3 things you need to know about Labour and Europe

January 17, 2013 1:45 pm

Ed Miliband was on the Today Programme this morning in an appearance that was dominated by Europe, and this evening Douglas Alexander is giving a speech on Labour’s Europe policy at Chatham House. Miliband has gotten a bit of a pasting from the lobby for Labour’s failure to either back or oppose an EU referendum. But there’s more to Labour’s position than the (broadly Eurosceptic) media response has given credit for. Here are 3 things you should bear in mind when thinking about Labour and Europe:

It’s the economy, stupid – Everything, we are repeatedly told, comes down to the economy. All other policy areas are subjugated to it, and economic credibility is, in the eyes of many commentators, the defining factor heading into the 2015 election. Yet Labour’s position goes out of its way to stand up for the British economy – and gets panned anyway. Having a referendum this year could send the markets into a panic and see an exodus of major companies from Britain. Yet delaying a referendum for 5/6 years (in part because Cameron doesn’t have the votes to call a referendum now) will leave a cloud over British business for years.  A referendum campaign lasting nearly half a decade – besides boring the electorate witless  – could slow growth. And with the economy stagnating, that’s the last thing we can afford.

Europe isn’t a big issue for Labour – our relationship with the continent (socially, politically and economically) is hugely important for Britain. But for whatever reason it is rarely a big issue within the Labour Party. Partially that’s because being pro-Europe is Labour’s settled position, but it’s also because few if any people joined the Labour Party because of Europe. It’s not an animating or defining issue for Labour members and activists in the same way that it is for the Tories. In Labour Party meetings, we’d rather talk about housing and the NHS. That’s reflected in Labour’s policy towards Europe – because at least within the party, there’s very little political capital to be won out of taking a firm line either way on Europe or a referendum. I’d like to see Labour commit to a referendum in 2015 – but I’m somewhat rare in the party by even havng a strong opinion on the matter.

Party interest or National interest? – Because the Labour Party is somewhat Euro-ambuivalent, and there’s little in the polling to suggest that Europe is the major motivating factor for Labour/ex-Labour/potential Labour voters, the party is largely left to argue in the national interest (or at the very least in the interests of British business – which are, of course, not always the same thing). The Tories meanwhile have taken a position almost entirely on the basis of internal party (and coalition) considerations. Therefore Labour will be taking every opportunity to frame its position as “in the national interest” and “One Nation”, whilst the Tory position will be branded as “low politics”. That’s summed up by a section of Douglas Alexander’s speech tonight, where he will say:

“The roots of tomorrow’s speech lie much more in the politics of the Conservative Party, than in foreign policy. And its origins lie in weakness, not in strength. The real tragedy of tomorrow’s speech is that David Cameron’s Party won’t let him address the undoubted need for change in the EU in a sensible way. We have a Prime Minister who simply cannot reconcile the demands of his party, with the needs of his country.”

Expect that line – that this about the Tory party not the needs of the country – to be Labour’s attack line in the months and years ahead (not least because it paints Cameron as weak, weak weak).

Crucially though, Labour’s stance on the referendum is still up in the air, and although Douglas Alexander’s speech tonight looks like it will provide an informed critique of what is wrong with David Cameron’s plan, it certainly won’t rule out (or in) any future Labour support for a referendum. Whilst I understand the logic behind that position, personally I’d rather settle the issue, steal the PM’s thunder and ensure this issue is settled sooner rather than later (perhaps on election day 2015).

Because once the referendum is a political reality, with a date and a question, we’ll have to support it whether we want it or not…

  • Amber_Star

    Labour will out manoeuvre the Tories on this EU ‘political trap’, just like we did on welfare uprating.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Doran/735297773 Kevin Doran

    Fair comment but we shouldnt be bounced into a referendum pledge.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    I don’t think there will be a referendum. Let the Tories bicker about this as they inevitably will, remembering that when the election comes, only UKIP supporters or those attracted to them will vote based on the EU. Then lets carry on with what I think makes sense – a pragmatic approach to the EU, which is Labour’s traditional approach in government. Cameron can’t announce anything before the next election other than vague promises, and Merkel doesn’t want a treaty change at this stage so nothing automatic will be triggered

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Graeme-Hancocks/1156294498 Graeme Hancocks

    Cameron is right only in so far as “the boil needs lancing. Labour need to seize the initiative on a Referendum – especially as Cameron’s speech has now been delayed again – and come out fighting strongly for reform and our continued membership of E.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    All that Cameron and the Tories are about is that they are loosing in the opinon polls.
    I see that they are saometimes dipping below 30% which is significant.
    Meanwhile UKIP is on the rise and has taken a slice off the Tory vote.
    All that the Tory bickering is really about is how much minimum concenssion different groups within the Tory brand consider that they can make in order to win back a chunk of the UKIP vote. End of.
    Labour should now be strongly pointing out all fo the economic benefits of Europe as well as the other benefits on issues such as national security etc. Sadly the media has in some cases run a huge campaigne of disinformation and knee jerk little-England mentality that has appealed to the lowest common denominator of the electrorate.
    It would be really useful for Labour to be on the winning side of the economic argument and when Labour can attrack the support of business then the Tories loose their very basis and suffer a 1997 type of landslide wipeout.
    What is really important though is that
    1. Labour is putting forward a strong argument and position, not just pointing out Tory failure and then being silent about “what would Labour do”?
    2.We attack the Tories for putting business interest and national security second to Tory Party interests, rather than get personal about Cameron’s weakness. If Labour can put the winning arguments forward then Cameron can look more stupid by hanging himself on his own rope.
    In all of this the danger that I see for Labour is that if the Tories go the whole hog on anti-Europe and knife Cameron, put in place a right wing thug (Gove or some other lunitic) get a huge support of the press and Sky TV etc. wipe out the UKIP vote and call an election. If they did that quickly they might win outright, and have a mandate for even more extreme policies.
    Ed M rightly supported the findings of Levison, so Labour can expect no favours from the media. That actually puts the whole future of democracy in the UK at stake.

    • AlanGiles

      The idea of Michael Gove as PM really does raise the prospect of “Carry On Westminster”. What a pity Kenneth Williams isn’t alive to play the role – he was made for it.

  • robertcp

    Europe was a divisive issue for Labour in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the main reasons for the SDP split in 1981 was Labour’s policy of leaving the EU (EC?). Labour abandoned that policy before the 1987 General Election and only became pro-European in the late 1980s. It was then more than a decade after the referendum of 1975 and Britain’s future was clearly within the EU. Bizarrely, that was when the Tories started moving from a pro-European to an anti-European stance.

    I do not care if we have a referendum on the EU but will be voting to stay in if we have one.

    • Jeremy_Preece

      And in such a referendum I too would vote for Britain to stay within the EU. However I do care about referendum as I think that it is a piece of devisive policy that has been whipped up by the media and has all been about silly things.
      For example the EU and the shape of bananas, but more to do withthe idea that the EU is some kind of evil anti democratic force of nasty Jonny Foreigners who want to take away Briatins soverign rights such as
      1. The right to offer any protection for working people in law at all
      2. The right to throw sewerage into the sea off our coastlines
      3. The rigth for fisherment fo each country to go out and fish species to extinction within a year or two.
      In other words most of the EU regulations are very sensible and offer the sort of protections that this present nasty government are trying to take away – and I migth add, without democratic mandate.

      • robertcp

        I agree with the points you make and I am confident that the British people will also agree if we have a referendum.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

    I found what Miliband was quoted as saying on BBC R4 quite good. He said that Labour should not oppose the repatriation of powers which would give us greater control of industrial policy. I love that the concept of a proper industrial policy might be back on the table in the Labour Party.

    • rekrab

      12% of GDP seems to be from our manufacturing sector, so we have a long way to go to build up our industrial power and it seems to me that we’d need to implode the ideals of protectionism to do so.

  • Daniel Speight

    And yet the reluctance of the pro-European politicians to hold a referendum, rightly or wrongly, gives a public perception that our political class is not prepared to trust the citizens of this country. It empowers the likes of Farage and the far right.

    If staying in the EU is the right course of action for both social and economic reasons let’s give the public those arguments. If we need to change some parts of the EU system let’s fight for that publicly. The danger of the political class fearing the public is that it could lead to an even further swing to the right and the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater.

    The Cruddas suggestion needs to be looked at and unless a good reason can be made for not trusting the public, it should be followed. At times there is the smell of anarchy and guillotines in air with the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude of our MPs.

  • Monkey_Bach

    There should be no discussion of any kind of future referendum in respect to European matters when the continent and our own country is convulsed by socio-economic catastrophe. Too many people have been unbalanced and disturbed by the economic crises, whipped up by the media’s coverage of it, and are all too ready to lash out and blame people and institutions in ways that will ultimately be against their own long-term interests and those of the nation. There is too much heat; too little light. Now is NOT the time to even discuss initiating a process that make end up removing Great Britain from a collective of nation states upon which our own country’s security and prosperity is dependent. Eeek.

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