Douglas Alexander’s ‘Tory light’ EU policy is not right for Labour

14th November, 2011 11:01 am

On the day before Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband announced a policy that Labour would restrict student fees to £6000 rather than the Tories’ £9000 level. Everyone shrugged. Here was a short term, tactical announcement that made no effort to get to the heart of the problem about financing of higher education.

Today Douglas Alexander has done precisely the same thing with regard to Labour’s policy towards the European Union with his op-ed in The Guardian. What he advocates is no long term solution – either for Labour or for the UK.

Alexander is right to say Labour should not be defenders of the status quo (something I have also argued), but his substance… seems to be precisely the status quo. He says that the Tories are too relaxed about the development of a two speed EU, but also (at least in The Guardian news story on all of this) says that Labour should rule out joining the Euro. He advocates using the prospect of EU treaty change to protect the rights of non-Eurozone members – how does that differ from the coalition’s policies? He has two goals for the EU: extending the single market into services, the digital economy and energy (that’s happening anyway), and some vague ideas for the EU to have a greater role in the world. Big deal.

Alexander also constructs two straw men, only to then strike them down – that the coalition is putting the UK’s EU membership in question, and that the EU is on a mission of state-building with flags and anthems. Nick Clegg in the coalition, and the impotency of the EU institutions respectively put those issues to bed.

Instead Alexander should be thinking longer term. He should be learning the lessons of George Lakoff and starting to frame a vision of a social EU and moving away from the tired pro-European versus Eurosceptic frame. He and Ed Balls should be ready to stand up for a EU-wide Financial Transaction Tax. In the medium term Labour should not be scared to revisit the issue of Eurozone membership – it’s not as if the UK’s economic performance outside the Euro is so fine and dandy. If Labour looked across the Channel it would find countries with economies and social security systems more competitive and more equal than in the UK – there are vital lessons to learn.

In short, the vision for Britain’s relationship outlined by Alexander seems to be a ‘Tory light’ policy – to entrench the UK’s partial isolationism, but with fractionally less negative vocabulary than would be expected of William Hague or David Cameron. I’m left thoroughly non-plussed.

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  • Lisaansell7

    Another politician willing to turn the banking crisis into nationalism. All this was worth it to prevent the cash machines run dry was it? We need an economic alternative and a political party not tryin to consolidate power, by bullying the weakests to prevent examination of the financial crisis the world is still in.

  • Daniel Speight

    And yet the EEC was never a matter of principle for the party. It may have been for some of the members but not for the party as a whole. So with the EU we can be very opportunist and say what bits we like and which bits we don’t and even if we want to stay in it or not. Those that treat membership as a principle haven’t looked at our fairly recent history.

    • Anonymous

      Those that don’t treat membership as a principle haven’t looked at our fairly near future. 

      In fact, I’d go further and say that what the Labour party believed or didn’t in the past is completely irrelevant. The world has changed around us, and if we want to have the social welfare state that we have, the business regulations that we have, even the imperfect democracy that we have, we have to try to protect them and extend them by action on a European level.

      This stuff about how we couldn’t possibly be like the French on business regulation or like the Germans on labour market is the narcissism of small differences. How different are the European economies from each other when set against the US, China or India? Not that different – not so different as to make a reformed, more democratic and more united Europe impossible, or not worth fighting for.

      And yet here’s the second party of the UK backing away from that into a policy that could have been photocopied from the John Major playbook. “Protect the City, no new Brussels diktats and stay out of the Euro.” Is that it? Really? Nothing about social Europe, nothing about democratic legitimacy?

      We chose to be out of the euro, and at the moment that seems like a good move (though there are plenty of economies in the Eurozone that are doing OK). In doing that, we lost one chance to influence how that part of Europe gets built. Now we’re throwing away the rest by retreating into the world of red lines, batting for Britain and god bless the bankers. 

      What a wasted opportunity.

    • Actually, the EU was a matter of principle for some politicians in every party – but initially, the keenest pro-Europeans were moderate Conservatives. Many social democrats were not in favour, although certainly Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were fundamentally  pro-EU and I think the Europe issue was an important factor in the formation of the SDP

      I sam a pro-European, but certainly in practice both Labour and Tory have been pragmatic

  • Jonathan Todd

    I agree that the two-speed stuff was confused. There has been a two-speed Europe ever since the Euro was created and if the Euro is to survive, as this will require deeper integration of the Eurozone, we will have even more of a two-speed Europe. (In terms of calling Douglas out, I also agree with Anthony in his comment below that the City of London stuff was a bit over cooked in Douglas’ Today interview).
    How should the UK respond to this?
    First, not by joining or committing to join the Euro.
    Andrew Gowers didn’t tell us much that wasn’t already obvious about the contradictions in the Eurozone in his detailed and insightful piece for the Sunday Times yesterday, which deserves to be widely read. The UK must not give any commitment to join such an inevitably dysfunctional currency zone. You are right that across the Channel we see economies and social security systems with elements to commend them, but the central reality on the continent is a currency union whose implosion threatens to make the end of Lehman Brothers seem like a tea party.   
    Second, by securing and maximising the benefits of EU membership, irrespective of whether the Euro deepens or disintegrates (for it will do one or the other; the status quo isn’t an option).
    There must be benefits of the EU that are distinct from benefits of the Euro; otherwise the UK would not have enjoyed any benefits from the EU. At a time when we are often told that break-up of the Euro must necessitate break-up of the EU (by no less a figure than Angela Merkel) and so much of the Tory Party seems determined to take the UK out of the EU no matter what happens, it isn’t a trivial point to aim to continue to secure for the UK the benefits of EU membership.
    Third, by helping to build an EU that best serves the interests of the UK; consistent with the social democratic understanding of these interests that follows by virtue of being Labour.
    This differs from the position of the present UK government, to answer the question you pose, in its understanding of what kind of EU best serves the UK’s interests. The government’s focus seems largely upon repatriation from the EU to the UK in general and repatriation of social rules which would fatally undermine the single market in particular. Labour’s position is distinguished from this one by understanding the role of these social rules within the single market and the benefit to the UK of this market and these rules (isn’t this precisely the stuff of the social EU that you say Douglas should have argued for?).
    More generally, we (Labour) begin from the premise of wanting to build an EU defined by social democratic values that best serves our interests in a century increasingly dominated by the economic rise of Asia, rather than from the premise, as per the Tories, of the need to repatriate powers (but, being pragmatists, we don’t deny the case for some repatriation where not inconsistent with the broader aims of the UK and the EU – let’s take subsidiarity seriously for once).
    In terms of serving our interests in such a century, Douglas surely hits the nail on the head when he says: “We risk a national discourse dominated by concerns about the reach of Brussels as we enter an era of international economics defined by the rise of Beijing.” How the UK responds to the rise of China and what role EU membership plays in this response are profound and far reaching points and debates. Yet you dismiss it by writing of: “some vague ideas for the EU to have a greater role in the world. Big deal.” Obviously, Douglas didn’t answer every question in this crucial debate, but sometimes it is valuable for politicians to open debates, as well as provide every answer that they demand.
    Another point: The progress towards a single market in energy has been pathetically slow. Douglas is right to say that this would be sorted in an EU that is most fit for purpose and is certainly something that Labour politicians should have been making more of an issue of. It is precisely because Labour politicians have not been jumping up and down about this and other EU failures, such as the EU-ETS, that it is presumed by the public that Labour simply stands for the status quo on the EU. It is important that Douglas today moved us beyond this position.

    Best, Jonathan

  • Henning

    The key thing is that all UK parties now see the EU as an amplifier of the UK’s own voice, rather than a place where you make compromise deals with partners. If the UK doesn’t get its way it throws a spanner into the EU’s wheels or tries to get opt-outs. This attitude has always annoyed other EU countries but with the crisis this strategy is no longer tolerated. As far as I can see most continental countries are thoroughly fed up with Britain. They will not agree to a repatriation of powers (let’s have 27 different deals shall we? The UK would then be the first country to complain about the messy politics) and the showdown will come if the UK then tries to block necessary treaty changes that are on the agenda very soon. There will be a more structured multi-speed EU and the UK will not be anywhere near the driving seat, if in the EU at all. It would be also interesting to see how this would impact on the idea of Scottish independence…

  • @ba6d5501696e5b6bb37705bd7b6c9fc4:disqus Interesting thoughts, BUT there is one key issue you forget regarding the Euro – I am not advocating joining the Euro in the short term, and its design is not right as it stands. But having said that countries such as Poland and Denmark increase their leverage over the future direction of the EU by not categorically ruling out membership of the currency – that categoric decision by Douglas Alexander (reflecting the decision by the current government) very much weakens the UK’s negotiation position. If the Eurozone were to be adequately reformed (as it has to be), and this is done in line with some of the UK’s principles, then why still categorically rule out joining?

    On the China / Beijing thing – here I disagree. The EU as a whole, united, is better to negotiate with China. So the priority has to be to make the whole of the internal market function, and the Euro is a part of this. It’s not one or the other.

  • I think that sums up the situation very accurately

  • I would agree that the Cold War stand off did play some role in preserving the peace until 1989, but given the almost continuous series of wars over previous centuries among territories encompassed by the original 6 state EEC, I think it is ludicrous to deny that the EEC and successor institutions have not contributed to the peace.

    Since 1989, and with the expansion of the EC then EU, the blanket of peace extended by the EU into central Europe has become more important.  There are many possible flashpoints for future wars if the EU breaks up – e.g.  German individuals’ claims to property in Silesia and Sudetenland;  Slovaks and Hungarian disputes; Hungarians’ treatment in Romania; Macedonia and Greece; Macedonia and Bulgaria; the relationship of Moldova and Romania; and inependent Catalunya; the treatment of Russian speakers in the old Baltic states; a break up of the Ukraine; Belarus; Trieste and Istria.

    Anyone who dismisses the potential for war in Europe in the future, as the ludicrous Danny Alexander seemed to, has absolutely no historical consciousness.  The EU is the best possible institution to prevent future wars.

    People who complain about its cost really need to consider the costs of any way, even little ones.

    • Anonymous

      The Cold War standoff was THE deciding factor 1945-1989 / 1991.  The missiles, tanks and troops of the USA and USSR stopped war, not some trading and social agreements between a declining imperial power, a nation occupied and dismembered and a handful of other shattered states.

      The EU (and predecessors)  played a part in entrenching a more peaceful existence and greater co-operation but they only did this in the shadow of the Great Game being played out. The Cold War gave Europe the reason and the breathing room to actually create things like the EEC by vastly reducing the possibilities of European war by European states.

      To claim it was the ECSC, the EEC or the EC which stopped war is to really try and appropriate a success which belongs elsewhere, even then by mistake. They contributed to peace but for many decades that was all they did and it was not a great contribution considering the circumstances.

      Rather than try and claim a fictional past triumph, the EU should look to see what it can do in the future (as you suggest) and what it actually has achieved.

      The EU is one important  institution which may prevent future possible wars and then only if it has the clout (money) to continue to spend, spend, spend to bind nations closer together and promise a better economic future if nations let their nationalistic passions die down.

  • Jonathan Todd


    Thank you.

    Re: Euro – I see what you mean. But I think that the reform that the Euro needs is so substantial, and it is not certain this reform will come or will actually work if it does, that it seems a little strange to be being positive about UK membership of the Euro at this stage. That said, I think Peter Mandelson made a good point about the Euro-plus pact and UK influence on Newsnight last night. I’m not clear about something here, though, and perhaps you know: Could the UK join the Euro-plus pact without committing to join the Euro? If we can join the Euro-plus pact without committing to join the Euro, then surely the decision of the UK government to not join the Euro-plus pact is particularly bizarre?    

    Re: China – Yes, the UK is better able to negotiate with China in and through the EU. Yes, a united EU is better able to do this than a non-united EU. But, while they may in some ways complement each other, the Euro and the Single Market are not synonymous. Obviously, the UK is in the Single Market and not in the Euro. There are important debates about the functioning of the Single Market that are distinct from debates about the Euro. I think the focus for British social democrats should be on winning these Single Market debates, not conflating them with the already highly complicated and difficult Euro debates. In these Single Market debates feature, amongst other things, the kind of social rules that I referred to yesterday and which are surely a particularly important social democratic priority.

    Best, Jonathan

  • Pingback: Labour's new stance on Europe is cynical and opportunistic. Good. – Telegraph Blogs()

  • I also agree with the two speed statement. Now everything appears to be going belly up for the Euro countries are turning on each other. This is only making the divide more apparent and is set to get worse unless the ECB and IMF step in. No one is making any agressive decisions yet. Will the Euro stand the test of time and will they bring in new leglislation to make it easier to boot out less valuable countries I think it is a possibility.

  • Pingback: Open Europe blog: A closer look at Labour’s “new” EU policy()


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