Has a small political miracle taken place? For the first time since the Brexit vote, Labour has been able to show a coherent, confident profile on Europe in place of the confused contradictory circumlocutions associated with the Corbyn shadow cabinet’s appearances on the BBC, and in other media.
The list of candidates in winnable positions on Labour’s list of would-be MEPs for the European parliament elections is the most progressive slate of serious candidates ever put forward by a British political party since the first direct elections to the European parliament 40 years ago.
Any observer of European politics will see names that are recognised and respected in Brussels and Strasbourg as heavyweight political animals, chairs of key committees or acknowledged experts on the arcane procedures of European parliament decision-making.
The assumption that the hardline traditional Bennite-trained Eurosceptics (who have risen to the top of Labour since 2015) would impose their own clones at the top of the lists in the positions likely to be elected as MEPs has proven wrong.
Corbyn’s office, rightly and wisely decided to distance itself from the current disarray in the Conservative Party over Europe, Ukip’s Gerard Batten and his lifelong political comrade-in-arms, Nigel Farage. Both have been busy scratching each other’s eyes out by naming a candidate who tweeted about not wanting to rape Jess Phillips, or finding a female Rees Mogg with a cut-class Knightsbridge accent. Indeed, now was not the time for Labour to win headlines by relegating respected MEPs to lowly places that meant they would lose their positions in Europe.
As a bonus, Corbyn named the most-outspoken, energetic, driven anti-Brexit politician to emerge since 2016, Andrew Adonis, as No 2 on Labour’s list in the South West. Labour sensibly took no notice of the early excitement on the BBC with its 15-year love affair with Farage that the former Ukip leader’s new one-man party would smash though to conquer.
Farage’s and Ukip’s success this century was based on first being the anti-EU immigrant party; second, being the party promoting leaving Europe; and third being the anti-government and London elite establishment party.
Today, the salience of EU immigration is down to 20 per cent for voters according to professor Matthew Goodwin. The official policy of the government is to leave the EU, and the London elites in politics – much of the media, notably the BBC Today Programme and many business sectors – are pro-Brexit or refuse to campaign against leaving Europe.
Thus there’s no point in Farage or left-over Ukip. And as more recent polls suggest, voters will split along current general lines which gives a big advantage to Labour reinforced by Corbyn’s strategic move in endorsing prominent pro-Europeans on Labour’s regional lists to be elected as MEPs.
In addition, recent YouGov polling suggests that those who voted Remain in 2016 are much more likely to vote: 55 per cent would “definitely vote” compared to 40 per cent of Leave voters; while 20 per cent of Leave voters “definitely would not vote” compared to just 6 per cent of Remain voters. The million who marched in London, or the six million who signed the revoke Article 50 petition have to vote for someone, as do up to 3 million EU citizens who live in the UK. Labour at a stroke has offered by far the best slate to vote for.
Luckily, Labour has a top-line policy that can attract voters who otherwise might be tempted to vote Lib Dem or the new Change UK party of breakaway MPs. This is Labour’s 2018 party conference decision to support a public vote. Failure to do so, or hints that once the Commons is back, Labour may help Theresa May get her unworkable deal through, and Labour will nix the chances of their MEP candidates winning.
Labour can demand a general election and propose progressive reform policies for the EU, but only if candidates can headline Labour’s official policy on allowing the people – not just MPs – a vote that can seal the deal.
The first line in every Labour leaflet should be: “Give Labour a vote and Labour will give the people a vote. You – not the Westminster and media elites – will decide our future.” It’s a simple message, and one that can work.
Denis MacShane is the former minister of Europe. His new book Brexeternity is due to be published soon