It’s been a good piece of short-term political entertainment watching the Tory Party rip itself apart on Europe tonight in the House of Commons. It’s good for the country to be reminded that a substantial slice of Tory backbench opinion are obsessed by an issue which a recent poll found was 22nd in importance amongst the public. Where was this degree of passion or anger when the NHS was being dismantled, or as the economy has flatlined? Even though the public probably agree with the Tory Europhobes on the issue, the batty, indeed often comic, speeches by Blimpish backwoodsmen help remind voters how downright odd some Tories are.
It’s good to be reminded that far from Cameron creating a Tory mirror image of New Labour and seizing the centre ground, he presides over a deeply divided party where many MPs have never got over Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration as leader, and want to triangulate with UKIP rather than Labour. It’s good to have a demonstration that this is effectively a three-party Coalition of Lib Dems, Thatcherites and Cameroons, with a PM who is only wholeheartedly backed by a small minority in the Commons. The fact that it’s the Tory Hard Right who are obsessed with Europe gives the game away on the motives for their scepticism – it’s only partly about xenophobia and a Little England viewpoint, it’s as motivated by an extreme free market viewpoint that doesn’t want any of the social agenda, regional economic growth packages, workplace rights, human rights and health and safety regulations that come with EU membership. That free market extremists hate it is a good recommendation for the EU for me.
I’m glad Europe is no longer a deeply divisive issue in the Labour Party. We did our share of internecine warfare in the 1970s on this question, with our own rebels being the 69 pro-Europeans who voted with the Tories to join the Common Market on 28 October 1971.
But where’s the passion on the pro-European side either on the Government benches or the Labour ones? Most of the speeches I am watching from the Labour side of the House are from our tiny minority of Eurosceptics, not from MPs who represent mainstream Labour pro-European thinking.
We shouldn’t choose to fight on this issue given, as stated above, it ranks 22nd in public resonance. When Labour chooses what to debate, we should focus on the economy and defending public services. But when confronted with a debate about Europe we shouldn’t play it with a dead bat, offering merely technocratic responses.
If we carry on like that, if there ever was a referendum, we would get thrashed because we had never confronted the emotional nationalism of the Europhobic right with an emotional internationalism and Europeanism that says real patriotism is about working with other like-minded countries to build a more prosperous and peaceful continent.
The arguments for Europe are no-brainers. Playing games with our EU membership would ruin our economy, which is based on trade with our EU partners and inward investment which would switch off if we were out of Europe; it would reduce our punching power in global diplomacy, which is predicated on our being a player in multiple teams (EU, NATO, Commonwealth); it would allow free market fundamentalists to unpick all the progressive social measures that have been developed in Brussels.
Labour’s pro-Europeans need to be louder and prouder in debates like this, both in Parliament and outside it in our Party and in our Communities. We need to recapture the passionate European voice that people like John Smith and Roy Hattersley articulated courageously in the 1970s and ‘80s at considerable risk to their own standing in the Party.
A good start would be if all of who care about this:
- Joined the Labour Movement for Europe so that the network of pro-Europeans in the Party is as strong as possible
- Invite a pro-EU speaker to your CLP – your regional Labour MEP is usually a good starting point
- Take part in a debate within your local Party with an anti-European so that local members engage with the issue
- Write to the press and blog and tweet our views about this
We can’t allow the important debate about our country’s future relationship with our neighbours to be dominated by a loud caucus of mainly very rightwing nationalists.