Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, and me: The man who invented left-wing Euroscepticism tells us why he thinks Corbyn really favours Brexit

John Mills / JMLJohn Mills: ‘Jeremy is on the left of the party so he is more exercised about this than a lot of other people in the Labour party might be.’

  • John Mills has been campaigning to get Britain out of the EU for 40 years.
  • Mills wrote a series of Eurosceptic economic papers that were much admired by the late Tony Benn, the socialist MP who came to loathe the EU.
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn worked for Benn in the 1981 election for deputy leader of the Labour party.
  • We asked Mills if Corbyn’s current tactics on Brexit might have their roots in his old alliance with Benn.

LONDON – If you have been baffled by Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit tactics recently, you are not alone. Officially, Labour’s policy is to demand the impossible: to leave the EU but retain the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Failing that, Labour wants to force a general election, in the belief that Corbyn can replace Theresa May as prime minister and get a better deal than the one she has put before parliament.

And failing that, the party’s line is to call for a second referendum or a “people’s vote.”

But Corbyn has not built a majority in parliament – or even among his own party MPs – for any of these policies, even though May’s plan has been defeated. His performance has left some questioning his motives.

Some suspect Corbyn quietly favours Brexit more than May does. (She voted Remain; some people say he might not have even though he says he did).

Corbyn’s critics believe he would be pleased if Britain left the EU without a deal because it would free the country from Europe’s laws on “state aid,” which place certain limits on the powers of governments to nationalise industries or companies. Labour is committed to nationalising Britain’s rail, energy, water and mail companies.

What if Corbyn’s “ineffectiveness” at toppling Prime Minister Theresa isn’t a weakness but a strategy?

If you believe this scenario, then Corbyn’s “ineffectiveness” at toppling Prime Minister Theresa isn’t a weakness, it’s a strategy: He wants May to handle the unpopular details of Brexit. The exit from the EU will inevitably be economically damaging. Let May take the blame for the mess, so Labour can step in as a new government with a socialist program unfettered by the bureaucracy of Brussels.

I discussed this scenario recently with John Mills, the former chair of the pro-Brexit Labour Leave campaign. Mills has some insight into Corbyn’s thinking because both of them circled in the orbit of the late socialist Eurosceptic MP Tony Benn, who was a huge influence on Corbyn’s thinking. Significantly, Mills has spent 40 years campaigning for Britain to leave the EU, after first developing a distaste for what used to be called the “European Economic Community” in the early 1960s.

“I think Jeremy Corbyn is still rather in that frame of mind,” the 81-year-old says. “I think it was one which was shared by Tony Benn. Tony Benn was particularly exorcised about lack of democracy in the European Union, and that’s another theme that has been running through the left critique of it.”

The roots of the theory go back to the early 1970s, and Corbyn’s alliance with Benn, the legendary, charming, left-wing Labour MP who was a cabinet minister in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Corbyn’s support for Benn became historically important in 1981, when Corbyn worked for Benn’s campaign to become deputy leader of the Labour party. Benn lost by a margin of less than 1% of all votes cast. Corbyn was only 32 years old, and not yet an MP. It is not a stretch to think that the experience must have taught Corbyn that electing an unapologetically socialist Labour party leader was, under the right circumstances, only a hair’s breadth away.

(Also working on that campaign was a young activist named Jon Lansman. He is now 61, and better-known as the founder of Momentum, the left-wing insurgent group that organised 69-year-old Corbyn’s successful bids for the Labour leadership in 2015 and 2017, fulfilling the Bennite promise 34 years later.)

Benn “was a slave in chains in Brussels, and I loathed it when I saw what it was about”

Benn was a famous Eurosceptic. He told biographer Jad Adams that as a minister he “was a slave in chains in Brussels, and I loathed it when I saw what it was about.”

Benn died in 2014, aged 88. In an effort to understand the roots of Corbyn’s Euroscepticism – and the difficulty he now has running a party whose members are probably 88% in favour of the EU – I looked for some old speeches by Benn.

In this one, from about 2008 when Benn was 82, Benn makes a strong case that the EU is “absolutely undemocratic” because it is run by commissioners who aren’t elected. He then – at the 9.40 mark – pays tribute to John Mills, who is sitting beside him on the platform. “John’s reports are brilliant. I don’t know if you collect them but I’ve kept every one he’s ever written. I’m going to publish the collected works of John Mills one day because it sets the whole case out so clearly.”

Mills is the founder of JML, a consumer products company that has the rights to sell the Snuggie in the UK, and has been a major donor to the Labour party in addition to being a long-serving Labour councillor in the North London borough of Camden. He is also a prolific writer on economics and published a series of eurosceptic papers over the years – which Benn devoured. He is best-known for favouring a devaluation of sterling, which would (in theory) make British exports more competitive, and rebalance the UK economy more toward manufacturing. He also appears in several scenes of the Benedict Cumberbatch movie “The Uncivil War,” played by the actor Nicholas Day, although he says the portrayal of him was inaccurate.

Mills is thus an exceedingly rare beast in British politics: A businessman, a socialist, and pro-Leave. (He was the chair of the anti-EU Labour Leave group, in fact.)

“I was a Labour candidate in the 1979 European [parliament] elections and Tony Benn came up and supported me then. And, you know, I’ve been doing these bulletins every other month for years and years and years, and he obviously appreciated those. I’m not sure how big an influence I had on Tony Benn’s thinking but I think he certainly read the stuff that I produced,” he told Business Insider.

Brexit might liberate a Labour government from EU “state aid” rules

I asked him if he believes that Corbyn might be thinking that dropping out of the EU would liberate a Labour government from state aid rules and enable it to pursue a policy of “socialism in one country.”

“I think he probably does,” Mills told us. “I think the issue about the extent to which the EU would stop a Labour government implementing state aid-type policies, there is quite a bit of controversy about this. I think at an extreme level it certainly would do. But at a more moderate level, I’m not so sure it would [make much difference]. I think it depends on what sort of policies should be pursued. Jeremy is on the left of the party so he is more exorcised about this than a lot of other people in the Labour party might be.”

Corbyn’s political base – Islington in North London – is next door to the constituency Mills served in Camden from 1971 to 2006. “Over the years I’ve bumped into him from time to time. I don’t know Jeremy Corbyn well but I certainly knew him, and I think he would have known who I was and so on, well before he became the leader of the Labour party.”

Corbyn is “trapped” as the leader of a party whose membership he now personally opposes

Jeremy corbyn john mcdonnellGetty

He believes that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism is little-changed since Benn’s heyday in the 1970s. “All his voting records certainly suggest that’s the case,” he said.

“The left of the Labour party has always been distrustful of the EU as being a sort of capitalist club, very much oriented toward neoliberalism economic thinking, very much against state aid, planning, nationalisation, which the left of the Labour party has always been about.”

But today, the vast majority of Labour MPs and party members, and around half its voters, are pro-Europe Remainers.

Corbyn’s problem, Mills believes, is that while the left has taken a 40-year-long arc to come back to power inside Labour, it has ascended at a time when the arc of Euroscepticism has bent the other way. Labour and the Conservatives have essentially switched sides on the Europe issue, leaving Corbyn “trapped” as the leader of a party whose membership he now personally opposes.

He can’t hold off that contradiction forever, Mills believes.”I think he is, as it were, trapped by the fact that [the party is largely pro-Remain] … as part of his leadership position, he can’t really question them in the way in which perhaps in the old days he might have done.”

“I think there’s going to come a time fairly soon where these issues are going to come to a head and he’s going to have to jump one way or the other,” Mills says.

“Reflecting on what’s happened over the last 40 or 50 years about the pull within the Labour party and the Conservative party for the whole EU project, in 1975 when I was first involved, the Conservatives split about 80/20 in favour of Europe, whereas the Labour party was pretty well half-and-half. Now it’s pretty much the other way around. The last 40 or 50 years has been an odyssey, where the Labour party has become more Europhile and the Conservative party becomes more and more Eurosceptic. And this caught all of us out. It has caught us all up, over this long period of time, and perhaps Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn as well as me,” he says.

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