How Labour Came to Love the EU

With a longstanding interest in the history of the European Union, Dr Andy Mullen is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne whose forthcoming book is titled Anti- and Pro-European Propaganda in Britain, a follow-up to his other recent co-authored book The Political Economy of the European Social Model. Dr Mullen’s first major research on the nexus between socialism and the European Union was however his PhD: “The British Left’s ‘Great Debate’ on Europe: The Political Economy of the British Left and European Integration, 1945-2004” (University of Bradford, 2005). Here follows some snippets of information from a recent reading of this highly informative and exhaustively documented manuscript.

“Labour’s European policy oscillated according to whether the party was in or out of power.  In opposition, between 1959 and 1966, it was against entry. In government, between 1966 and 1970, it was in favour. In opposition, between 1970 and 1974, it was against. In government, between 1974 and 1979, it was in favour. In opposition, from 1979 until 1988, it was against. To explain the pattern, which persisted until 1988, it is necessary to understand that, in government, the Labour leadership was under considerable pressure from the pro-EU Foreign Office. In opposition, however, the rank and file tended to reassert itself, as it did post-1970, and it was invariably more sceptical of the EU than the party leadership.” (p.261)

In October 1983 Neil Kinnock, a long-standing opponent of the EU, was elected Party Leader. Now, however, he became an evangelist for the EU as he proceeded to move the Party away from the influence of the rank-and-file to embrace the policies that would later become identified with New Labour (for more on this toxic history read the excellent book Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party).

Kinnock quickly threw his support behind Stuart Holland’s pro-EU ‘Out of Crisis’ project (that had been founded in 1981). Holland represented the Vauxhall constituency in Lambeth, London, from 1979 until 1989, and soon after leaving Westminster (where he had served as the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury) he went on to work for the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. Recall that it was…

“Delors’ speech to the 1988 TUC Congress contained the allure of a ‘social Europe’, which many within the Labour Party and trade union movement found attractive. Post-1988 the EU was seen by many Labour and the TUC members as a means to advance socialism. Pro-EU forces claimed that the Social Chapter would benefit workers, that ‘social dialogue’ would transform industrial relations, that the Single Market presented new opportunities, and that the EU was essential to tackling unemployment.” (p.270)

It is noteworthy that in 2010 Stuart Holland would coauthor the book, A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis, with Yanis Varoufakis.

Neil Kinnock and friends

Returning to Kinnock and his right-wing friends and their collective efforts to ditch anti-EU sentiment (and working-class concerns more generally):

“To counter the widespread anti-US feeling within the [Labour] party, in 1985 right-wing Atlanticist forces created the British-American Project for the Successor Generation (BAP). Composed of over 600 leaders and opinion formers, the BAP, allegedly funded by the CIA, was established to ‘perpetuate the close relationship between the two countries established by an earlier generation’. BAP members included Peter Mandelson, Mo Mowlem, Geoff Mulgan, Jonathan Powell, George Robertson,  Chris Smith, Matthew Taylor and Liz Symons, all members of the right-wing  network that helped to ‘modernise’ and Europeanise the party.” (p.139)

Although such activities are rarely talked about within the Labour movement, The Militant (now Socialist Party) published a useful pamphlet in 1982, CIA Infiltration of the Labour Movement, which helped expose the right-wing forces acting against socialists. As Dr Mullen writes:

“The [British and US] intelligence agencies… renewed their support for the pro-EU social democratic network within the Labour Party and trade union movement, manifest in their funding of the SDP in the 1980s and the BAP in the 1990s. The objective of the former, according to [Tony] Benn, was to destroy the possibility of a Labour government committed to withdrawal from the EU, plus other radical policies, whilst the objective of the latter was to ensure that the Labour Party returned to the control of pro-EU Atlanticist forces.” (p.275)

“[Tony] Benn argued [in a 2002 interview] that sections of the left opposed the EU because it was ‘a capitalist club arming itself to see that no socialist ideas penetrated, and no communist armies invaded.’ He further alleged that the pro-EU right within the Labour Party, together with the SDP, supported European integration as means to ‘finally legislate socialism out of existence.’” (p.266)

“No British government, whether Conservative or Labour, has conducted a cost-benefit analysis of EU membership. Nevertheless, during the Cold War period the Labour Party and the TUC issued a number of policy documents that contained empirical analyses of the impact of entry, and then continued membership, on Britain’s economy and its political system. However, the post-1988 period, following the reversal of support for withdrawal by the Labour Party and the TUC, witnessed the publication of policy documents that contained little if any empirical analysis. Instead, they offered negative arguments (such as ‘there is no alternative’ to the EU), aspirations (pledging support for a ‘European social model’ whilst New Labour actively blocked progressive EU directives) and emotional exhortations (such as membership of the EU is Britain’s destiny). These themes were commonplace in Labour Conference and TUC Congress debates during the post-1988 period.” (p.268)

New Labour “also abandoned any belief in an interventionist economic policy” and in an interview conducted in 2003, former Kinnock operative, Bryan Gould noted that:

“Historically, the left took the view that it was an important function of government to be able to run the economy in the interests of the people that elected them. Today’s orthodoxy, by contrast, is that the government should just hold the reins and maintain the value of the currency, and hand over all these decisions, which are said to be purely technical, over to a central bank, and the bigger the bank, the bigger the economic area, the better.’” (cited in Mullen, p.268)

In a later book chapter based upon the research undertaken for his PhD that appeared in Implications of the Euro: A Critical Perspective from the Left (2006) Dr Mullen concludes that while the Labour Party “remains divided on the issue” of the EU, “the balance of argument favours those who are sceptical of and/or opposed to the European Union.” He points out that one of the important arguments for rejecting the EU relates to…

“…the illusion of the ‘European social model’ and the false choice between this and the US model of capitalism. Across the European Union, public sectors and welfare systems are being systematically privatised and dismantled by member states as a result of the Single Market, euro and enlargement projects. In short, the European Union is pursuing a neo-liberal rather than a Keynesian project, under which multinational companies (MNCs) are the driving force. [The authors of Europe Inc. (2000)], for example, found a significant relationship between the recommendations of reports produced by the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), composed of captains of industry from EU-based MNCs, and the policy and treaty output of the European Union. Similarly, [Caroline Lucas and Colin Hines in their report From Seattle to Nice: Challenging the Free Trade Agenda at the Heart of Enlargement (2000)] highlighted the role of the ERT in the enlargement process. At best, the European Union places considerable constraints on governmental freedom of action, manifest in the euro (SGP) rules for example. At worst, the European Union could overrule and block the implementation of a socialist programme mandated by the British electorate.” (p.35)

For a sample of Socialist Party articles making the case for voting to leave the EU see

Or come along to a meeting organised by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) as part of a 20-city tour it is hosting in May and June under the heading ‘The socialist case against the EU’. The date to put in your diary if you live in Leicester is May 19 (from 7pm at the Secular Hall on Humberstone Gate).


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