The issue of Europe rarely stirs Labour’s soul. The current attitude of ‘we’re moderately pro mainly because the antis come across as a bunch of swivel-eyed fruitcakes’, has not served Labour badly, partly because it chimes with the majority view. Despite two decades of daily derision and drip-feed EU hostility from a small group of mostly foreign media-owning billionaires, poll after poll has shown a majority in favour of staying.
But while leadership contenders tiptoe cautiously round this subject, in the real world people’s views are changing.
The far left has always been against EU membership, but the Greek crisis is bolstering their view that the Union is controlled by bankers, gaining sympathy from more moderate left-wingers.
It’s easy to see how this could develop, along almost parallel lines to the Scottish Independence referendum: cautious Labour, the one that lost in May and currently most on display in the leadership debate, suffocated in a stultifying death-lock with the grimly cantankerous Osborne and Cameron, arguing that a vote to stay in is the least bad option. Watch Labour’s anti-EU left and the Tory right pull angrily away, the latter to Ukip and the former… where? To start a new party perhaps, there are plenty of wannabe Syrizas springing up. Meanwhile the decimated but consistently pro-Europe LibDems find this issue gives them new found unity, and they rebuild, attracting pro-Europe Labour and Tory swing voters.
How do we stop this? It won’t be easy, but there’s a simple answer: honesty.
First we must admit that, since Labour’s last big act of refusing to join the Euro, we have largely avoided the debate. True, we wouldn’t have been heard over the din of minuscule right-wing factions, but for too long we’ve spectated, trusting Ukip and the Tories to pull each other apart, hoping that split would leave us room to squeeze in through the moderate door. We now know that policy doesn’t work.
As with Indyref, plenty of people have yet to decide. My own views probably chime with the majority: instinctively I’m moderately pro-Europe, but I have genuine worries. Not the ones the far right argue about, leaving won’t stop the flow of migrant workers coming here, it’ll just make more of them arrive illegally.
Businesses on both sides argue vehemently that leaving and staying will be a disaster, we need to ask why? Does ‘disaster if we stay’ mean more regulations to keep businesses within the law? Does ‘disaster if we leave’ mean problems getting cheap labour?
All this time we should be applying pressure on Cameron. Instead of gloating at his pathetic attempts to negotiate with the EU, amusing as they are, we should be making our own renegotiation demands. Will he join the IMF in urging the EU to abandon its failed austerity policies? The Eurozone requires urgent repair work, how can we help fix it? Years of hostility to the EU have reduced our presence to an irrelevance, how does he intend to mend the fences trashed by his party’s poisonous attitude to the Union?
The Tories may well be torn apart by the forthcoming debate, but watching it happen is no longer our priority. There is a place we can sit, confidently, in this debate, between the outright hostility of the Tories and the unquestioning positivity of the LibDems. We need to show we are a party that can accommodate a wide range of views on Europe.
Let’s make Europe a debate on our terms. As the Tories taught us about economics: right or wrong, if you set the agenda you win the argument.