Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson is leading Labour’s campaign for the UK to stay in Europe. Here SERA’s Natan Doron speaks to Alan about the challenge of the referendum campaign – and what SERA supporters can do to help.
It already feels like the EU referendum debate has been going for an age. If Alan Johnson is daunted by concerns the public might be suffering from referendum fatigue, it certainly doesn’t show. “It’s the most profound political decision of my lifetime and I think there will be an enormous amount of interest in it”.
Environmentalists certainly have an interest. Europe has, in the main, been a huge force for both environmental protection and action on climate change. It’s a point not lost on the chief of Labour’s ‘In’ campaign. “SERA members more than anyone understand this need to work together, understand the crucial principle of internationalism in the Labour Party and understand the danger of going off into splendid isolation on our continent and in the world.”
I put it to him that leading Labour politicians often talk about how great the environment is (especially when talking to New Ground correspondents) but in the heat of an election it gets forgotten about. Won’t that just happen again?. “I’d be surprised at that”, he points out that while the overall umbrella group to remain in might not talk about it, the Labour campaign will be different. “We’ll be emphasising the social dimension of Europe and we’ll be emphasising the environmental aspects of Europe very strongly. This is our only hope, if we’re serious about implementing [the] Paris [climate change agreement] and we can only do it through organisations like the European Union.”
As well as stating the importance of green issues for the Labour ‘In’ campaign, Johnson turns his politely- worded re onto the people leading the ‘out’ campaign. “If you look at where all the climate change deniers are, largely, and I don’t want to insult anyone on this, but largely they’re in the ‘out’ campaign, Nigel Lawson is one of their major figures.”
Johnson is keen to contrast the supposed commitment of the Conservative Party to climate change with their reputation for Euroscepticism. “I really don’t see how having identified the problem of climate change, identified that the problem is man made, all of the work that scientists have done, that a solution to it could possible be leaving Europe.” Indeed, when it comes to the importance of Europe for the environment he is unequivocal. “There’s no issue bigger than the environment as one of those examples of something that no country can tackle on its own.”
European cooperation played a key role in securing an ambitious climate deal in Paris last year and policies like the birds and habitats directives have protected the natural environment within and beyond our borders for years now. I ask what a leave majority would mean for Britain’s environment. “[The environment] is one of those issues [that] all counties in the European Union work together on. I think that becomes more difficult to realise and you go back to trying to find other ways to trying to coordinate your activity on the environment with other countries having just left the best forum for doing it.” In essence, if the European Union wasn’t there, environmentalists and socialists would have to create it.
What about the need for Labour to articulate its own vision of what needs to be reformed in the EU? “For us to just be adding to the long list of whinges about Europe instead of stating the positive of staying would be a huge mistake which is why we’re not getting into that argument.” Does that mean the Labour ‘In’ campaign thinks the Europe Union doesn’t require reform? “People have concerns about Europe but they have concerns about this place (Parliament). There is no institution that is perfect, certainly not this place with an unelected House of Lords and the voting system that puts us here in the first place but there’s no referendum on whether we leave our seat of democracy in this country. So to have a campaign where we’re constantly focused on what’s wrong with Europe and the reforms when the referendum will be on do we stay or do we go will be a big, big mistake in my view.”
Alan Johnson has little patience for any notion that Labour is split on Europe. “I think in terms of where the party stands we are absolutely united.” He cites the size of the parliamentary group to remain in (214 out of 231 Labour MPs) as evidence of his point. “I’m willing to listen to an argument that we’re divided on lots of things but not on Europe.”
He concedes this doesn’t mean there aren’t splits in the party. “I suppose in a sense the fault line that runs through the Tories is Europe. The fault line that runs through us and creates huge differences of opinion every five to ten years is nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament so yeah there’s big debates on that, not on this (Europe). We’re trying to get this argument over to the press who have been reluctant to recognise this. On the Monday of our conference we carried a proposition that was very clear – we’ll campaign to remain in Europe.”
It’s of course true that the same party conference also carried a majority vote in favour of multilateral nuclear disarmament as official Labour party policy in opposition to the views of Jeremy Corbyn. The difference on Europe is, as Johnson points out, that the frontbench are all united behind the Labour ‘In’ campaign. And it’s this campaign that he’s keen to focus on, becoming animated as he sets out some of the arguments.
“The fact that totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe were converted from oligarchs into democracy without a shot being red couldn’t have been done without the European Union. Couldn’t have been done. So there is the poetry to this … but there’s also a lot of prose and it’s the prose that’s going to win or lose it – it’s like ‘what does it mean to me’ rather than the great high-flying principles. But we shouldn’t forget those principles because it led a generation after the Second World War to say we need to do things differently.”
It’s a strong case that harks back to a bygone political age. In 2016 angry speeches and outlandish promises attract thousands of passionate supporters to events for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States. Closer to home and not too long ago people flocked to rallies during the Scottish referendum and even in the Labour leadership race. Remaining in Europe hasn’t inspired people to go to raucous rallies in Britain just yet. It does something more radical. It brings real change. Whether that’s improved terms and conditions for workers, or protection for nature and species that move across boundaries, Europe delivers. Slowly at times and often without fanfare, Europe has brought progress for both people and the environment. In that sense, Alan Johnson may just be the ideal person to lead the Labour ‘In’ campaign.
Natan Doron is a Loabour Councillor and Cabinet Adviser on Carbon Reduction at the London Borough of Haringey, he is also the author of the Fabian Society pamphlet ‘Green Europe’ and a SERA Executive Member. This ‘Feature’ by Natan Doron originally featured in the Spring 2016 New Ground. The views expressed in New Ground are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the editor, SERA its executive or its members. If you would like to contribute to future editions, please contact Melanie Smallman, Co-Chair at email@example.com.