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Labour’s chance to be both the national party and natural party of government?

Thu 17 January 2013, 10:45am

Logo_Labour_Party What keeps politicos awake in Dublin about Britain these days? Well, here’s a clue, despite Micheal Martin’s interventions on northern politics, it’s not Northern Ireland. Rather its the future trajectory of the UK in relation to Europe. Even Ed Milliband is getting wrapped up in the big parade.

As ever, there’s some sage advice to the Labour party from Martin Kettle. It’s 2015 (or sooner) and the Labour Party are back in Number Ten. What’s the first thing Ed Milliband doesn’t do? Call a referendum on the future membership of the EU:

Europe is categorically not the issue that defines what the Labour party exists to do, either now or in 2015. If Labour is elected in 2015 it will be because the voters want it to fix the economy, and do its best to protect the vulnerable. In spite of everything that has changed in the world and in politics over the past half-century, Labour remains fundamentally a party of social justice. It is a patriotic party too, but it is not an “ourselves alone” nationalist party like the SNP, Ukip or, increasingly and tragically, the Conservatives.

Labour needs to keep its collective mind very firmly fixed on the realities of 2015 this week. It needs to do this because its effectiveness as a governing party over the next few years depends on it. Labour’s ability to shape the post-2015 agenda is best served by not being bounced into promising a referendum on Europe as a result of the hoopla surrounding David Cameron’s speech on Europe on Friday. To do that would be to concede, even in government, to the Conservatives, and to what is often the worst press in the western world.

He goes on to point out that Milliband and Labour are already coming under unremitting pressure to sign up to Cameron’s promise to have a referendum after the next election. But, he argues:

In the recent past, Labour’s instinct has been to triangulate around such awkwardnesses. Even today, the party’s muscle memory may be telling it to kill the issue by over-trumping the Tories on Europe and promising an in-out referendum of its own. One or two lifelong Labour pro-Europeans have been tempted into this camp, while some others see this as the kind of pledge which would signal that Miliband’s Labour is not an elite project they charge New Labour with being.

Yet stand against it Labour must. Miliband must. The shadow cabinet must. They must do it for the reasons set out by the shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in a characteristically thoughtful speech tonight. And they must also do it for the simple reason that rebuilding a viable economy, not the relationship with the EU, is the pre-eminent issue facing modern Britain. The party may take some short-term hits in the polls for not slipstreaming behind Cameron on Europe in the coming weeks. They must expect the Conservatives to get a temporary poll boost from tomorrow. But they should not panic. Such polling spikes have come and gone on Europe before. In the end, the election will be won and lost on the economy.

Kettle does concede that there are problems with Europe (sadly changing governance arrangements is a secondary affair to what’s really gone awry there), but he’s clear that leaving the EU is no a clear fix to any of the UK’s abiding existential problems.

He closes with this interesting and thought provoking pitch:

…rebuilding a viable UK economy is simply not compatible with leaving the EU. Leaving the EU makes the economic task far harder. Even creating uncertainty about it has that consequence, too. Most people know this, and even the opinion polls on Europe, which are currently quite volatile, recognise it. That is why Cameron’s weakness in allowing the Tory party to become so obsessed with Europe is ultimately so significant and, for him, so damaging.

Indeed it begins to look as though the unwinding of British party politics may play into Labour’s hands. It has at least presented Labour with a genuine opportunity to again become both the national party and the natural party of government. How many parties in British politics can talk plausibly – and with the prospect of representing them – to audiences in England, Scotland, Wales, as well as to Europe? Only Labour can do this. It is the only party in UK politics which can claim to be a national party.

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Comments (4)

  1. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Many Labour MPS are still patriotic about the UK. Many Tory MPs are patriotic chiefly about the Conservative Party.

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  2. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Bit of an exaggeration… There are genuine reasons why people are and should be distrustful of EU elites. But disengagement from it won’t make it go away either…

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  3. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Right. We need to get the bureaucrats, the lawmakers, the paperchurners and the human rights ‘breathing-is-abuse’ lunatics off our backs.

    Although disengagement is plain stupid, it is favoured by quite a few Tory MPs who stand to the EU as the TUV stands to power-sharing For these MPs, as for the TUV, nostalgia rules the waves.

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  4. Yes, Kettle’s piece is shrewd and well-judged at this moment.

    I’ve argued, here, there and everywhere, that there isn’t a UK problem with the EU. Consider, in passing, Nick Robinson on Cameron coat-trailing the “referendum”:

    what we learned from the Today programme interview, which is a dramatic shift – we’d had hints and nudges before – is that he has set out how we might get that referendum on Europe after the next election, but there is a series of ifs:

    If he wins the next election alone (in other words doesn’t have to get this past Nick Clegg)
    If he can persuade other European countries, particularly Germany that they need and want treaty change
    If Britain can then get what it wants in negotiations
    If he thinks he can then win a referendum
    If all that happens, well then, yes, there will be a referendum which he thinks will approve a new better settlement for Europe.

    But his difficulty in giving that big speech on Europe in about a week’s time is what if he’s wrong on any one of those ifs?

    In other words, Cameron’s problem isn’t the EU: it’s that Farage’s heel is firmly on the wind-pipe of the Tory Party. As a result there are a lot of Tory backbenchers looking to the next Election, and feeling a cold draught where there should be the beginning of a backbone.

    This is, and never has been, to do with things EU: it is all about a major crisis in the Tory Party.

    Labour could, and should, shut up, snigger quietly, and let the whole thing play out. Meanwhile the Tory europhobe press have spotted the dangers from that, and are quite desperate to drag Miliband into the fray. Step forward Dougie Alexander.

    Still, there is hope. Cameron delaying yet again the promised speech might, just might put things into perspective. I rate James Kirkup, writing well before the “official” announcement of the postponement:

    what about the PR? What about the optics? How will it look to voters if, at a time when their fellow citizens are in mortal peril, Mr Cameron’s attention appears to be focussed on the relatively abstract concept of Britain’s EU membership? The reason Mr Cameron once warned his party against “banging on about Europe” is that it fuelled the suspicion that Conservatives were people focussed on the wrong issues, interested in their own concerns and not those of the electorate.
    Yes, a lot of people get quite excited about the EU, about sovereignty and the rest. But the safety and wellbeing its citizens remains the first duty of the state, and I suspect most people would think the fate of Britons in Algeria is of more pressing importannce than a speech on Europe that could be given on any other day of any other week.

    Beyond that, there’s good stuff on the Guardian blog, covering Miliband, Cable’s speech and a pretty full filch from Robert Shrimsley’s very good FT piece.

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