More than any other event in the political calendar to 2020 the promised EU referendum has the potential to drive a wedge between the Labour Party and its voters in the deindustrialised areas of Northern England. Just as the Party suffered in Scotland from its association with the Conservatives and the wider establishment in the Better Together campaign, it may soon find itself campaigning alongside its political rivals in the battle to keep the UK inside the EU.
Indeed, it may be that there is but one voice with any resonance in the North crying the cause of a Brexit – that of UKIP. Labour’s new rivals in the North will undoubtedly become the focus of the exit campaign, and will receive yet another opportunity to distinguish itself from an ‘establishment’ that has become fundamentally unpopular in many parts of the community. Although much attention will doubtless be paid to it’s rupture of Conservative support the referendum offers UKIP the chance to capture the narrative of ‘standing up for the little guy’ in those parts of the North which feel increasingly cut off from the institutions of Westminster and Brussels.
It is in mitigating this threat that Labour faces its biggest problem in the forthcoming referendum. If a pro-EU group along the lines of the unionist Better Together campaign emerges will be seen, but Labour will regardless find itself campaigning alongside the Conservatives, business interests and most of the mainstream media in supporting Britain’s place in the EU. While it will be able to share a platform on the quantifiable benefits of EU membership it must distinguish itself in defining what values are represented by the UK’s membership of the EU – those of solidarity, compassion and the belief that we are stronger united than we are apart.
Labour must ensure that it is not held by the politics of fear in the forthcoming campaign. To do so would only feed the indignity people feel in being told that they are too weak to do it alone, too small to make an impact – a narrative in which UKIP thrives. Rather, Labour must ensure that it projects a positive message, one focused around a collective vision of a shared future. The idea of solidarity is a core value of the European project, and must be considered one of its key selling points. But moreover, the re-establishment of these values by Labour within the political discourse of the UK will be key to its future election prospects.
To do so would help Labour to counter the most often cited reason for it’s recent electoral disaster – that it no longer represents its traditional supporters, but rather focuses on the more intellectual and prosperous urban middle classes. While the Party must surely do more to encourage aspiration this message alone will do little to convince its traditional support base that it is really listening to their concerns and desires. Should they fail to hear a message of solidarity from Labour in the forthcoming debate it seems likely that they will take refuge in the alternative message being sold by UKIP. They too will be looking to capture the idea of a collective, but the collective of ‘us against them’ rather than simply ‘us’.
Setting the discourse in such a fashion will give Labour a base on which it can build its future campaigns. Failure to do so could have profound implications for the UK’s position in Europe, and its future political landscape.
Robert Fleck is a Young Fabian member