Jeremy Corbyn is to urge supporters to back the European Union “warts and all” as he tries to allay fears among remain campaigners that a failure to motivate Labour voters could leave Britain at risk of crashing out of the EU.
The party leader’s long-trailed intervention in the debate over the UK’s future comes as former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called on Labour to issue a “clarion call” to its supporters, warning that he believed the June referendum could now be lost.
Corbyn, a long-time critic of the EU, will tell an audience at the TUC’s London headquarters that he still has concerns about how the union works but believes it is the best way of tackling major global challenges such as climate change.
“You cannot build a better world unless you engage with the world, build allies and deliver change. The EU, warts and all, has proved itself to be a crucial international framework to do that,” he will say.
Anxiety that Corbyn is failing to make the case strongly enough to voters persists among many of the party’s MPs.
Wirral South MP Alison McGovern said: “For many people in areas that vote Labour pretty strongly – Merseyside, Manchester, Sheffield – it’s quite clear that people need to stay in the EU, because much of the redevelopment, regeneration of those cities has been led by the EU. My constituents’ jobs depend on this; that’s why I feel passionate about it. The leader of the Labour party needs to be leading from the front.”
Corbyn’s advisers stress that the official referendum campaign has not yet begun; but some Labour MPs – just like the prime minister – are already travelling the country making the case for Britain to stay in.
Some around the Labour leader calculate that identifying himself too closely with the remain camp, led by David Cameron, could do long-lasting damage to Labour’s reputation. The party was all but wiped out in Scotland in last year’s general election after joining the anti-independence campaign in 2014.
The Labour leader’s team is also keen not to detract attention from the party’s campaign for the Scottish, London and local elections in May, which will be seen as a crucial test of Corbyn’s leadership.
Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, plans to visit 15 cities across the UK in May to urge Labour activists to work for a remain vote. But the Labour leader’s decision to criticise the taxpayer-funded pro-EU leaflets sent out by the government may also stoke fears that he is less than fully committed to the cause.
A spokesman said: “Jeremy is of the view that there should have been an even approach to the information to allow everyone to make an informed decision.”
With less than three months to go before the referendum, former Lib Dem leader Clegg, one of the most overtly pro-EU figures in British politics, told the Guardian: “Of course it could be lost.”
“Principally but not exclusively, the Labour party needs to set out a much, much clearer, clarion call signal to all non-Conservative, Labour voters that they are unambiguously pro Europeans, so it is good that Jeremy Corbyn is giving a speech,” he said.
Clegg said the Labour leader ought to go further, calling on him to share a platform with Tony Blair, in a dramatic bid to reach out to the full breadth of the party.
“But I think after the local elections, I’d love to see Gordon Brown, Jeremy Corbyn, David Blunkett, Tony Blair – the whole lot of them up on a stage – photos on the front of every newspaper so that no one is in any doubt. Whatever dramatises the fact that the Labour party in particular [is pro EU].”
He warned that the election was being “reduced to a Tory drama” that was putting off voters across the country, including in his Sheffield constituency. “I notice this in my constituency in Sheffield – they don’t give a damn about Boris v Theresa v George v Dave, it is as if the whole thing has been reduced to a Conservative, internal family spat.”
Clegg argued that this would put off young voters, in particular, whose support could be vital to preventing Brexit. “The Tory drama is off-putting to most human beings, but it is especially off-putting for young people.”
The Labour leader campaigned against membership of the European economic community when it was put to a public referendum in 1975, and voted against the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties.
In Thursday’s speech, he will say: “When the last referendum was held in 1975, Europe was divided by the cold war, and what later became the EU was a much smaller, purely market-driven arrangement. Over the years I have continued to be critical of many decisions taken by the EU and I remain critical of its shortcomings, from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services.
“So, Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It’s perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member.”
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