23 July 2015

A Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership race is now a plausible scenario

The prospects of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party have increased substantially over the past few weeks with bookmakers slashing their odds, while yesterday’s YouGov poll for The Times had him beating the supposed front-runner Andy Burnham in the final run-off by 53% to 47%. Opinion polls have proven to be far from reliable in recent times, and with almost two months of the contest still ahead of us much could yet change, but a Corbyn victory is now a plausible scenario.

This would instantly plunge the party into crisis and the EU question would hardly top MPs’ lists of immediate concerns. However, assuming there would not be a swift coup attempt as this would be undemocratic – and Corbyn could buy goodwill by offering to stand down mid-way through the parliament – the party will have to get around to revising its EU stance, and it is worth considering what this could entail.

Corbyn has been a long-standing critic of the EU in its current form

While the prevailing approach within the Labour mainstream is of pragmatic if not overly enthusiastic support for continued membership on the basis of the benefits of the single market, the EU’s social and employment laws and a commitment to internationalism more broadly, Corbyn’s approach is markedly different. Elected in 1983 when Labour stood on a platform of outright withdrawal from the then EEC, Corbyn has long been critical of the EU in its current form, for example he voted against the Maastricht Treaty (and subsequently also against the Lisbon Treaty), arguing that:

The Maastricht treaty… 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.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking during the Commons’ Maastricht Treaty debate, 20 May 1992

While not anti-EU per se, he is strongly opposed to many of its key features, and like the continental far-left he wants it to focus less on facilitating trade and more on reigning in the perceived excesses of global capitalism. However, unlike some other prominent Labour better-off-outers like Kate Hoey, he he is not opposed to free movement. Writing in The Independent recently, he said that there are “strong arguments for staying in”, but added that:

There is a lot wrong with the European Union, a lot of change needed… My fellow leadership candidates differ on whether Labour should join a cross-party Yes campaign or run an independent one, but I think it pre-empts the debate. I want Labour to set its own agenda and use this pre-referendum period to discuss this across the country.

Jeremy Corbyn writing for The Independent, 10 June 2015

A Corbyn-led Labour party would be much more critical of EU competition and state aid rules, it would be at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to further liberalisation of the single market, and it would likely oppose the Commission’s tentative moves to cut EU red tape. A Corbyn-led Labour party would would more actively oppose the Eurozone’s crisis-management strategy which Corbyn himself has been a vocal critic of, even appearing at a recent pro-SYRIZA rally in London. He has argued that:

There is no future for a usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage… Let’s use this as an opportunity to remake a Europe of solidarity.

Jeremy Corbyn writing for the Huffington Post, 29 June 2015

Corbyn has also led opposition to TTIP within the Labour party, writing last year that:

This is not a traditional trade agreement but it is all about deregulating society, removing social standards and environmental regulations and ensuring that public services are opened up to private enterprise… The EU is continuing to pursue its central goal of being a place where big business has free rein to operate.

Jeremy Corbyn writing for the Morning Star, 28 February 2014

As such, Labour (or at least its leadership) would be closer to the likes of SYRIZA, Podemos and Die Linke than its traditional centre-left allies like the SPD.

More positively, Labour could adopt a more reformist stance on the Common Agricultural Policy (Corbyn rightly criticises taxpayer subsidies to wealthy landowners). This could also extend to EU regional policy. Corbyn was one of 17 Labour MPs to sign a letter in support of Open Europe’s proposal to devolve regional development subsidies back to wealthier member states (a proposal based on the previous Labour government’s policy) which argued that:

Some of the most deprived UK regions are currently short-changed by the structural funds, because EU allocations are based on inflexible, one-size-fits all criteria… In contrast, if Labour’s policy had been pursued, each region would have experienced a rise in the amount of subsidies they receive by around 45% compared with now.

Guardian letters page, 30 January 2012

Could a Corbyn-led Labour party adopt an Out position in the referendum?

Although far from a given, depending on the final package of measures David Cameron secures through his renegotiation, a Corbyn-led Labour party could consider formally adopting an Out position in the referendum (although many MPs and party members would campaign for a Yes vote). It is difficult to predict how this would impact on the dynamic of the campaign – on one hand it would boost the pool of potential No voters, but on the other, the combination of Corbyn and Farage could put off a lot of swing voters.

Crucially, a No campaign heavily characterised by a combination of anti-immigration sentiment and 1983-style Labour rhetoric could convince some of those who are open minded about Brexit – on the basis the UK could prosper outside the EU by following economically liberal policies – to stick with the devil they know given the risk that a UK outside the EU may be more protectionist, closed off and insular. This is a crucial trade-off which we examined in detail in our recent Brexit report.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that things will get to this stage. Nonetheless, even if Corbyn does not win, he could shift the centre of gravity within the party on the EU. Although this has not yet happened, if he is still in a solid position close to the election, either Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham could adopt some of his rhetoric and/or policies on the EU, for example on TTIP, in an effort to win over some of his supporters. This could have significant implications for Labour’s EU policy well beyond the referendum.