Lessons from Labour in the European Parliament

John Chowcat

With global mass movements emerging around central political challenges from climate change to Black Lives Matter, current efforts to revitalise the British Labour Party require a renewed focus on today’s international agenda.  Deeply-informed thinking is needed to clarify global policies and solutions, identify potential allies, and determine tactics for effective lobbying of powerful international institutions.  Polls conducted during the UK’s sharp controversies over Brexit suggest that a large majority of the party’s substantial membership hold internationalist views, and this will have contributed to Keir Starmer’s successful leadership campaign, given his broadly pro-EU sympathies.  Practical lessons from previous party involvement with important international bodies are potentially valuable here; one rich legacy worth examining is the 40-year history of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP), from the establishment of a directly elected European Parliament in 1979 to the UK’s recent withdrawal from the EU.

Britain’s former, longstanding position as the only large EU member state known to encourage a Europe-wide single market while generally resisting wider EU integration, reflected not only the UK’s lingering imperial past, and previous industrial superiority over European rivals, but also the City of London’s lucrative trade in Eurodollar transactions.  This still involves a unique balancing act between US and EU financial connections, among others, and contributed to the UK’s reputation as an ‘awkward partner’ in Europe’s drive for peace and prosperity through ‘ever closer’ union.1 The EPLP’s history was regularly buffeted by the repercussions of this equivocal stance, especially in periods of Labour government in Westminster.  This remains relevant today given the UK’s uncertain economic future, outside the EU but unavoidably a ‘part of Europe’ in many political and economic respects beyond the merely geographical. Brexit poses ultimately similar problems for a Britain pursuing a different and untried balancing act between the competing economic powers of the US, EU, and China.

The early European Parliament consisted solely of nominated members from EU states’ existing parliaments.  With the introduction of direct elections, however, the British Labour contingent attracted fresh attention.  Its members held different viewpoints on aspects of European integration but tended, unsurprisingly, towards favouring a stronger, though not federal, European Community (EC) and enjoyed financial independence in conducting group activity.  It was, nonetheless, ‘stranded’ for nearly a decade as the European voice of a party deeply divided over involvement with European co-ordination.  As far back as 1950, its National Executive Committee had declared European integration “not reconcilable” with a socialist agenda.  Although the European project was internally controversial, the Labour party at times officially urged UK withdrawal from the Community.  Right-wingers from Peter Shore to Hugh Gaitskell had proclaimed their hostility, echoed by many left-wingers on similar grounds of protecting Britain’s ‘national sovereignty’.  Tony Benn’s long personal battle, as the son of a late peer, to establish his legal right to sit in the House of Commons once elected, probably influenced his concentration on a theory of the British constitution depicting popular sovereignty as ‘loaned’ by the people to their Westminster representatives.  He wrongly predicted that a directly elected European Parliament would ‘challenge the authority of the House of Commons … and would undermine 150 years of struggle by the British people to get democratic control’.2  The Wilson and Callaghan governments nonetheless maintained membership of the EC, with Wilson allowing his divided cabinet a free vote in the 1975 referendum.  It was the later gruelling Thatcher government’s attacks on organised labour, linked to dramatic economic restructuring, which finally led the Labour Party to reconsider its basic stance.  Jacques Delors famously addressed the TUC in 1988, highlighting social protection and collective bargaining as key European values and the earlier Social Charter of workers’ rights was being reinforced.  Under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, the party abandoned its EC withdrawal policy by openly welcoming European social protections in the same year and the ‘British Labour Group’ acquired a new confidence.  Given their dual accountability to their constituents as well as their party, they changed their name, originally borrowed from the party’s local government tradition, and officially adopted the title of EPLP, claiming a level of autonomy from the party’s national leadership similar to that of the Parliamentary Labour Party at Westminster.

The important task of combining parliamentary representation and effective public campaigning, which faces the party again today in the wake of recent complications in supporting local ‘community’ campaigns, may seem even more daunting at an international level.  Yet helpful examples can be found in EPLP records, including the efforts of Ken Coates, a Labour MEP for 10 years from 1989, committed to organising popular campaigns, bringing hundreds of social activists into Europe-wide lobbying. Coates eventually suffered Blairite criticism (expelled from the party, he sat for the left/green group within the Parliament for a further year).  Coates organised a European ‘Pensioners’ Parliament’, a European conference for people with disabilities and a stimulating Full Employment Convention in Brussels (which I attended on behalf of the British and Irish trade union, MSF).  He was also Chair of the Parliament’s Human Rights Sub Committee and a consistent supporter of a progressive Europe.  The Blair and Brown governments, however, while somewhat friendlier to Europe than John Major’s, were especially wary of its single currency proposal – a bold monetary policy, but lacking an associated common fiscal or labour market policy – and hesitated to encourage wider public support for European integration within the UK.  A new ‘top-down’ mechanism, the Leader’s Working Group (LWG), provided the government with influence over the EPLP in the European Parliament and over the direction of the broader Party of European Socialists (PES) founded in 1992 to coordinate the positions of the EU’s social democratic parties.

The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 at root protected wealthy Germany’s conservative economic outlook, shifting power within the European institutions towards the Parliament but also the European Council, ensuring the dominance of heads of national governments rather than the European Commission in determining EU strategy.  A year later, the global financial crisis severely tested this German reluctance to build ‘more Europe’ through expanding the scope of the European Central Bank (ECB) to assist recovery by restabilising the weaker EU economies.  Subsequent economic difficulties, culminating in the present recession generated by the Coronavirus epidemic, have maintained this pressure.  Step by step, the role of the ECB is now growing, reinforcing Europe-wide solidarity partly through collective private and public bond purchases, a major intervention recalling original EU ambitions as the UK withdraws.

Many Labour MEPs, often leading other European parliamentarians, were involved during the EPLP’s four decades of activity in improving employment and consumer rights, enhancing environmental protections, imposing new obligations on multinational companies and defending human rights, with successes and failures in different periods.  While the EU is subject to considerable professional lobbying by major corporations and related vested interests, EPLP members nonetheless proved effective.  A concrete example is the 2015 initiative by Theresa Griffin MEP, in the Parliament’s industry committee, to build a wide coalition and reject a right-wing drive to weaken the Market Stability Reserve, safeguarding the system which caps much of the EU’s industrial carbon footprint.

Keir Starmer could do worse than invite Richard Corbett, the last EPLP leader, and others to lead a project to extract broad lessons for the period ahead from the EPLP’s history to help inform the development of a Labour Party internationalism for our times.  The archive of EPLP minutes, documents and related correspondence remains available at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.  This project’s conclusions could then be fed into the party’s wider international policy debate, usefully encouraging membership interest and engagement, to help in addressing Britain’s ‘awkward’ past.

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1 Professor Stephen George, An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community, Oxford University Press 1990.

2 Tony Benn, Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-76, Arrow Books 1989, p. 463.

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John Chowcat

John Chowcat is the retired general secretary of the TUC-affiliated education union ASPECT, now an autonomous section of the union Prospect. He was previously assistant general secretary of the union MSF and a regular delegate to TUC and Labour Party conferences.

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