In the summer of 1975, Jeremy Corbyn, a little-known Labour Party council member in north London, voted for Britain to leave the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union.
His reasons for wanting out were simple: Britain was losing its economic sovereignty, and the Labour Party’s key left-wing policies, such as nationalization, were incompatible with the EEC’s aims. Most of his fellow party members – and half of the then Labour government – voted the same way.
In the end, it was only the votes of supporters of Margaret Thatcher’s pro-European Conservative Party that kept Britain in the EEC. The “In” campaign won the referendum by a margin of 2 to 1.
Much has changed since then. Mr. Corbyn, now the leader of the Labour Party, is campaigning for a Remain vote in this week’s E.U. referendum, and it is his party’s 9 million supporters who will likely determine the outcome. But whether they will follow his lead is another matter.
With David Cameron’s Conservative Party tearing itself apart over Britain’s E.U. referendum vote, splits within the Labour Party have received much less attention.
“Party policy doesn't square up with where people's perceptions of the E.U. are.”
The party is seemingly steadfast: 213 of its 230 parliamentarians, including Mr. Corbyn’s entire shadow cabinet, support Britain remaining in the European Union. Most of its affiliated trade unions, donors and activists do too.
Why, then, did a YouGov poll last week show that 35 percent of people who voted Labour in national elections last year want out of the bloc?
There are several reasons. Widespread cross-party distrust of E.U. institutions aside, the most prominent is that voters in Labour’s industrial heartlands fear immigration from other E.U. countries. The bloc’s policy of freedom of movement has seen a huge influx of mostly unskilled Eastern Europeans flood into Britain in the past decade – 270,000 arrived last year alone. Many of them have ended up competing for low-paid jobs in the low-income Labour heartlands, breeding resentment.
“Immigration is putting enormous pressure on facilities like roads, schools, hospitals and housing, and also producing unfair, severe competition on the wage front,” said John Mills, the chairmen of the Labour Leave campaign and the party’s biggest donor.
Many working-class Labour voters are also attracted by the Leave campaign’s promises – vehemently contested by the Remain side – of improved economic conditions after a Brexit. Many would like to see Britain’s multi-billion pound contribution to the European Union spent on the hard-pressed National Health Service, for example.
The rising tide of global anti-politics is another reason. From Donald Trump’s success in the U.S. presidential campaign to the increase in support for right-wing and nationalist parties across Europe, working-class voters are keen to give the establishment one in the eye.
Labour voters have also had to endure a Remain campaign led by the likes of the “elitists” Mr. Cameron and his number two George Osborne, both hate figures of the left.
In a similar vein, Mr. Mills thinks that Labour’s move towards the center ground over the past 20 years has meant it has lost touch with its working-class roots. “Its leading lights are finding it more difficult to identify with the views, values and attitudes of a large number of people, especially outside London,” he said. “Party policy doesn’t square up with where people’s perceptions of the E.U. are.”
Tristram Hunt MP, a leading Labour Remain supporter whose parliamentary constituency is in the industrial city of Stoke-on-Trent, says these are the arguments he hears time and again from his constituents. “The referendum debate has pitted cosmopolitan Britain against parts of the country who are struggling with the effects of globalisation,” he said.
Mr. Corbyn has not helped matters. Many critics say he only decided to back the Remain campaign out of political necessity, and think his real view has not changed since 1975. Certainly he has been half-hearted in his campaigning: he has publicly declared himself “7 out of 10” in favor of remaining, and his speeches have been peppered with digs at the European Union.
He has also refused to campaign alongside Conservative remain supporters such as Mr. Cameron. A survey for Loughborough University showed that the prime minister had made seven times the number of media appearances on the campaign trail.
Instead, Mr. Corbyn’s campaign has focused on the E.U.’s ability to better protect workers’ rights, and warning of the dangers of a Conservative-masterminded Brexit. Polls suggest the second point may resonate: A survey by ORB International has shown that only 52 percent of Labour supporters will vote in the referendum, against 69 percent of Conservatives, a majority of whom are expected to vote Leave.
But the upshot of the Corbyn campaign has been to cause confusion in the Labour ranks. Earlier this month, Labour admitted that 2 in 5 of its voters did not know the party’s official position on the referendum. As a result, the party arranged a relaunch of its campaign on June 13 – just ten days ahead of the vote.
Mr. Corbyn was side-lined in favor of high-profile Remain supporters such as former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and deputy party leader Tom Watson. Mr. Brown said that “voting to Remain is about a positive, stronger future,” while Mr. Watson promised that the party would take a closer look at more tightly controlling economic migration to the UK.
“It is certainly true that historically Labour communities, with their manufacturing-focused economies, will be hit hardest by withdrawal from the Single Market,” said Mr. Hunt. “But the argument I make in Stoke-on-Trent is that the answer to their concerns about immigration or wage stagnation cannot be to crater the UK economy – which is what will almost certainly happen if we vote to leave the EU.”
Whether Labour supporters heed their leaders’ call or not, the party – like the Conservatives – faces a difficult post-referendum future. Mr. Corbyn, who draws his support from the minority left-wing of the party, is widely viewed as having little chance of leading Labour to victory in the next national elections in 2020. And as demonstrated in last year’s ballot, the party is losing voters to the anti-European, populist UKIP party.
Perhaps most worrying, however, is that there is general agreement that a Brexit vote will cause a short term drop in the UK’s economy, and it is likely core Labour voters that will feel this the most. Some may turn against the party as a result. Ironically, the same group of voters may resent it for supporting a successful Conservative-led Remain vote.
“The Labour party is in a very dangerous situation, where up to half of the people who support it at the ballot box are likely to vote against party policy,” said Mr. Mills.
No matter what the outcome in the vote, Mr. Corbyn may be left wishing it was still 1975.
David Reay is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: email@example.com