By Jamie McKay
Though the upcoming referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union has, and will continue to, dominated headlines the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has been remarkably quiet on the issue until recently. In along awaited speech at Senate House in London Corbyn finally made his stance on the EU clear. Coming under heavy criticism recently from his critics within the party the Labour leaders staff have been hinting at a major intervention on the referendum over the past few months. Labour figures campaigning for the UK to remain complained at their leaders failure to mention the subject over the past month, whilst making the time to attend the National Kebab Awards, in their view failing to discuss matters important to British voters. In his absence, Labour’s pro-EU membership have been led by the head of “Labour In”, Alan Johnson, who has made numerous appearances in the press discussing the importance of the EU in respect to British jobs and security.
In the past Corbyn made no secret of his feelings towards the EU. This year isn’t the first time Britain’s membership was put to the vote, in 1975 then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson allowed a referendum on the EEC. Last year Corbyn admitted that, when he was just a councillor in Haringey, he voted for the UK to leave. His admission worried some in the Labour party who believed his “lukewarm” attitude would turn Labour voters, most of whom are in favour of Remain, away from voting come June. His statements during last years leadership election did little to reassure pro-European figure stating that he would not rule out joining the leave campaign should the Prime Ministers renegotiation fail to adequately protect workers rights. Come September Corbyn pledged that Labour would campaign for a Remain vote regardless of the negotiations and reverse any changes Cameron might make to workers rights.
The change in opinion expressed by Corbyn seems sudden. Reviewing past articles of his in the left wing tabloid, the Morning Star, readers will find frequent criticisms of what he viewed as European attacks on workers rights and an undemocratic, opaque leadership. Indeed, Labours most prominent Eurosceptic, Kate Hoey, stated that she did not believe Corbyn’s conversion in favour of Europe was genuine.
His speech in London admits a critical attitude towards Europe but that he believes reform can be achieved within Europe by working with Britain’s allies on the Continent. Looking to achieve democratic reform to make the Union more accountable to its people, economic reform to end austerity in member states, labour market reforms to protect workers rights and new rights to allow governments to support public enterprises, preventing services being privatised.
With clear majority of Labour voters planning to vote for continued British membership of the European Union and only 8 Labour MPs campaigning for a Leave vote, roughly 3% of Labour’s 229 MPs, much speculation has been made over Corbyn’s motivations regarding the referendum. As his critics in the party point to Labour poll ratings falling ahead of the May elections, with Labour looking to finish behind the Conservatives in Scotland and lose support in English local elections, Corbyn may be moving to suppress dissent within the party. After a list of Labour MPs ranked by their loyalty to the leader was unveiled, long serving members of the party were enraged as David Cameron revealed at PMQs to overshadow the splits in his own cabinet as Iain Duncan Smith resigned shortly before the Easter Break. Labour MP John Woodcock called for a change in leader, immediately backed by Jamie Reed and Angela Smith. In the run up to the decisive elections taking place across Britain next week Labour staff have been accused of trying to downplay expectations by promoting polls suggesting the party may lose 150 seats in English local elections in towns seen decisive to elections. For context, for an opposition party in Labours current position to gain power in the next General Election, the party should gain at least 300 seats in May.
The upcoming referendum has led to splits within
both the Conservative party and the cabinet. Corbyn’s change of heart in
relation to the EU may yet sway some voters towards the pro-European campaign,
but his motivations may lie in securing his position as leader and ensuring his
party avoids the same fate as the Conservatives in intra-party fighting