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 was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.