This former Labour MP admits he would vote against his party, if it aided the anti-Brexit cause.
In politics there is a permanent and healthy tension between pure political tribal loyalty and a sense of a wider national interest. Labour did not pause for a second in 1940 before entering into an alliance with trade union-hating Tory politicians to save Britain, indeed Europe, from fascism.
Ten years later, Labour could not bear the idea that the Tories were the main vectors of European integration and that Winston Churchill, with a series of speeches in favour of European unity and integration, had somehow found his feet again after the crushing defeat of pre-war Toryism in 1945.
Denis Healey, then the Labour Party’s international secretary, wrote pamphlets and speeches for party leaders denouncing Europe as a catholic capitalist plot to undermine British socialism.
By 1951 British voters were not interested in such tribalism and left Labour in the wilderness for 13 years. And it took a further 23 years before Labour came to terms with the existence of Europe and adopted a sensible pro-European position, in line with all the continent’s socialist and social democrat parties.
Labour’s anti-Tory tribalism did not extend to defence, and the Tories supported NATO and the alliance of western democracies set up by Labour statesmen between 1945 and 1950.
Now the country is faced with as grave a dilemma as any faced in the 1940s. In essence, do we allow the UKIP fellow travellers in the government and press to finally and fully amputate us from our friends and allies across the Channel, as well as the North and Irish Seas.
That Theresa May will be returned as Prime Minister on June 9 is not in doubt. The only question is whether the House of Commons will have enough MPs until 2022 ready to speak up and vote against the xenophobia and the economic devastation to jobs and to all citizens’ right to live, love, travel and work on the same basis as others in Europe that the Daily Mail-Telegraph-UKIP-Boris Johnson axis of Brexit implies?
It is not just a question for Labour. The Liberal Democrats have to decide if they want to split the anti-Brexit vote by standing against Catherine West in Hornsey and Wood Green. Tim Farron tries to portray himself as the leader of the anti-Brexit forces. If so he should show leadership by making clear Lib Dem votes should back anti-Brexit MPs like West.
Equally, Labour should think carefully before endorsing tribalism. In 2001, anxious to ensure an enduring Labour majority I published a list of seats where there was not a cat in hell’s chance of the party winning, but where Lib Dems had been a strong second in 1997. I left it to the intelligent Labour voter to decide what conclusions to draw.
My reasoning was that the more Lib Dem MPs there were in the Commons the fewer Tory ones there would be, and that formula kept Labour in power until 2010 – in contrast to the more tribalist 1960s and 1970s when the party never managed more than five or six years in government.
Labour friends predictably denounced me just as they are denouncing Tony Blair today but Labour tribalism is the secret weapon the Tories rely on. Blair has tried to straddle the gulf between tactical voting and his natural allegiance to the party he served for decades, winning three elections and putting more Labour MPs into the Commons than ever before.
‘For me this is a matter of my tribe, I’m Labour,’ Blair told the Irish Times last week. ‘But I think, like I have said recently, that the reality of this election, if the polls are right, is that the Tories will win. Mrs May will remain prime minister. The question is: do you have a sufficiently strong opposition to hold them to account, whether Labour or Lib Dem or whatever?’ he argues.
Of course there are times in the whole Brexit debate when many wish Blair and Nick Clegg would denounce Europe, as anything they are against millions suddenly find reasons to support. That is unfair as both men have been speaking sound sense against Tory-UKIP isolationism, but too much of the anti-Brexit political energy since last June has had more than a touch of All Our Yesterday’s Men.
Hopefully once the election is out of the way a new generation of political voices will emerge than can campaign on Europe not in terms of party advantage, or party fears, but a wider national interest. But when we have a Labour Party and leadership that is – to put it politely – uncertain and confused about how to handle Europe, then it is up to individual party members and voters to decide for themselves.
Casting a tribal vote that elects an isolationist MP who will back policies guaranteed to cause workers to lose jobs and incomes and deny to tomorrow’s citizens the rights of other Europeans seems wrong.
There is no disloyalty in a seat held by an isolationist MP, and where the candidate of your own party stands no chance of winning, in voting for someone who is not utterly alien to your beliefs and can perhaps dislodge a fanatical anti-European.
I first stood for the Labour Party in a general election in 1974. I cannot imagine myself not voting for the party, but if I lived in a seat where a Labour MP had lined up with UKIP in a populist campaign of hate against fellow Europeans I would have no hesitation in voting against that candidate.
I would vote Lib Dem in Richmond to keep out the moneybags anti-European Tory candidate and keep a pro-European in the Commons, given there is no chance of Labour winning. And if I were Lib Dem in Wakefield or Wolverhampton I would not split the pro-European vote by voting to oust a principled pro-European Labour MP.
Because in the end we are members of more than one tribe. Two of mine are Labour and fellow anti-isolationists. Where I live my vote is close to meaningless, as the majority of the MP in my constituency has been unassailable for decades. But were I to have a vote in an area where it could make a difference between sending a pro-European and not an anti-European to the Commons I would not hesitate for a second.
Denis MacShane was the Labour MP for Rotherham from 1994-2012 and stood for Labour in Solihull 1974. He was Minister for Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe published by IB Tauris