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Labour should turn Europe into an electoral asset 27 February 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in Brussels, EU.
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Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander spoke to the British Labour Party Group last night, to an audience impressively swollen by the visiting Yorkshire branch of the European Movement. He made some key points that I think and hope show Labour is shaping up to win the next election on the basis that being in the EU is the way to create both prosperity at home and influence abroad.

Firstly, he pointed out that labour has a much more developed policy on Europe than the Tories do. Cameron has lost the electorate’s trust, because of the economy. He is weak, being driven hither and thither by the Eurosceptic wing of his party, rather than leading it. The speech on Europe that he tried so hard to avoid making was not about Europe at all but about holding Conservative Party together. If you listened hard, there were almost no commitments in it – the rhetoric of repatriation has been toned down so low it is practically inaudible – there is even no mention of taking away employees’ rights!

Growth Commissioner

In an interdependent world, ‘reform not repatriation’ was Alexander’s soundbite, but his speech was so deftly tailored that he left it to questioners to bring out what he actually meant by ‘reform’. He led with a push for growth and jobs. This would translate into a dedicated Growth Commissioner and growth impact assessments of all policies. Along with transparency and economic efficiency, he also, somewhat sotto voce, mentioned freedom of movement of labour.

To me he came over as reticent, not wanting to give away too much.(*) He was picked up on this by one perspicacious questioner, who pointed out that in the 2012 Dutch elections, PvdA leader Diederik Samson nearly doubled the party’s number of seats by reversing the conventional wisdom of the three other parties that there was no way Holland would contribute more to the Greek bailout. He said that those three promises would be the first three to be broken. Of course we must ensure the Greek bailout works, because if we allow the euro to fall apart, we will suffer ourselves.

Diederik Samson showed leadership on Europe, and rejected populism. I feel Labour should do the same. We should be clear that Britain is ineluctably a part of Europe – and not leave it to visiting American diplomats to make that point. Europe is good for Britain! If it didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it! Yet we are hiding our light under a bushel. It was Richard Corbett, from his vantage point in President Barroso’s cabinet, who noted that it is only Labour’s refusal to cave in to pressure for an in/out referendum is what gives multinational capital the confidence to keep investing in Britain.

Douglas Alexander says that what he learnt from talking to Diederik Samson was not to believe the opinion polls – 10 minutes’ debate will bring voters round on Europe. Labour should become more straightforwardly pro-European.

* To be fair, Douglas Alexander set out Labour’s position on Europe in great detail in his speech at Chatham House on 17th January. The Q&A session is also online.

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1. Ian Symonds - 27 February 2013

I sincerely hope that Labour do take an openly pro-European position at the next election. But I have to say I am not confident that will happen. It’s one thing giving nods and winks to (I imagine) a largely sympathetic audience in Brussels and quite another to risk vilification by large sections of the UK press during an election campaign.

I agree that Cameron’s recent speech was very nuanced, more about the Conservatives dressing up in some of UKIP’s clothes to prevent attrition of voters to their rivals than a serious new position on Europe. Even on the euro, Cameron commented recently that the UK would not join ‘while I am Prime Minister’. So no hostages to fortune there.

Opinion polls suggest that for most people Europe is not actually a major issue compared with the economy, employment, health and so on. The policy of Labour, the Lib Dems and even moderate Tories appears to be to talk tough but kick the issue into touch.

A safer strategy would be subtly to try to win hearts and minds on Europe by emphasising the undoubted benefits it has brought and continues to bring: not bringing peace and stability since the last war, important though that it is, but employment rights, environmental standards and other benefits that directly affect the ordinary voter. (Alas UK voters have yet to see many benefits of borderless Europe enjoyed by our partners – no need to change money or queue at immigration when holidaying on the Mediterranean!)

Labour could also stress the important role that the UK plays in European decision making to try and defuse the tedious ‘us and them’ arguments.

For the sake of our country, I hope that the rise of UKIP will prompt those who are committed to Europe to be more proactive in setting the terms of the debate in future.


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