News: Jeremy Corbyn ‘overwhelmingly’ backs Britain staying in EU15 Apr 2016 Back
British workers face a “bonfire of rights” if voters plump for Brexit in June, Jeremy Corbyn has warned in his first major intervention in favour of the Remain side.
Speaking to an audience of young people in central London, the Labour leader warned that leaving the EU would give a carte blanche to the government to help unscrupulous employers.
“They'd dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it,” he said. “It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.”
Mr Corbyn's speech at Senate House in Bloomsbury marked the end of a long political journey on the issue of Europe. In 1975 he voted for Britain to leave the European Economic Community, in the spirit of many left-wingers of that generation.
Even last summer, during the leadership race for Labour, Mr Corbyn suggested that he could still come out in favour of Brexit, saying he had “mixed feelings” about the bloc.
After his election as Labour leader, he haggled for several days with Pat McFadden, the former business minister, over the party's stance on Europe.
In the end he agreed to back “Remain” as part of the negotiations surrounding the appointment of his first shadow cabinet in September: it was a precondition of Hilary Benn serving as his shadow foreign secretary.
On Thursday Mr Corbyn insisted repeatedly that his support for the EU was not “half-hearted”, but he acknowledged that he had ended up in the pro-EU camp because it was the “overwhelming” decision of the party and the trade unions that support it.
The Labour leader said he was still a critic of many aspects of the EU, including its lack of democratic accountability and its tendency to back the privatisation of public services.
But he said that only by working across the continent could European countries protect social and human rights, tackle climate change and clamp down on tax dodgers.
“Europe needs to change”, said Mr Corbyn. “But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It is perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member.”
David Cameron is relaying on Labour to mobilise its support behind the Remain campaign as opinion polls show that the race is still close.
The prime minister recognises that without the backing of the 9m people who voted Labour at the 2015 election, his attempt to keep Britain in the EU is likely to fail.
The final result on June 23 may depend on turnout, according to academics.
Mr Corbyn was urged to take a lead in the campaign by the vast majority of his MPs who support the Remain camp but who fear the party's supporters could stay at home on June 23.
Some Labour MPs are reporting a strong pro-Brexit message on the doorstep in their constituencies: the UK Independence party is making a strong push for a British exit in Labour heartlands with a message focused on immigration.
Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, is leading the party's In campaign, while Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, is also expected to intervene soon with a pitch to Labour voters.