openness and internationalism.[1] Accordingly, many well-meaning “left-wing” people voted Remain as an expression of their political and cultural identity.


As discussed elsewhere on The Full Brexit, this identity rests on a highly distorted image of the EU, which is far from being a progressive entity. It only expresses the estrangement of most people who identify as left-wing from the majority of British citizens. Both the preference for European policy-making and its associated cultural identity are expressions of the left’s retreat from the electorate into dependence on state institutions and the transformation of its outlook into that of condescending middle-class professionals. Here we investigate how the left’s love affair with the EU came about and argue that without a decisive break up, the left will never recover its commitment to democracy or have a meaningful political future.

The Left’s love affair with the EU: a very recent fling

In the current climate, it would be easy to think that to be left-wing has always meant being pro-EU. But this overlooks a strong left-wing tradition of Euroscepticism. In the past, British leftists were largely hostile to European integration because they rightly understood it as an attempt way to limit socialist policies.


Thus, the post-war Attlee government firmly opposed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), seeing it as an attempt to cement the privatization of those industries, which the left wished to nationalise.[2] It was the Conservatives who supported the ECSC. Attlee insisted: “a Labour Government should make it quite plain that it will suffer nothing to hinder it in carrying out the popular will”.[3] The Labour government also opposed the Council of Europe, denouncing it as a cabal of “reactionary politicians” who sought to use a European Convention on Human Rights to enshrine liberal, capitalist values at the European level so as to effectively outlaw socialist policies.[4] Britain ratified the Convention only after the Conservatives returned to power. Labour opposition to accepting the European Court’s jurisdiction persisted to 1966.[5]


Similarly, in the original 1975 referendum on continued European Economic Community (EEC) membership, there was a powerful Left “Leave” campaign. The parliamentary Labour party was evenly split, while that year’s party conference voted 2-to-1 to leave. Local trade union branches and councils were the “nucleus” of the anti-EEC campaign.[6] After the referendum, a traditionalist left-wing faction, led by Tony Benn, maintained Labour Euroscepticism. Benn argued that the EEC was “an undemocratic coup d’état by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty”[7] and condemned the EU as “clumsy, secretive, centralized, bureaucratic and divisive”, correctly warning that it would alienate policymaking from popular control, creating political disengagement and resentment.[8]


By 2016, however, Benn’s son, Hilary, was a leading Remainer. Notions of democracy, popular sovereignty and opposition to technocracy – historical mainstays of the left – were ridiculed and abandoned to the right. Left-wing commentators sneered at Leave voters, fulminating against the very sort of people who had historically constituted the Labour party’s base. The parliamentary party has since clung fearfully to the single market, seeking to minimise any social, economic political change arising from Brexit.


How did this dramatic reversal come about, such that the force traditionally most committed to popular sovereignty and democratic socialism now cleaves to an undemocratic, neoliberal entity like the EU?

Fear of a powerful right?


A simple answer, often used during the referendum campaign, is that Brexit can only empower the right. Allegedly, the British right is so strong that only continued EU membership can contain racism and xenophobia, or protect workers’ rights from a renewed Thatcherite onslaught.


This argument is baseless. When the Labour Left campaigned against European integration in the 1970s and 1980s, racism and the Right were powerful forces in Britain’s society, state, and police force. Thatcherism was ascendant, and the National Front could mobilise thousands onto the streets. Today’s Far Right, in the form of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL), are a pathetic joke. Despite predictions of a hard-right takeover after Brexit, the BNP got just 4,850 votes in the 2017 General Election, while UKIP (absurdly branded “fascist” by some) has imploded. The EDL’s national rallies are tiny, usually dwarfed by the police presence and “anti-fascist” protestors. Polls suggest that Britons today are no more xenophobic than other Europeans, and less so than many. Beyond a few Tory loons, no one is interested in a bonfire of labour rights – which were, in any case, won by domestic labour struggles, not gifted by European institutions (which have actually steadily degraded workers’ rights).

Weakness of the Left

The real reason for the left’s attachment to the EU is its own transformation following the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, and the collapse of Labour’s post-war project. This has convinced two generations of Labour politicians that the population is inherently conservative, requiring the party to tack rightwards and abandon any challenge to market forces in order to win elections. In so doing, it lost the connection with the electorate that is required to win the case for progressive policies. Disdainful and fearful of ordinary voters, it now clings to the EU because it believes that evading the mass of citizens is the only way to defend left-wing policies.


The project that Attlee, Benn and others were defending when they opposed European integration was essentially “Keynesianism in one country”. In exchange for industrial peace, employers tolerated modest nationalisation, full employment, the creation of a welfare state, and steady wage increases, creating – alongside state spending – the demand that fuelled the economy. This growth model collapsed in the 1970s when workers’ rising wages created a squeeze on bosses’ profits. Coupled with two oil crises, this plunged global capitalism into sustained crisis that was only resolved in the 1980s by the forces of the “new right”, led by Thatcher and Reagan, who dissolved the post-war social compact. They smashed the trade unions, the main barrier to restoring profitability; weakened labour protections; privatised state assets; attacked welfare provision; and opened their economies to global competition, unleashing what we now call “globalisation”.


This process, repeated across developed economies, devastated traditional social democratic parties like Labour. These parties had no answer to the economic crisis beyond reheated Keynesianism; indeed, in Britain, the shift towards “Thatcherite” wage restraint started under Labour, as the Callaghan government called in the International Monetary Fund. Labour began losing crucial working-class support to Thatcher’s Tories, who both offered a “solution” and responded to rising aspirations in a way that Labour’s welfarism could not. The apparatchiks of what became “New Labour” concluded that the population had moved rightwards, and they must too. Meanwhile, the smashing of the trade unions shrivelled a crucial support base for the parliamentary left, and their main institutional connection to the working class.


Gradually, Labour abandoned the working class, taking its support for granted and “triangulating” rightwards to woo “Middle England”. Its parliamentary candidates were drawn increasingly from a professional political class, opening up a cultural gulf between the party and its erstwhile social base. Labour ditched its residual commitments to social transformation, adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “There Is No Alternative” to market society. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher quip that New Labour was her finest achievement. And this story was repeated across Europe, leaving a “void” between ordinary people and the political elite.


The EU’s role in this drama was very complex. On the one hand, the European Single Market, created through the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, clearly expressed and entrenched the victory of the “new right”. The Single Market merged the national markets associated with nationally-based, social-democratic projects into a continent-wide market designed to intensify competition, boost productivity, and open up new opportunities for capital accumulation. Maastricht created an economic “constitution” for Europe, removing economic policy from domestic, democratic contestation and locking in neoliberal regulations that could only be amended through full agreement between national governments. It entrenched the transformation of European nation-states into “member-states”. Rather than representing their publics through nationally-based political projects, political elites withdrew from the masses and prioritised relations with each other, devising policy in closed Council sessions and networking their bureaucracies together.


On the other hand, however, savvy Eurocrats also offered the battered remnants of organised labour a few concessions to win their support for European integration: the so-called “social chapter” of the Maastricht Treaty, which entrenched a few basic labour rights and welfare provisions. This seemed particularly appealing to the British labour movement, reeling from successive defeats and fearing further losses. The key turning point was a speech by Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, to the Trades Union Congress in 1988, which successfully persuaded labour leaders to throw their lot in with the EU.


Around the same time, New Labour set about adapting Thatcher’s doctrine of “There is No Alternative” to legitimise its abandonment of the labour movement’s old commitments to democratic socialism. The Third Way provided a programme for neoliberalism with a human face. Among many important changes, the “Third Way” emphasised “social inclusion”, equal opportunities and multiculturalism. New Labour had some notable success leading public opinion on issues like homosexuality. Its public embrace of multiculturalism also helped to terminate the kind of overt racial hostility which had marked the wave of immigration from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s, peaking with serious racial conflicts in the 1980s.


However, from 1997, New Labour governments opened Britain to mass immigration on an unprecedented scale, with 4.3 million new residents (net) arriving by 2016. Unlike earlier rounds of immigration, this was a barely governed development, the government failing to predict its scale or make any serious preparations to deal with it in terms of house-building, public service provision, or the impact on community cohesion. Growing working-class unease about this was seen by New Labour apparatchiks, and their new metropolitan supporters, as merely a continuation of old-fashioned racism and xenophobia. They could see no difference between the two waves of immigration and, if anything, preferred the European one, being happy to reconfigure multiculturalism to embrace it.


This growing divide over immigration mapped strongly onto emerging social and geographic divisions, but these material cleavages were often displaced by a sense of cultural difference. Those most alarmed by the impact of immigration on communities, wages, job security and the welfare state were those working-class citizens already ravaged by the British state’s turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s. Those most relaxed about it were the “winners” from this transformation: predominantly urban, well-educated property-owners for whom the EU’s cosmopolitan “freedoms” seemed largely beneficial. New Labour sided decisively with the latter groups during its ten years in power. Unwilling to address the material grievances of its old, working-class base, it instinctively delegitimised them as a sign of ideological backwardness, dismissing voters as “bigoted” or worse. Affronted at first being abandoned, then reviled, some working-class voters unsurprisingly began flirting with parties that would heed their concerns: first the British National Party, then UKIP. Again, this was only interpreted as a sign of their recalcitrant racism and xenophobia – which Labour eventually pandered to rhetorically, while doing nothing to address voters’ underlying material grievances.


From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the British left is so panicked by the thought of leaving the EU. The left’s commitment to popular sovereignty and its hostility to European integration made sense when it was representing the working class by spearheading a nationally-based project of “democratic socialism”. Today, this project is essentially dead, notwithstanding Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to revive it. The left no longer views the working classes as the vanguard of social transformation, but rather as a threat to left-wing values. The middle-class parliamentarians, party operatives and media commentators who comprise today’s political left have little organic relation to, or even much sympathy for, these people – look at the contempt heaped upon them for daring to vote to Leave. Having lost faith in their capacity to persuade ordinary voters to embrace progressive policies, they now look to the EU as the only way to “lock in” a modicum of restraint on the political right.


However, the outcome of the EU referendum shows that no policy can stand forever if it lacks democratic legitimacy, making the left’s reliance on the EU fatal in the long run. Immigration is the obvious case in point. Labour never persuaded the public to support mass immigration – it just allowed it, and outsourced responsibility to the EU. Reflecting the gulf between Labour parliamentarians and the working classes, anti-immigration sentiment was merely dismissed as “bigoted” or “racist”. By the early 2000s, frustrated voters began flirting with anti-immigration parties like the British National Party and later UKIP. This was clearly a protest at being ignored by the political elite, reflected in the subsequent collapse of these parties’ voting base. However, Labour could only read this as a sign of the working classes’ reactionary attitudes, and so pandered rhetorically to anti-immigration sentiment whilst in practice making no substantive policy changes, whether to limit immigration or compensate communities for its impact. Ultimately, voters’ anger at being abandoned, ignored and insulated led in substantial part to the Leave vote. Tragically, the left has responded by clinging to the very attitudes, policies and EU structures that have cemented its estrangement from working-class Britons.


The lesson is clear. The EU offered at best an illusory refuge for a defeated left. Despite the promise of the “social chapter”, the EU did virtually nothing to protect workers’ rights, and indeed actively eroded them. Lacking democratic legitimacy, EU rules were also fragile, appearing as an external imposition. The left’s retreat into the EU has only entrenched its alienation from the working people it once represented. If the left is ever to wield true power in Britain, it must break away from the EU and rebuild its relationship with ordinary voters. It is only by representing them, by incorporating their hopes and aspirations into a compelling vision of the future, that the left can recover from the defeats of the past.



[1] E.g. Hilary Benn, “We Are in the Fight of our Lives to Avoid the Damage Brexit Would Cause”, The Guardian, 22 June 2016; Paul Mason, “Brexit is a Fake Revolt – Working-Class Culture is Being Hijacked to Help the Elite”,  The Guardian, 20 June 2016;  Polly Toynbee, “Brexit Supporters Have Unleashed Furies Even They Can’t Control”, The Guardian,  13 June 2016.

[2] Richard T. Griffiths, “European Utopia or Capitalist Trap? The International and the Question of Europe”, in Richard T. Griffiths (ed.), Socialist Parties and the Question of Europe in the 1950s (Leiden: Brill, 1993), pp. 9–24. See also Denis Healy, European Unity: A Statement by the National Executive Committee of the British Labour Party (London: Labour Party, 1950).

[3] Harold Laski, Communist Manifesto: Socialist Landmark.  A New Appreciation Written for the Labour Party (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948). p. 102.

[4] Marco Duranti, The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 103-4, 247.

[5] See Roger Broad, Labour’s European Dilemmas: From Bevin to Blair (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), ch. 4.

[6] David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger, The 1975 Referendum (London: Macmillan, 1976), p. 107.

[7] Quoted in “Enoch Powell and Tony Benn Were Right on Europe – It Was a Great Deception”, Daily Telegraph, 13 June 2015.

[8] Speech to Parliament, 20 November 1991.

[9] Polly Toynbee, “On Friday I’ll Get My Country Back. Britain Will Vote Remain” The Guardian, 21 June 2016.

[10] Laurie Penny, “I Want My Country Back”, New Statesman, 24 June 2016; “AC Grayling Calls for General Strike Against Brexit”, The Independent, 14 January 2017; Laleh Khalili, “After Brexit”, Truthout, 20 June 2016.

[11] E.g. Yanis Varoufakis, “Why we must save the EU”, The Guardian, 5 April 2016; “Brexit: Workers' Rights Best Secured by Staying in Single Market, says TUC Chief”, The Guardian, 11 September 2017.

[12] For example, 15% of Britons report feeling uncomfortable interacting with immigrants, compared to 34% across the EU. Likewise, more Britons thought non-EU immigration was more of an opportunity than a problem (+4%) than EU citizens (-18%). “Integration of Immigrants in the European Union”, Eurobarometer 469, 2018, pp.T19, 2.

[13] For example, in 1981 the European Court of Justice ruled against the practice of the “closed shop”, drastically weakening trade unions during their struggle against Margaret Thatcher. Catherine Shea, “The Case of Young, James, and Webster: British Labor Law and the European Convention on Human Rights”, Cornell International Law Journal 15(2) (1982), pp. 489-523. More recently, in the Viking case, the ECJ ruled that companies based in one EU country can avoid trade union obligations in another if this made the business contract “less attractive”, a decision reaffirmed in the Laval case. See Thompson Solicitors, “Hoisting the Flag” and “Post Your Rights”, Labour & European Law Review 49, 17 January 2008.

[14] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).

[15] Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[16] Jacques Delors, “1992: The Social Dimension”, 8 September 1988. For a discussion see “How the TUC Learned to Love the European Union and How the Affair Turned Out”, History & Policy Trade Union Forum, 27 November 2010.

​About the author/s

James Aber is a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford. Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Richard Tuck is Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard University.

This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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