By Nyta Mann
Labour’s position on Europe is in fundamental terms straightforward: it is a pro-European party that genuinely intends to join the single currency when the time and conditions are right.
This is a remarkable turnaround for a party that was once no less riven over Europe than today’s Conservatives.
It goes without saying that within Labour’s overarching position there are complications.
The cabinet itself contains competing differences in nuance and approach on many matters European – most importantly, between the prime minister and the chancellor over timing and tactics on joining the euro.
Harold Wilson’s cabinet was allowed a free vote in the 1975 referendum
Some individual cabinet members also have their own history of committed Euroscepticism – Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary David Blunkett among them. In bald terms, however, their views are not key.
The chief figures in command are in favour of joining the euro; how and when, as opposed to if, are the issues that give them most trouble. The government’s main hurdle to joining is an external one: the self-imposed referendum it must first win.
But at base, whatever the varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance on further European integration and monetary union, and even allowing for the deliberate indeterminacy of Labour’s euro-pronouncements, there is no doubt that being part of it is the direction things are headed.
How things change. For the 1975 referendum on the Common Market, the party was hopelessly split. Prime Minister Harold Wilson had no option but to allow cabinet members to campaign for whichever side their consciences told them to. While a majority of them joined the Yes camp, Labour left-wingers played the leading role in the No campaign.
Neil Kinnock moved his party from anti to pro-Europeanism
By the end of the decade, though, Labour – including a young Mr Blair and other members of the present cabinet – was fighting elections on a platform of immediate withdrawal from the European Community.
The “anti-marketeers” were overwhelmingly dominant and the party’s position was that “the socialist transformation of the economy cannot be carried out unless we first leave the EEC”, as its 1980 conference formally confirmed.
The following year, disagreement with Europe policy was one of the key motivators for the Gang of Four’s defection from Labour to set up the rival SDP. With them went others from the pro-European Labour right, further hardening their former party’s Euro-hostile stance.
Tony Blair is often credited with having wrought the fundamental transformation on all significant areas of Labour policy. That is certainly not the case with Europe.
Jacques Delors played a key role in converting the TUC to Europe
The changes to Labour’s Euro-attitude since Mr Blair proclaimed the birth of New Labour in 1994 have been trivial by comparison with those pushed through by Neil Kinnock between 1983 and 1992.
At the 1983 general election Labour was committed to immediate moves to withdraw from the EC.
As soon as the election was lost and he succeeded Michael Foot as Labour leader, Mr Kinnock – previously strongly identified with the party’s anti-European consensus – swiftly set about taking the first steps to change the policy.
A key moment of the shifting policy was the advent of Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission. Whereas in its earliest days the European Community had as its purpose the establishment of the single market, by now an increasing social dimension was becoming clear.
This fact, which Mr Delors expressed to the TUC in 1988 more explicitly than had been done before, played no small role in effecting Labour’s full conversion from its early antipathy to broad support for Europe. It also helped propel the Tories in the opposite direction.
By 1992, Labour was a party that wanted to stay in what was now better known as the European Union; to join the European exchange rate mechanism; and supported in principle, albeit with qualifications (transmuted today into Gordon Brown’s “five economic tests”), European monetary union.
The shift was complete. And in the meantime, the internal warfare over Europe that contributed to keeping the party out of power for the better part of two decades had transferred itself to the Tories.