Knowing Me, Knowing EU: Labour's policy on Europe

22 Jul 2014

The Cabinet reshuffle last week showed the government to be increasingly brazenly Eurosceptic. The replacement of William Hague with Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, and the promotion of Michael Fallon to Defence Secretary, who argued on the Todayprogramme that the UK is unarguably a 'Eurosceptic' nation, is the surest sign yet that the Conservatives are going all out for a 'No' vote if they get their precious referendum in 2017.

 

In my view, the next Tory government is ready, and believes it would have sufficient backing, to make the argument that we should vote no – I don’t believe Cameron is as committed to being 'in' as he professes in speeches on the subject. No matter how large our population as a proportion of the European Union, there is no chance that we would be allowed to undermine the basic tenets of the European project, including free movement and human rights, potentially overruling the will of 27 other nations, just to prevent a 'Brexit'. No Prime Minister deliberately enters an unwinnable 'battle' unless he or she believes he can get something out of it. Therefore Cameron must have an ulterior motive. Barring a few exceptions, the Conservative Party - and now the Cabinet - have a policy on Europe determined by ideology, dressed up as the desire of the silent majority.

Where does this leave Labour?

Ever since the Lisbon Treaty, Europe has been a hot potato. The Labour response to the pro- and anti-EU debate ('Eurosceptic' and 'Europhile' both being objectionable and misleading terms) has been timid and uncertain. Scared of alienating those voters who oppose the EU from a left-wing perspective, and even more wary of sidelining the little Englanders on the right, the party has only been able to mumble platitudes about the voters being more worried about the economy and jobs than constitutional wrangles. This is true on the face of it, however that does not mean certain areas of public life should be closed down for debate while we sort out the economy. The public also now sees the links, be they real or perceived, between the EU and other issues which affect them, be they jobs, immigration, even health. Labour needs to have a position.

However, Labour can gain the upper hand by taking a simple approach. By basing their policy on Europe on a rational cost-benefit analysis, with a nod to Labour tradition and patriotism, the party can show itself to be the safe, mature alternative to the Tories, who are flocking to the UKIP banner, and the Liberal Democrats, who for many are far too pro-Europe. Using the jargon of the business world may seem slightly slimy to some, but for many more it will chime with the sorts of decisions they must make every day, and indicate a level of dispassionate, objective decision-making. Essentially, I am arguing for policymaking on Europe as it should, in an ideal world, be made on every issue.

Labour's position needs to demonstrate it has not been decided upon through political positioning. Conversely, one way to achieve this may be for Ed Miliband to take the initiative by breaking the iron rule of political parties in Opposition - something Ed has managed to avoid thus far - in allowing backbench members of the PLP and Shadow Cabinet ministers to disagree with him on Europe, as was the case in the 1975 referendum. This way he will not only be showing authenticity, he will also be letting off some political steam, and reflecting the evenly split mood of the country, according to polling. Polling tends to show a higher proportion of people from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds are for leaving the EU than in other income bands. Therefore, allowing Labour voices concerned about Europe to be heard will attract former Labour supporters lost to Nigel Farage's party. The spike in support for UKIP masks the varying reasons for disillusionment with the main parties, and on Europe only disillusionment from a right-wing perspective has been elaborated by the media.

Contrary to some, who say Miliband will have to pledge a referendum at some point, I think he absolutely cannot go back on his word. He should only promise a referendum on EU membership if there is substantial treaty change, and he should not be afraid to define his terms - unlike Cameron.

Labour needs to be open about where it thinks the EU is going wrong, particularly in areas that are actually in the Tories' interests, for example the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) being agreed by the EU Commission. Similarly to Miliband's stance on the running of the railways announced this week, Labour would do well to shout about TISA and the worries surrounding the impact that it could have on the NHS. Cons such as these need to be weighed against the pros of continuing as a member of the EU on a transparent balance sheet - a far more reliable and democratic way to approach policy on the issue than the Prime Minister's 3-year poker game.

Instead of pandering to Obama’s false statesmanlike persona, Ed Miliband should be seen with Angela Merkel - still riding a wave of popularity even before the World Cup - and other European leaders. He should argue that remaining in the EU would itself solve the issue of power being concentrated in any one place. This, coupled with the results of his carefully weighed-up analysis of the cases for and against Europe, would have implications on the Scottish referendum, and save the trickle of Labour supporters there pouring over to the SNP. Backing from the Labour leadership for the EU should form part of a consistent overall package of taking power away from Westminster, up, out and down - incorporating further devolution to the nations and regions of the UK, local communities, and yes - whisper it - even local councils and trade unions.

One reason Labour has been quiet and non-committal on a European position is the justifiable fear of a repeat of the 'British jobs for British workers' slogan made by Gordon Brown, a nervous and poorly formulated reaction to the desertion of many working-class 'old Labour' voters from the party into apathy or, in some cases, the far-right. Labour should now champion the EU as a provider of jobs, and be unafraid to explain to voters that if they know a young person who has been undercut by low-skilled migrants from Eastern Europe, that this is not the fault of free movement of labour, but of the UK government, which has failed a generation in terms of training opportunities, wages and the erosion of workers' rights. Labour needs to combine the long tradition of patriotism on the Left of British politics with the realisation that to criticise the British government in favour of the EU is not to be anti-British, anti-British worker, or unpatriotic - these are just the economic realities. It would be a terrible diversion from the real roots of the problems faced by young people to throw the EU baby out with the Coalition bathwater.

Labour should also be talking up the way the EU has benefited the UK. Poorer parts of the UK - areas like south Wales and the north east – have seen massive injections of funding from the European Union, improving communities and economic sectors like transport on which jobs rely. Labour should suggest that perhaps this is the reason overall numbers of people in work are at a record high - including hardworking immigrants - rather than the driving down of wages overseen by the Coalition. For example, European Social Funds and Objective One funding has benefited the Cornish tourist industry exponentially, with 76% of local businesses reporting a rise in the levels of staff skills, and many planning to expand or recruit as a result of ESF.

Labour has a real opportunity to be the most attractive party for voters on the question of Europe leading up to the general election. The Tories, as on so many other issues in this Parliament, have claimed to be reflecting the views of the centre while tacking to the right - caring more about party than principle. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP proved that they represent the extremes of opinion during their debate leading up to the European elections. With an objective, rational policy on the EU that accepts the centre-left arguments for and against the project, and which still takes pride in uniquely British desires and identities, Labour can win the argument on Europe.

By Luke Jones

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