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.