"Corbyn ultimately failed to 'sell' Brexit to the Labour Party" (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)


February 1, 2023   6 mins

Bregrets? I don’t have many. I still believe leaving the European Union was the right decision, however difficult and imperfect the process has thus far been. This belief, admittedly, puts me at odds with a growing majority of the British public, especially among my fellow Labour Party supporters. Back in 2016, one in three people who voted Labour at the previous year’s general election voted for Brexit. Today, polling for UnHerd shows that just 15% of Labour voters think the UK was right to leave. Of course, in those intervening years, there has been enormous churn in the Labour electorate, with sizeable defections by Labour Leavers at the last election to the Brexit Party and the Conservatives. Nonetheless, UnHerd’s polling shows that support for Brexit has dropped significantly in Labour’s historic heartlands in the North and Midlands.

In historical terms, this is a striking shift. For four decades, the Labour Party was the chief Eurosceptic party in British politics — far more so than the Conservative Party. Every Labour leader between Clement Attlee and Neil Kinnock had expressed opposition to joining (or support for leaving) the European Economic Community (EEC) at some point as a frontbench Labour MP. The first truly pro-European Labour leader was John Smith, who defied a three-line whip in 1972 to vote for the Conservatives’ European Communities Act. Pro-Europeanism was viewed as a Right-wing project — an attempt to constitutionalise capitalist principles in ways that would curtail the power of socialist governments to plan their national economies as they saw fit.

In the late Eighties, Labour finally abandoned its opposition to EEC membership, though the change was driven more by a response to repeated domestic defeats than a principled embrace of the European project. The promise of a “social Europe” was regarded by many Labour MPs as a chimera, but it at least offered some alternative to Thatcherism. So the party came to accept supranational legal limits on British governments, hoping the EU could mitigate the excesses of Conservative rule. Yet this Mephistophelian deal meant placing limits on future Labour governments, too. Policy tools which had once been fundamental to previous governments’ socialist programmes — trade policy, currency management, state aid and nationalisation, and capital and labour controls — were all sacrificed in exchange for the promise of minimum labour standards and regional development funds delivered through European institutions, rather than Whitehall.

Over time, more stridently pro-EU voices grew within the Labour ranks, but there was a sizeable contingent of Labour MPs even during the New Labour years who were sceptical of EU membership. Few outwardly advocated leaving the bloc, believing it to be too difficult or simply not politically feasible, but many argued against deeper integration, opposed the single currency, and raised concerns about European judges limiting labour rights. One of them, of course, was Jeremy Corbyn.

Even during the 2016 referendum itself, there was more openness to the Labour Leave argument. It’s not a coincidence that a third of people who voted for Ed Miliband to be prime minister then voted to leave the EU. For the most part, it was only after the Brexit vote that Remain voters started reacting with varying levels of horror and disgust to the idea that someone on the Left could vote for Leave. I have always found this viewpoint rather perplexing. My own arguments for leaving the EU were rooted in three core principles: democracy, socialism, and internationalism. They are both the reason I am a Labour supporter and why I was — and continue to be — a Brexit supporter.

Joining the EEC in 1972, for instance, took a variety of national powers out of the hands of the UK Government and, by extension, parliament. EU countries are constitutionally transformed from nation-states to member-states, as the Cambridge academic Chris Bickerton has explained. This means that a variety of policy instruments are removed from national governments altogether, or their implementation becomes contingent on the wishes of the European Commission or interpretations of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Perhaps more obviously, EU membership is simply not compatible with a belief in socialist planning. At its core, the Single Market is designed to limit the power of national electorates to plan their own economies. Of course, a certain degree of national economic planning is permitted within EU membership, but it is conditional. Any time a national government takes a decision that is viewed as distorting the hallowed Single Market — which must be prioritised above all else — those policies are blocked.

Additionally, EU membership sits uneasily with genuine internationalism. Some of the most vocal Labour MPs to campaign against racism, colonialism, and global inequality — including Barbara Castle, Judith Hart, Joan Lestor, and Anne Kerr — were all staunch Eurosceptics. They condemned the EEC as a “neo-colonial” project, which created “a circle of privilege” for the “white tribes of Europe”. They believed it morally reprehensible that some of the richest, most privileged countries in the world should club together and create a superior form of citizenship in order to further enrich themselves.

Finally, the EU’s governing institutions remain mostly obscure and untransparent. We still don’t actually know which MEPs voted to make the Right-wing German politician Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission. Even worse, from a socialist perspective, European judges have struck down labour practices that they claim impose onerous restrictions on business, as in the infamous cases Laval and Viking. The former limited Swedish trade unions insisting on higher working conditions for construction workers from Latvia who operated in Sweden. The latter prevented a Finnish transport union from taking action against Viking Line for reclassifying their workers under the flag of a lower-wage EU country to ignore Finnish collective bargaining. Because these judgements are based on judicial interpretation of fundamental EU treaty rights, no legislation, either at a national level or from MEPs, can overturn them.

So, if the EU has all these obviously egregious impacts on the goals of the Left, then why have so many Labour Leavers seemingly given up on Brexit? Part of the reason, it seems to me, is that the Labour Party has totally and catastrophically vacated the post-Brexit policy space to the Right. Initially, there did seem to be some interest from members of the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet to think about the opportunities Brexit might provide for a Labour government. Corbyn himself spoke passionately about forming trade agreements with countries in the Global South that would benefit and support their economic development, rather than exploit them. Given his uniquely strong connection with the grassroots party membership and his own history of opposition to EU integration, Corbyn ultimately failed to “sell” Brexit to the Labour Party.

Indeed, there are so many areas of policy where Labour ought to have spent the last few years seriously thinking about the post-Brexit opportunities. How can we use procurement better now that we are out of the Single Market? How can we follow the example of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Act to provide economic stimulus through publicly supported domestic manufacturing? Can we use the increased income from no longer subsidising European university students to support students from poorer countries instead? What would a socialist trade policy look like, once protection of continental European industries and agriculture is removed from the equation?

Instead, Labour has wasted the years since Brexit almost as much as the Tories have. Labour had stood on a manifesto in the 2017 election which promised to take the UK out of the EU, Single Market, and Customs Union. That election saw the biggest increase in its vote since the 1945 General Election and the only net gain in Labour seats since 1997. A majority of the seats Labour won in England were Leave-voting seats off the Tories.

But then the surprise hung Parliament gave hope to certain Remainers. It didn’t matter that every household in the country had been told that the outcome of the referendum would be honoured. Facilitated by Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, Labour MPs — with a few honourable exceptions — did everything they could to stop the implementation of the Leave vote. As a party member my entire adult life, it was the closest I have ever been to quitting.

Today, though, the Labour Party has apparently embraced Brexit thanks to Starmer’s post-2019 Damascene conversion. But the reality is that Labour is still not making the case for Brexit on Labour terms. Virtually every time a Labour politician speaks about Brexit, it is framed as an attempt to mitigate the damage. Labour’s underlying assumption is that Brexit has failed because the UK has diverged too much from the EU. A better Brexit is one closer to the EU. But, the reality is that the UK has not diverged enough from the limitations which EU membership placed on national economic planning.

There is much to cheer about Brexit from a Left-wing perspective, but very few are brave enough to express that view. My regret is not Brexit — but that Labour has failed to rediscover its historic love for it.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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