The Case for a Pro-EU Labour Leadership Candidate

Karl Whelan
5 min readJul 13, 2016


Referendum result not a reason to throw away long-held pro-EU position.

With a leadership contest underway, the Labour party will need to have a serious discussion about its position on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Jeremy Corbyn has accepted that the UK is leaving the EU and is arguing for various restrictions on freedom of movement. The other declared candidate, Angela Eagle, hasn’t said much on Europe but has been saying the government needs to delay invoking Article 50.

Here’s an idea. How about a candidate that makes the argument that the UK should stay in the EU? Here are a few reasons for adopting this position.

  1. The Labour party never agreed with the idea of using a referendum to decide this issue. The party’s position was that a referendum should only be called in the case of a “significant transfer of powers from the UK to the EU”, something that was never on the cards.
  2. Remaining in the EU is the position the Labour party adopted prior to the result of a very close referendum. Given the economic events since the result and the disintegration of the Vote Leave political groupings, the arguments for Remain put forward during the campaign look better now than they did a few weeks ago.
  3. 48% of the UK public voted for remaining in the EU and they deserve to have at least one major political party putting forward their position.
  4. A large fraction of the other 52% that voted Leave are gradually finding out that the “have your cake and eat it” position put forward by Boris Johnson and others was hugely misleading.

There are, of course, some arguments against this position.

“The Labour party must respect the will of the people.”

Let’s think about this for a second. Should you always abandon a political position just because it was rejected at a referendum?

A quick example from my country. In 1986, the Irish people voted in a referendum on whether to allow divorce. In a campaign hugely influenced by the Catholic church, the public voted against allowing divorce. What did the pro-divorce campaigners do? Did they say “ah well, most people don’t want this, so we have to give up?” Thankfully, many didn’t. Instead, they campaigned for years to get another referendum called, which was won and now there is no public discussion in Ireland about reversing this result.

The UK has an historically unprecedented tradition of parliamentary democracy and almost no tradition of government by referendum. Given the current chaotic situation (where nobody knows how a Brexit will be work) there is a strong argument that the UK’s future should be settled via the tried-and-tested route of a general election in which each party lays out a detailed platform. “Remain in the EU” is a simple and understandable platform with broad support. The onus would be on party planning on Brexit to explain its plans in the kind of detail expected of a party during a general election.

It’s also worth remembering the “respecting the will of the people” thing can get a political party into trouble with its own supporters. Harriet Harman’s disastrous period as acting leader with her position of “voters want welfare cuts and we need to listen to them” was probably the single biggest factor contributing to Corbyn’s huge winning margin in the leadership election. Sometimes, standing by your principles is the politically sensible thing to do.

“The referendum figures show Labour couldn’t win an election on a pro-EU platform”

This argument is based on comparing the referendum votes with seats held by Labour. Here are a few reasons why this argument isn’t necessarily correct.

  1. As events gradually reveal the “cake-and-eat-it” promises made by Johnson and Farage were hugely misleading, support for Leave will fall.
  2. Some centrist Tory or Lib Dem voters may get behind a non-Corbynite pro-EU Labour party.
  3. Most who vote in general elections are not “single issue” voters. The same electorate that voted to Leave recently elected a parliament that whose membership is substantially in favour of remaining in the EU. Some Labour supporters that voted Leave may switch to the Tories or UKIP but many could not consider doing this because of the many Tory policies that they consider abhorrent. Some may have voted Leave in hope of a socialist nirvana outside the EU but when that’s not on offer in a general election, it’s unlikely these people vote Tory. Other Labour supporters may have voted Leave imagining this would stop immigration but after reality dawns that none of the Brexit options on the table would do much to control immigration, these people might not be so keen to vote Tory.

“Brexit is bound to happen so we have to accept it”

It probably will happen. Prime Minister May’s previous carefully argued case for staying in the EU is now forgotten because it would be impossible to lead a predominantly anti-EU Tory party without insisting that “Brexit is Brexit”. The fixed-term parliament act also makes it tricky for there to be an election before 2020. This means May probably has the time to execute a full exit from the EU before the next election.

Under the terms of the fixed-term parliament act, an election can only happen prior to 2020 if the government loses a vote of confidence or if two-thirds of the House of Commons vote for an early election. The two-thirds majority route is unlikely since it requires both government and opposition to simultaneously fancy their chances in an election, an unlikely event in the modern world of constant opinion polling.

However, it is not impossible that the loss of a vote of confidence could trigger an election. If Brexit negotiations are going badly, it may be possible for a pro-Remain Labour party to peel off enough pro-EU Tories to allow for an election to be triggered with EU membership as the key issue.

One could imagine other versions of this scenario e.g. where Labour and pro-European Tories unite on an EEA option. The point remains that for Labour to influence events before 2020, they will need to appeal to all persuadable pro-European votes in the House of Commons, including the SNP, Lib Dems and, crucially, pro-European Tories. A simple pro-EU position is the most likely to achieve this support.

Even if Brexit can’t be prevented and the UK has left the EU before the next election, the outcome is likely to be so disappointing that the electorate may be ready to vote for a party that insisted all along that Brexit was a mistake.

The candidate must be out there that is explicitly pro-EU and willing to fight for it as Labour party leader. They might be surprised how well it would work.



Karl Whelan

Professor of Economics at University College Dublin.