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When Labour believed in Brexit Forty years ago, Left-wing MPs travelled to Brussels to negotiate an exit

Clive Jenkins taking on the "fat cows" of Germany (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Clive Jenkins taking on the "fat cows" of Germany (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


September 3, 2021   5 mins

In October 1980, the colourful trade union leader Clive Jenkins took to the podium at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Blackpool with a simple message: the British public had been deceived in the referendum on European membership held in 1975.

Far from the economic uplands promised by those who campaigned to remain, British industry was “bruised, lacerated, and bleeding to death because of the Common Market”. EEC membership meant British taxpayers were subsidising “fat cows” in Germany. “In future, all harvest festivals will be held in hangers at Heathrow”, he joked to thunderous applause. In even more vivid language, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Peter Shore, told delegates that EEC membership constituted “a rape of the British people and British power and the constitution”.

When the time came to vote on whether to leave or remain in the EEC, 71% of Labour delegates voted to leave. Brexit, as we now call it, was Labour Party policy.

The 1980 conference vote would have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with British Labour history. Two special party conferences on Europe had already voted against membership: one in 1971 against joining and one in 1975 against remaining. Indeed, Euroscepticism had been the mainstream view of the British Labour movement ever since Clement Attlee rejected French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman’s plan for European unity in 1950.

The Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC), with Attlee’s full support, declared: “No Socialist Party with the prospect of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority.” It was intuitively understood by a vast majority in the Labour Party that entanglement in the European Economic Community ran contrary to three of the party’s core principles: democracy, socialism and internationalism.

Following the 1980 conference vote, the Labour NEC began serious discussions to flesh out Labour’s Brexit policy. Labour’s MEPs were invited to London to help; it may seem rather unlikely now, but in the Eighties they were overwhelmingly Eurosceptic.

Then, at the 1981 Labour Party conference in Brighton, the NEC endorsed “withdrawal” as official Labour Party policy. By an even larger margin than the year before, 84% of delegates voted in favour of leaving the EEC. Hardly any activists could be described as “Remainers”.

In the following months, the NEC set about drawing up a “blueprint” for withdrawal. Unlike David Cameron, who blocked efforts to prepare for Brexit before the 2016 EU referendum, the Labour Party considered it vitally important to assess the future relationship between the UK and EEC before the withdrawal process began.

So in December, a delegation of Labour MPs went to Brussels to discuss Labour’s plan for withdrawal with the European Commission. A confidential memorandum of the meeting, prepared for the NEC and held in the Labour History Archive at the People’s History Museum, details how the Labour delegation was led by Judith Hart, a Left-wing Labour MP who had served in the Wilson government as Overseas Development Minister.

Judith Hart was dismissed as a “prattling women” (Mike Barnes/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hart and fellow Eurosceptic Barbara Castle, the leader of Labour’s MEPs, were the only two women in Wilson’s first cabinet. Undeterred by the sexism of the age — one Cabinet colleague dismissed her as “a prattling woman” — Hart was a passionate advocate for anti-colonial causes. She regarded the EEC as a “neo-colonial” project where the “white tribes of Europe” were teaming up together to create a circle of privilege. In Brussels, Hart was joined by three other Eurosceptic Labour MPs: Gwyneth Dunwoody, Denzil Davies and Doug Hoyle, father of the current Speaker of the House of Commons.

Their initial reception from the EEC Commissioners was not encouraging. The notes record: “the original shape of the programme gave the impression that the delegation was to be taken on a ‘Cook’s tour’ of the Commission with much time to be spent on officials expounding the virtues of the EEC”. However, after a few phone calls and the intervention of British Labour MEPs, led by Barbara Castle, “the nature of the meetings changed completely and we were able to fulfil our original intentions” — namely, the technicalities of a Labour Brexit.

The Labour negotiators met with a dozen members of the Commission, including British Commissioner Christopher Tugendhat, a former Conservative MP and uncle of the current Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat. Curiously, the meetings went smoothly, with the exception of those with the British officials. “On the whole the discussions were both serious and fruitful and conducted in an atmosphere of considerable friendliness,” the Labour internal report reflected. “It was quite noticeable”, however, that the only “hostility that was shown came from the British officials”.

Barbara Castle wasn’t interested in a tour of the Commission (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Predictably, many of Labour’s discussions with the EEC Commission — whether on trade, agriculture, Ireland or employment — presaged the kinds of wrangling which occurred after the 2016 referendum.

The Commission, for example, told the Labour negotiators that there were only two options available for a post-Brexit trade deal. The UK would either need to join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), or it would have to trade with the EEC on GATT (WTO) rules – a “no deal” Brexit in post-2016 parlance. The Commissioners stated: “it would not be possible for the Community, if only for political reasons, to negotiate a better deal with the UK”.

Already, the EEC was playing hardball. A bespoke trade deal between the EEC and UK was ruled out before the starting gun had even fired. “The officials were keen to point out that we could expect no special considerations from the Community once we had withdrawn.” the Labour report reflected.

The Labour team’s response equally mirrored the concerns of many Brexiteers in recent years. They ruled out joining EFTA because it would continue to subject the UK to EEC rules without having political influence to shape them. It meant that the only option before Labour was no deal. “The effect on the UK would,” said Labour’s negotiators, “be at worst highly marginal”; it would spur British manufacturing, while freeing the UK to form trade agreements with non-EEC countries on more favourable terms.

Ireland also proved a thorny topic. The Labour negotiators were comfortable with having an open border, but “Commission officials saw the problems in terms of the UK having to stop the ‘leakage’”. The Commission argued “certain controls on cross border commercial activity” would be necessary. A briefing note sent back to the Labour leader Michael Foot about the visit concluded: “It was agreed that the border with Ireland might create some problems and need further investigation.”

Finally, the two sides discussed the timeline for withdrawal. At that time, there was no provision similar to Article 50 that spelt out the specific way a member state could leave the EEC. It was agreed that 18 months to two years would be sufficient to draw up a withdrawal agreement initiating the formal process of leaving.

But there was a catch. The EEC negotiators said the agreement of all member states would be required for Britain to leave the organisation; the UK Labour representatives were not convinced. What would happen if a Labour government just unilaterally left the EEC without an agreement, they asked?

Thirty years on, the EEC’s response sounds eerily familiar. According to Labour’s internal report: “The officials stated at this point that ‘there had to be an agreement otherwise it would be terrible!’. They declined to speculate further.”


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

richardmarcj

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Matthew Powell
MP
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

The left used to oppose membership of the EU, using immigration to undercut wages, using environmentalism to deny the poor economic development, supported freedom of speech against censorship and the interests of working classes against those of the middle classes.

Today, Guardian readers are currently up arms about key workers receiving pay rises, whilst many Conservative voters support greater intervention in the economy. The political sphere has flipped on its head and yet for many voters, blinded by tribalism, their votes are still determined by redundant the stereo types of left and right wing.

Political parties are little more than brand names. The badges remain the same but the ideologies are never fixed. Better to base your vote on for whichever party reflects your interests and values, rather than the colour of the rosette.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Proving the parties are the problem. Get rid of them and let us have rational thinking independent MPs.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Quite right. Modern Labour doesn’t like the workers, and the Tories are anti-business.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

A great factual illustration of how far the Labour Party have moved away from supporting the working class people of this country.
I doubt Starmer can “clear the stables” in time for the next election ..

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

You could argue that Labour MPs and the Conservative MPs are mostly of the same political class (although not necessarily the same social class) – and that ‘policies’ are mostly just mood music.
Labour has a bigger problem in that their membership are still concerned about implementation of significant policy changes which the Labour MPs are not comfortable with. It would need a charismatic leader to convince both parts of the Labour Party to work together.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

As I keep saying, since 1945 no government that went into an election with a working majority has lost it to be replaced in office by the opposition with a working majority of its own (the apparent exception in 1970 was in the wake of a change in the voting age).
This constructively means that in 2019 Boris won two terms, not one; Labour will lose again in 2023, because there’s no overturning an 80-odd seat majority in one term.
This helpfully removes Starmer. He’s quite plausible and hard to paint as extreme, so he could have been a threat. But he has been played five years too soon, he clearly doesn’t know what to do about all his anti-Semitic loonies (nor do I – and unlike Militant, these loonies aren’t all members of a helpfully bannable party-within-a-party), and so his talents will thus be wasted. He’s Labour’s William Hague, in effect.
With all that said, since 1945 nobody’s won more than four consecutive elections either. 2023 will be the Conservatives’ fourth win, following 2010, 2015, and 2017. It’s not clear how comparable the two runs are, since the first (1979 – 1992) was four consecutive majorities, whereas the current one has included two minorities and a non-working majority. The Conservative vote has also risen for six consecutive elections, whereas between 1979 and 1992, it was in secular decline.
On balance I still think Labour is in the last chance saloon. It has to get itself back into shape and win in 2028, because if it doesn’t, there is no guarantee of serious consideration, or relevance, or even just survival for a party that would by then have been out of power for a generation. If they lose in 2028, there has to be a very good chance that the next non-Conservative government we eventually see won’t be Labour. Who knows – it could even be conservative!

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Very illuminating, with revealing detail and personalities deserving of more coverage in Brexit vote debates.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Matt M
MM
Matt M
2 years ago

Love the idea of Lindsay Hoyle MP’s dad meeting with Tom Tugendhat MP’s dad to discuss Brexit forty years ago. Things change, but very slowly!

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Truly

David Lonsdale
David Lonsdale
2 years ago

I recall being at a Labour event in the 1980’s where Tony Benn was the main speaker. He described the EEC as “a capitalist club which we should leave” and the room immediately applauding him. Young Corbyn was being mentored by Benn and he had to keep rather quiet around the time of the last(?) referendum all those years later.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  David Lonsdale

not at all. He stated that while he had reservations about the EU as an organisation the process of leaving was going to cause, at the present moment, more problems that it will solve. That we shall just have to see

peter lucey
PL
peter lucey
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

What if Corbyn had stood as a Euro-sceptic lefty in 2019? He may not have won but would have done better. Apart from anything else, he IS a Euro-sceptic lefty. He lost some credibility by backing Remain, under pressure.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Corbyn was spot on there

Michael James
MJ
Michael James
2 years ago

Labour changed when in 1988 Jacques Delors persuaded the party that the EU could reverse Thatcher’s reforms. Thatcher in her Bruges speech of the same year warned about precisely that, and put the Tories on the road to Brexit.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael James
Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

It should be pointed out that the Labour Party took a policy of Leaving the EEC into the 1983 election and secured, in terms of its share of the poll, a worse share of the poll than any since. The Labour Party adoption of an anti EEC stance drove significant amounts of support to the Lib/SDP alliance which almost polled as many votes as Labour. With only a handful of Eurosceptic Tories there was no electoral advantage in being anti-EEC and by the end of the decade some Unions were opening offices in Brussels on the grounds that they could negotiate better rights for workers from the EEC than from Thatcher’s Tory Government.
Interestingly enough, the EFTA option would have (probably still does) provided the best alternative. It is true it would involve a nod in the direction of the European Court as a referee for Trade disputes but all Trade Deals require a referee