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23 October 2015

The amazing rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the UK’s Labour Party: What are the policy implications?

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In particular, what might it mean for the Labour Party’s policy towards Europe - critical for both Britain's economic and foreign policies?

Politicians normally only have genuine impact when the people have elected them to become the Government but Corbyn’s role may be different. If he influences the outcome of the British referendum on membership of the European Union, then he may change the course of history without even becoming Prime Minister. His brand of support for the EU should be disturbing for business in general, but especially inward investors into the UK - such as many Japanese companies.

His record is that he voted against British membership of the EU in the 1975 Referendum. But he was recently quoted by Social Europe as saying “... Europe is the only regional block in the world where workers’ rights are written into the treaties that govern Europe and which are upheld by its supervisory court.” This aspect may be the pivot for his entire EU policy: how best to protect `workers’ rights?’. In an interview with the left-wing magazine New Statesman, he  said “Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe...”

Having generated much confusion about his EU policies, he then sought to clarify his stance by writing an article in the Financial Times on 17th September, arguing that ”Our shadow cabinet is also clear that the answer to any damaging changes that Mr Cameron brings back from his renegotiation is not to leave the EU but to pledge to reverse those changes with a Labour government elected in 2020….Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU. But we too want to see reform.”

The current hallmark of the Corbyn leadership style is the plan to have a wide debate on policy within the party, and then allow the membership to set policy. That governance system pushed the Labour Party into classic left wing ideology during the 1970s/80s - until the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994 - under this slogan of “New Labour”. Could the clock soon be wound back four decades?

Perhaps - but there may be a silver lining to such a dark cloud. The Labour Party has always been more internationalist - though tinged with lurches against Europe at times. However, opinion polls of Labour Party members and the new concept of `selectorate’ - those who pay just £3 to participate in elections - are quite clear about their pro-EU beliefs. Opinion polls are now treated with some caution after their failure to predict the General Election result in May. But they suffered from late, marginal shifts in public opinion. Under the peculiarity of the UK voting system of “first pass the post”, slight shifts can radically change the number of Parliamentary seats. However, the referendum will be a very simple, nation-wide vote where subtle regional shifts will not change the outcome.

Recent opinion polls are striking. As an example, the YouGov poll of 10/17 September produced a shock headline of 38% remain in the EU but 40% leave - though 16% `don’t know’. Closer reading shows a dramatic divergence between Labour and Conservative supporters: replying to the simple question of remain or leave, Conservatives would `leave’ 56:34% but Labour would `remain’ 77:13%. Underlining the importance of Prime Minister Cameron's personal position, if he recommends `remain’ then Conservatives broadly reverse their position while Labour support is unchanged. The national decision would then be to `remain’ in the EU by 47:29%.

[The split in the Conservative Party is highlighted by the largest part of their supporters feeling that their Party should not campaign at all! Two- thirds of Labour supporters want the party to campaign actively and the Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly in favour of an active campaign to support EU membership.]

But the whole debate may turn out to be more open than we think - Prime Minister Cameron has not yet made public his `list of demands’ that he wants to negotiate. Most observers believe  this reflects the extraordinary probability that, even now, he still does not know what he wants. However, it seems that he has now dropped demands for “Treaty change” - the most difficult of all possible demands as the process is long and heavy - crucially requiring all EU members to agree (some with their own referendum).

The nightmare scenario for Corbyn would be that the other states agree a Treaty change that includes the removal for the UK of some cherished `workers’ rights’. That would be difficult for Corbyn to sell to Labour Party members and retain their support for remaining in the EU, especially as he personally would be opposed. If Cameron really wants to be able to recommend Conservatives to vote to remain, he may need something that Labour will not be able to tolerate until they next come to power and can reverse Cameron’s negotiation.

This game of party politics is being held against the background of Britain's declining conventional military power and Corbyn’s commitment never to use our nuclear weapons. Thus Britain's global foreign policy impact is dwindling. On the economic front, Corbyn has publicly - and correctly - identified the huge weakness of a country that has a 6% of GDP deficit on its trade with the rest of the world. Actually leaving the EU could turn out to be the disastrous final step in a long decline.

Article originally published in FACTA magazine

© Graham Bishop

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