3 things you need to know about Labour and Europe

17th January, 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…

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