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After the result of Britain’s 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) was announced, it was Tony Benn who said “when the British people speak, everyone, including Members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision”. It is time for much of the Labour Party who campaigned to remain in the European Union to do just that.
It has always been clear to me that over the last two decades, when the left has enthusiastically defended undemocratic tools of globalisation that rarely benefit the working class, it should not have been surprising to us when their support ran away to the populist right.
In 1975, Enoch Powell did not have a monopoly on the EEC referendum narrative because he had the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot to his left making the democratic, socialist case for the Brexit of their day. Nigel Farage had no such challenge in the mainstream debate.
To find out why, we must go back to the days of Neil Kinnock, and then Tony Blair, who both turned the Parliamentary Labour Party into a painfully EU-friendly syndicate. It is clear that this was the beginning of what has now proven to be a huge disconnect between the Parliamentary Labour Party and its traditional supporters in working class heartlands. No matter who Labour’s leader was during this referendum, it is clear that there was thirty five percent of Labour voters who were simply determined to vote to leave.
Moreover, this Europhile domination through the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party has made it politically impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to side with the argument he has made for his entire political career, even if he wanted to. During the period of New Labour, Tony Blair refused to confront the idea of big business using EU-wide freedom of movement to drive down wages and take advantage of cheap labour, while an EU committed to the interests of big business would not dream of implementing a continent wide minimum wage to dissuade the surge of migration that followed. Even recently, a point blank refusal to acknowledge the tangible impact this has had on working class communities besides vague, meaningless platitudes and cringe-worthy mugs have all contributed to the Brexit vote.
Owen Smith committing to a second referendum, or pledging to overturn the Brexit result – is a shocking affront to democracy. Not only that, but it would be a nail in the coffin of the Labour Party. You cannot keep on holding referendums until you get the result you want, and trying to thwart the will of the British people will be nothing but electorally toxic for the Labour Party.
To win in 2020, we need to reconnect with the working class heartlands that we have so shamefully abandoned through the New Labour period. Heartlands in the North of England and South Wales resoundingly voted leave – and that is support we need to win back. 35% of Labour voters chose to leave the European Union, and ignoring not only their democratic choice but the democratic choice of the country is a dangerous game to play. It is clear that they will not buy Owen Smith’s tidal wave of pro-European guff.
Owen Smith talks about his supposed electability in comparison to Jeremy Corbyn, but his plan to run on a commitment to re-enter Europe and not trigger Article 50 is more absurd than anything Corbyn has proposed himself. You would see a resurgence of the far-right and UKIP taking Labour seats that we should have been reconnecting with. Not only this, but most of Labour’s target seats are Leave-leaning areas – it would be nothing but an unmitigated disaster. For this reason, the respect Jeremy Corbyn has for the democratic process makes him the best candidate to lead Labour to 2020 and beyond.
As this article mentioned previously, the working class have abandoned Labour in their droves over the last decade because their inherent Euroscepticism was no longer being represented by Blair and Brown’s Europhiles in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Patronising and ignoring them over Article 50 would be one slap in the face too far. Smith should seriously reconsider what is a dangerous and high-risk proposal.