The Tories and Europe: a moral reckoning

We cannot rely on Obama to shame Cameron over Europe

Jonathan Freedland is right to call the media out in his column today on their shameful silence over the Conservatives' sinister European alliance. The mainstream media, most notably the BBC, have consistently failed to scrutinise Michal Kaminski's disturbing political record. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that journalists are putting their Tory sources before their ethical responsibilities.

As he writes:

[W]here is the outrage? Where is the revulsion at David Cameron becoming partners with men who cheer those who fought for Hitler and against Churchill? The Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman and now the Jewish Chronicle have been shining a light in this dark corner, but from the rest of the media there has been little more than silence.

Despite the attempts of Kaminski's apologists, including Iain Dale and Stephen Pollard, to present the head of the Tories' Eurosceptic group as a moderate Atlanticist, it is clear he is nothing of the sort. This is a man who first denied and then admitted to wearing the Chrobry Sword, a notorious fascist symbol. This is a man who still defends his past membership of the far-right National Revival of Poland. This is a man who not only believes his country should not have apologised for a 1941 massacre of at least 300 Jews but suggests that Jewish involvement with the Communist Party is morally equivalent to this crime.

That the Obama administration should be troubled by this state of affairs is no surprise. Obama is the most pro-European US president for decades and, like his predecessors, wants to deal with a Europe that is united and strong. So the question remains, why has Cameron taken this bizarre risk?

It's important to remember that Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European People's Party was first and foremost a political move, designed to outflank his right-wing leadership rival Liam Fox. But beyond this, his Eurosceptic alliance reflects the revival of the debased realist belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were prepared to support General Pinochet and the Contras as bulwarks against communism, so Conservatives today are willing to align themselves with the far right in opposition to a united Europe.

The US is clearly troubled by the geopolitical implications of Cameron's decision, but there is unlikely to be a moral reckoning. In any case, it is not one we should outsource to the Obama administration. As a political issue Europe has never detained either the electorate or the media for long. In response, the Conservatives believe they can masquerade as progressives at home while supporting reactionaries abroad.

The challenge for all Europeans is to destroy this moral complacency -- and soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.