Labour has the chance to shape the debate on Europe

January 22, 2013 3:25 pm

I’ve often complained in the past that we don’t talk enough about Europe in this country. Our biggest trading partner, the source of millions of British jobs and many of the workplace rights we now take for granted.

I suppose I should have heeded the phrase ‘Be careful what you wish for’. For the last couple of years it seems like Europe is all anyone in the chattering classes wants to talk about, but no one has anything nice to say.

This has been reflected in opinion poll after opinion poll – public support for our membership of the European Union – not exactly resounding to begin with – has plummeted, public trust in Europe has gone the same way and if you believe Tory backbenchers they have to barricade their constituency offices to fend off the hoardes of constituents immolating themselves outside to demand an immediate referendum on our future in Europe.

Is all that about to change? I don’t normally pay any attention to opinion polls, which are as changeable as the wind, but I saw one so astonishing this week that I did a comedy doubletake that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bugs Bunny – support for our membership of the EU has gone up!

Pick your jaw up off the floor, it’s true. The latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times shows support for Britain’s membership of the EU up 10% to 40% since the end of November last year, with just 34% opting to leave – down 17% in the same period. That’s the first time more have opted in than out since the Tories came to power in 2010.

What makes these numbers so interesting is a dramatic upward shift in the support of Labour voters for EU membership, which Peter Kellner attributes to the positive stance taken by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander and the high profile intervention of Obama. I think it is undeniable that as the pro-European lobby – within the Labour Party and outside the political sphere in the world of business and beyond – finally starts to find its voice and lay out the benefits of our membership – and the price of departure – the minds of the public begin to sharpen.

This is very good news indeed for the pro-European majority in the Labour Party, as it backs up the argument that we don’t need to spout anti-EU rhetoric to boost our poll numbers. That isn’t to say we don’t need to argue for reform – and the numbers show a clear majority still in support of some form of renegotiation – but now people are starting to listen we have the chance to argue for the right reforms – reforms that will boost jobs and growth, tackle youth unemployment, expand the single market and protect workers rights.

Once again Ed Miliband has the chance to lead and shape the debate on an issue crucial to the national interest. He must continue to argue for a One Nation Britain at the heart of Europe.

  • Daniel Speight

    And yet I suspect that Cameron has, cynical though it may be, damaged Labour by his promise of a referendum. This is because some pro-EU members of the PLP are not willing to fight their corner in front of the public. Does Labour really want to turn the next election into a virtual in-out referendum? The horror of it is that the Tories could pick up the UKIP votes without actually promising an exit from the EU. At the same time Labour would be perceived to be part of that political class that doesn’t trust its citizens.

    Myself, unless the ‘anti’ vote could show it would benefit the country economically by leaving, would vote for continued membership in a real referendum as, I think, most of the electorate would.

    So where does that leave Ed Miliband and Tom Baldwin? I would suggest saying OK, but let’s have the referendum this year and thereby take it off the table for the next election. As Cameron will not agree to this it would mean a promise of one in a future Labour government. Then shame is Labour is following rather than leading the argument. At times the lack of courage by the Labour leadership is disappointing.

  • Duncan Richardson

    Labour doesnt want a debate on the EU.

  • Redshift1

    I think Ed needs to make some ‘alternative’ statements about what he wants from EU membership.

    Cameron and the Tories are trying to use anti-EU sentiment not to make us withdraw, but to get out of the social chapter, which is fundamentally a good thing for British workers. Without that, EU membership is pretty pointless.

    Ed should say that if Labour were in power our demands to the EU would be greater democracy, instead of trying to strip our workers of rights like Cameron is.

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