Jeremy Corbyn’s ruse of Brexit neutrality is not how Harold Wilson played the 1975 referendum

Jeremy Corbyn’s ruse of Brexit neutrality is not how Harold Wilson played the 1975 referendum

As he navigates the Labour Conference this week, Jeremy Corbyn – who was elected party leader on the basis of never having taken a centrist position on anything – finds himself taking a centrist position on Brexit, on which there is no centrist position. Faced with losing voters in its Leave-voting industrial heartlands to the Conservatives or the Brexit Party, and losing voters in its Remain-voting metropolitan cities to the Liberal Democrats, Corbyn has come up with a classic fudge. His official policy is to negotiate a ‘better’ Brexit deal with Brussels then put that deal to a public vote, up against an option to Remain in the EU.

It’s worth taking a step back and reading all that again. Corbyn’s strategy is either genius, or it is madness. The European election results suggest the latter, but his supporters claim that what Corbyn is doing has precedent, in the behaviour of Harold Wilson during the 1970s. People often forget that Harold Wilson won more elections (four) than anyone else in the 20th century, so he knew what he was doing. However, the comparison made with Wilson only stands up in some places whilst falling flat in others: because Harold Wilson knew how to win, and knew what to do to win – and there is little evidence Corbyn does.

The comparison between Wilson and Corbyn is strong because of the parallels of what faced them at respective party conferences in 1972 (for Wilson) and today (for Corbyn). Wilson faced a party that was overwhelmingly against entry to the Common Market, whilst Corbyn faces one in which the members are overwhelmingly for Remain. But there were enough members on the opposite side of the fence that they had to be taken account of. The groups in the ascendancy were aggressively pursuing their aims, with Remainers laying down motions at the current conference, and those against entry in 1972 laying down a motion to commit Labour to withdraw from what was then the EEC the moment they returned to office.

That’s not the only parallel. Both Wilson and Corbyn were certifiably agnostic on Britain’s place in the European Unity project. You could, if you want, call them both neutral on Europe. Yes, I know people like to point out that Corbyn has been recorded calling the EU a ‘capitalist club’ and voted against every form of integration in Parliament, but, unlike on issues he cares about, there is no recorded speech in Parliament on the issue before he became leader. Corbyn, like Wilson, is indifferent on Europe. This, by the way, is what caused so many issues during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, but more on that later.

Wilson used to vacillate back and forth, having not only made Britain’s second failed application to join the EEC in 1967, but having cleverly left it ‘on the table’. This meant that when French President Charles de Gaulle was forced from office in 1969, his replacement Georges Pompidou could accept it, meaning a date was set on 30th June 1970 for Britain’s application to go in. With trademark confidence, Wilson called an early election for June 18th 1970. He lost, and so Edward Heath’s Conservatives carried out the negotiations for entry and the joining date was set for January 1st 1973.

Think about that for a minute: Wilson at Labour’s October 1972 conference has EEC entry hanging over him so he has to make a decision. Corbyn today has an immediate Brexit hanging over him so he also has to make a decision. What happened in 1972, was that Wilson threatened to resign if the motion was passed to commit Labour to withdrawal, and up stepped anti-marketeer Tony Benn with what then Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan called his ‘life raft’ of a commitment to a referendum on membership should Labour win the next election.

The previous year, Harold Wilson had whipped his MPs to opposed EEC entry on ‘Tory terms’. But 69 Labour MPs, led by the Deputy Leader, Roy Jenkins, had rebelled against this whip and supported entry. Jeremy Corbyn has similar problems within his party, but the other way, with a smallish but important bloc of MPs constantly voting to support Theresa May’s, and probably Boris Johnson’s, deal, or No Deal.

Corbyn is also aware that some 33% of Labour voters voted Leave in 2016. So he could argue that he needs to represent those voters as well as the Remain voters in his Brexit strategy. This is used to justify him remaining neutral – which, his supporters argue, is exactly what Harold Wilson did between 1972 and 1975, and especially in 1975, when the first referendum on membership happened.

But this is actually not so. Harold Wilson carried out a renegotiation in 1975, as Corbyn says he will do, and then his Government supported that renegotiation by campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. Jeremy Corbyn is not committed to doing that. It seems, although he hasn’t confirmed it, that he is intending to be neutral in the referendum that he is proposing.

In fact, Harold Wilson started off the 1975 Referendum campaign in the background, partly because, like then Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, he had someone (Roy Jenkins for Labour, Willie Whitelaw for Conservatives) of substance to lead the Britain in Europe campaign. According to Professor Robert Saunders in his wonderful chronicle of that Referendum (Yes to Europe), when Wilson did make a speech, he was careful to press the benefits of membership without appearing to make exaggerated claims. The EEC was, he declared, ‘an essentially practical organisation’, in which member states came together in the pursuit of essential national interests. This was a time of massive economic stagnation in the UK, and Wilson said that whilst membership was not a magic potion that could solve Britain’s economic woes, recovery would be ‘immeasurably more difficult’ in isolation. He judged that the impact on jobs would be ‘decisively in favour of staying in’ in the years ahead, and some large investment projects might not proceed if Britain voted to withdraw.

At the time, this was viewed as clever, because Wilson could present himself as ‘the calm voice of reason’, not appealing to the convinced of either side, but rather, as the Guardian commented at the time, becoming a ‘Pole Star for the wandering voter’.

In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn tried to do this too. Only rather than being the ‘calm voice of reason’, he seemed like someone who had been kidnapped and forced to appear in a video promoting the wishes of his captors. Jason Farrell and I chronicle this in detail in our book How to Lose a Referendum. 2016 wasn’t like 1975 in that it was about so much more than EEC membership; it was an entire cultural debate about globalisation and the state of the country in which it was necessary to take sides firmly. Corbyn didn’t have anyone of substance and charisma in his Labour Party to lead the Labour Yes campaign (Alan Johnson has one but not the other), and with David Cameron leading the Conservatives’ campaign, he had little choice but to stand and try to be enthusiastic about something he was indifferent about. This is not something Jeremy Corbyn can do.

Which takes us back to Harold Wilson in 1975. Worried about the damage a close finish in the referendum would cause, either Wilson or Jim Callaghan spoke at a meeting every night in the final fortnight, with even Roy Jenkins admitting that he had been ‘effective’ towards the end, the final result being a 67%-33% vote to stay in the EEC, with every region in the UK apart from the Western Isles and Orkney supporting this move.

So, Harold Wilson wasn’t neutral. He understood that he had to take sides and he did so in the end with the vim and vigour of the seasoned campaigner he was. The media lauded his ‘great political skill and insight’, saying it was ‘quite frankly a triumph for Wilson’. It very much looks as if this will not be how the media will be reporting Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy on European integration. He either needs to take sides, or he needs to find someone in his party to do it for him.