Labour's pro-Europeans are wilting away

At the top of the party there are no real evangelicals for Europe any more.

There was a time in Labour circles when to be pro-European was regarded as A Good Thing. Actually, it was more than that. Being pro-European was something that those ambitious, clever, upwardly mobile people in the party were proud to call themselves. It was a sign of both moderation and modernisation. Not any more it seems.

Pure naked opportunism mostly explains last night’s decision to side with Tory ultras in calls to cut Britain’s EU budget contribution. Europe is a fantastic inter-party wedge issue for dividing the coalition, but it's catnip for stoking intra-party tension among Conservatives. On the specific issue of curbing the budget, it also, helpfully, gives Labour something concrete to say about cuts.

But this creeping euroscepticism in Labour’s ranks is also partly informed by experience in office. The enduring, lofty ideal of Europe is tempered by seeing the often sclerotic decision-making and undeniable waste up close. As shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander declared this morning: "Europe must learn to do better with less and that is why we voted for a real terms cut." The party’s once self-confident and numerous pro-Europeans are quiescent these days. Lions in winter, with neither grassroots support or much interest coming from the leadership.

The trade unions, once hostile towards the EC for being a "capitalist club", changed their tune in the late 1980s when the commission stated getting interested in social policy and workplace rights and proved instrumental in warming Labour’s attitude to Europe. But that was then. Now, the unions are narrowly focused on holding what they have amid domestic spending cuts. Europe can whistle.

At the top of the party there are no real evangelicals for Europe any more. Ed Balls is famously the architect of the five economic tests, wielded as a crucifix to repel any prospect of Britain joining the euro. Policy review head Jon Cruddas has called for an immediate referendum on EU withdrawal, while Ed Miliband didn’t mention the EU once in his recent party conference speech.

Instinctive pro-Europeans in the party like Denis MacShane now seem like curiosities from another age. Especially when compared to former comrades-in-arms like Gisela Stuart, who now believes Britain should actually quit the EU. There is also, perhaps, a generational shift occurring in the party, away from a post-war class which instinctively saw the European project as a force for good in the world and a bulwark against further conflict, and towards younger Labour politicians who take a far more pragmatic view of Europe.

Part of the EU problem is that it has always been a strategic geo-political partnership, not a popular movement. As former SDLP leader John Hume once put it, the EU is the longest-running peace process in the world. But it is not enough for diplomats, bureaucrats and the Westminster cognoscenti to "get" Europe when so many of the public do not. Europe has always failed to find a popular message and populist messengers. After last night, that challenge is now even harder.

"Ed Miliband didn’t mention the EU once in his recent party conference speech". Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.