Voting to remain in the European Union on 23 June is “the only hope the left has” of achieving social democratic aims such as fairer trade and tougher action on climate change, leftwing Labour MPs and peers argue in a letter to the Guardian.
The group was brought together by Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South and a prominent backbench supporter of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in response to concerns that the mainstream remain campaign was too closely identified with the Conservatives.
“This is not Cameron or the Tories’ Europe. This is a Europe inspired by the social and democratic values of Labour,” the letter says. “The choice is not exit or surrender, but how we transform Europe.
“Sovereignty has long escaped national borders and is never coming back. As tough as it is, we have to create a transnational democratic political and economic union. It is the only hope the left has. If the EU didn’t exist we would build it now – different and better, yes – but we would still build it.”
Signatories include Corbynite backbenchers such as Rebecca Long-Bailey and Cat Smith, but also the shadow energy and climate change secretary, Lisa Nandy, Labour peers including Ruth Lister and the former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett.
Lewis said he was conscious that many Labour voters were deeply sceptical about the EU’s role, including in the negotiation of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal with the US that some fear could hand more power to multinational companies.
There is also concern that Labour big beasts such as Alistair Darling and David Miliband, who have made their own contributions to the debate, will fail to win over the new, young members who have joined Labour since last year’s general election.
“David Cameron can appeal to Conservative supporters. It’s Labour supporters that are going to keep us in Europe, and we know up to half of them are not planning to go out and vote, and that’s bad news for the ‘in’ campaign,” Lewis said.
The letter says the UK can only fight for changes to TTIP, or for other progressive measures such as better protection for refugees, from inside the EU. “We are going to vote for Europe to change Europe,” it says.
That argument echoes remarks made by Corbyn in his first major speech on the issue last Thursday. The Labour leader enumerated his longstanding criticisms of the EU, but insisted voters should still back it “many warts and all”, because global cooperation was the only way to tackle 21st-century challenges such as climate change.
Some have accused Corbyn, a long-time Eurosceptic, of being half-hearted in his support for the remain campaign, but those around him believe there are risks in being too closely associated with an argument whose most prominent advocate is the prime minister.
Scepticism about the EU as a pro-market, neoliberal project has been underlined on the left in recent years by the tough austerity measures imposed on the Greek government as a condition of bailouts from its fellow EU members.
Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, another signatory to the letter, have been won over by the arguments of the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who is fiercely critical of EU institutions but insists the best way to reform is to remain inside.
Varoufakis told a recent Guardian live event that a British exit from the EU could make the crisis in Europe worse and leave the UK unable to influence Brussels. At the same time, Britain would still be subject to many of its decisions – a situation he described as “the worst of all possible worlds”.
Varoufakis, together with and allies from across Europe, including the Green MP Caroline Lucas, has formed a new grouping called DiEM25, which to push for radical reform of the EU from within.
Once May’s local elections are over, leftwing Labour MPs are expected to work more closely with other progressive groups, including the Green party, to campaign for a remain vote in the referendum alongside a push for EU reform.
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