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Why do so few Labour MPs stand up for self-governing democracy?

David Green, 10 March 2016

Until 1988 the Labour party was steadfast in its opposition to the transfer of power to Brussels and determined to uphold self-government in Britain. In 1988 it was persuaded by Jacques Delors that it would be able to use the powers of the EU to force ‘social Europe’ on Britain against the wishes of the Thatcher Government. This type of argument is still being used today by the leader of the Labour Remain campaign, Alan Johnson:

‘It is … about rights for British workers … minimum paid leave, rights for agency workers, paid maternity and paternity leave …’ (February 2016).

He appears to be unaware of the words of Tony Benn during a debate about the proposed Maastricht Treaty in 1991:

‘The argument is nothing to do with whether we should get more maternity leave from Madame Papandreou [the EU commissioner for social affairs] than from Madame Thatcher … The important thing about democracy is that we can remove without bloodshed the people who govern us.’

Benn speculated about the kind of letter he would have to write to his constituents if the treaty were approved:

“My dear constituents, in future you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better crèches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them.” (House of Commons, 20 November 1991.)

Today only a handful of Labour MPs share Benn’s view that the issue at stake is whether we are for or against democracy. It is profoundly undemocratic to want to impose policies on your own people because the government of the day does not yet share your opinions. In a free and democratic society we have to convince the majority that we are right.

Behind this view is the idea of a people with a shared allegiance to fundamental values and who wish to make the rules they live by. It implies a commitment not to abuse power, or act in a sectarian spirit, a determination to nurture a sense of belonging, and to cultivate civic virtue. And it entails wanting to ‘put something back’, welcoming the achievements of others, and lending a helping hand to anyone who falls on hard times. It implies solidarity.

Can anyone honestly say that the EU functions in this way? The term ‘solidarity’ is used often enough, but generally only when one country wants something from another member state. It rarely means seeking the common good. The squalid wrangling over the recent immigration crisis is characteristic of what the EU has become.

The words of Labour’s manifesto in 1964, the first general election after the Tory Government had applied for membership of the EEC, captured what was at stake:

“Only 18 months ago a Tory Government, driven by economic failure, lost its nerve and prepared to accept humiliating terms for entry into the European Common Market in the vain hope that closer contact with a dynamic Europe would give a new boost to our wilting economy.”

“Only with a new Government, with a sense of national purpose, can we start to create a dynamic, just and go-ahead Britain with the strength to stand on her own feet and to play a proper part in world affairs. We believe that such a New Britain is what the British people want and what the world wants. It is a goal that lies well within our power to achieve.”

Why do so few of today’s Labour leaders share these sentiments?

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