Europe, what have you done for me lately?

The EU's triumph on mobile charges shows how the union benefits consumers.

The debate about whether or not Britain should have a referendum on its membership of the European Union continues to rumble on with politicians from the left and right intervening. But not a single politician has mentioned a new piece of European legislation which is set to reduce mobile costs for consumers in Britain and further afield.

In the last few days, most mobile phone customers will have received a text from their operator informing them that roaming charges, the cost of using data services abroad on smart phones, are falling. None will have been told that the change is due to concerted action by the European Commission rather than a benevolent decision by their mobile company.

The new rules mean that no customer can be charged more than:

• 29 euro cents (24p) a minute to make a call.

• 8 cents (7p) a minute to receive a call.

• 9 cents (8p) to send a text message.

• 70 cents a megabyte (58p) to download data or browse the internet, charged by the kilobyte used.

My operator, Orange, have done the absolute minimum and brought their charges down from the extortionate rate of £2.55 to 58p per megabyte. They still charge £8 per megabyte to roam in most countries outside the EU. Despite being forced to take this action, their website claims that “We are constantly updating our roaming services in Europe to provide the best possible business service abroad.” A likely story.

Thankfully the European Commission aims to reduce the gap between domestic and foreign call rates to virtually nothing by 2015. Indeed, Labour MEP for South East England, Peter Skinner, said in May:

“If roaming prices have not come all the way down to domestic levels by 2016, then the European Commission will be obliged to propose additional legislation to ensure that roaming charges are identical to domestic prices.”

Over the last two days several politicians have added their thoughts on Europe without drawing attention to Brussels’ triumph on mobile charges. David Cameron has confused everyone with his ‘hokey-cokey’ on an EU referendum. Despite calling for “less Europe not more Europe” in the bearpit of yesterday’s Commons debate he used his Sunday Telegraph article to say “The single market is at the heart of the case for staying in the EU … Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests”. So why not follow through with an up-to-the-minute example such as the data roaming cap?

In the same paper, Liam Fox called for a “new relationship” with the EU (rather than exit). But rather than talking up the virtues of EU membership here and now he used the past tense to claim that:

“The single market was one of the most important aims of the European Union project, yet in choosing a model based on harmonisation rather than mutual recognition it became inevitable that a body of law and regulation would be created that would potentially invite bureaucratic cost, diminished global competitiveness and even give encouragement to those who would fan the embers of national protectionism.”

On Labour’s side, Douglas Alexander wrote in yesterday’s Guardian that an EU referendum is no substitute for a European strategy. In defending the EU, he commented:

“We must be clear, the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It's about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

Better but still no cigar.

The failure of politicians in the UK on all sides to make the positive case for Europe is one of the reasons why the debate about a referendum has now reached fever pitch. An ‘in/out’ referendum can be won but politicians who favour remaining in and pushing back the UKIP tide must start to make the positive case.

European Union Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide