When I joined the Labour Party as a wide-eyed 16-year old I’m pretty sure it was not with the aim of just being pragmatic. It was because governments of Thatcher and Major had made a mess of the town where I had grown up and there was a pressing urgency to do something. Blair – whatever his subsequent faults – was able to articulate a vision of a better, fairer and more optimistic future for the UK. It’s thanks in part to that vision that Labour swept to power in 1997.
Fast forward to 2011 and in the policy area I work with every day – EU politics – things could not be more different. Battered by the storms of the financial crisis, fearful of public opinion and a hostile press, and internally strained by having been in power for 13 years and not knowing how to move on, Labour seems to be stuck in a rut when it comes to the European Union. Douglas Alexander gave a big speech about Labour’s EU policy this week, a speech full of pragmatism and devoid of inspiration and vision. Dan Hodges on his Telegraph blog described the new policy as ‘cynical and opportunistic’. Peter Hoskin at Spectator Coffee House wrote a piece entitled ‘Alexander drags Labour closer towards the Tories on Europe‘, a view I echoed on LabourList and that prompted a response from Shadow Europe Minister Emma Reynolds.
The problem – in essence – is that Alexander’s approach takes far too much account of where UK-EU relations are right now, and tries to fit a Labour policy within those constraints. Public opinion hostile? Talk tough. Euro look like it’s in crisis? Rule out entry. Tories talking of repatriation? Try to sound a bit nicer, but propose a sovereignty check of your own. EU debate always framed in terms of national interest? Use those words yourself.
This might all be very well if Labour were facing an election in a 6 to 12 month timeframe. But that is not where we are; an election is 4 years away.
Labour instead – on EU matters as well as across all other policies – needs to go back to the basic values that are at the heart of why people joined the party, the very reasons that motivate people to vote Labour, and to develop new policies on that basis. These are the values of social democracy – protecting the vulnerable, setting the rules of markets so as to benefit the many not the few.
There are essentially two routes for Labour – to call for retreat from supranational cooperation within the EU and to be more lefty in the UK alone (unviable and unworkable in my view), or to work at EU level to ensure that rules are established to benefit those who need the protection – essentially calling for a more social EU. Alexander goes for neither of these, precisely the reason why his speech feels so flat.
It’s time to start taking the long view and to reflect on the values underpinning Labour’s engagement with the European Union, and perhaps even the values of the European Union itself.
Until we do that any discussion of Labour’s EU policy is destined to disappoint.