Labour needs a Commission on Europe

Such a Commission would ask hard questions, but also be more productive than David Cameron's opportunistic offer of a referendum.

So how should Labour respond to David Cameron and Nigel Farage on Europe? The reflex denunciations of opportunism and short-termism - Cameron as a Tory version of the 1970s Harold Wilson - are OK for the time being but do not take us very far.

Ed Miliband has done well to position Labour as not being hostile in principle to a referendum but politely asking where is the agreement to a new EU Treaty or to Britain's a la carte renogiation announced by the prime minister.

But this holding policy is not enough. When I was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 it was the beginning of Labour's decade of euphoria. Jacques Delors had made his famous Social Europe speech at the TUC and the Tories were destroyed by their ERM debacle and Maastricht divisions.

Tony Blair trashed Tory isolationism and mocked John Major 's feeble Europe policy.

When I stood down as leader of Labour MEPs in 2000, the uncritical EU enthusiasm was already fading. The Treasury did not like the Euro. Blair blocked or delayed key pro-worker directives. The Amsterdam and Nice Treaties did not lead to the abolition of Britain as John Redwood declared but nor did they make the EU work better.

North America or the BRICS were far more exciting in economic terms than slow growth Europe.

Foreign policy unity evaporated over Iraq. The Lib Dems came out for a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, obliging Blair to follow rather than lead in setting the nation's Europe policy.

Europe became a hate word as a new generation of Tories headed by Cameron, Liam Fox, William Hague and IDS competed in scorning and rubbishing the EU. It was impossible to be selected as a Tory candidate unless an oath of dis-allegiance to the EU was sworn.

Cameron broke political links with centre right leaders like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jose Manuel Barroso. Nigel Farage emerged as Cameron's dark avatar saying in public what top Tories say in the tea room.

Month by month Cameron found himself being devoured by his own creation. Tory Europhobia took on its own life. It demanded the red meat of an in-out referendum.

Now Cameron has provoked a crisis in Europe with his overt willingness to accept Britain leaving the EU in 2017 and the consequent crisis that will rock Europe in a way not seen since the 1930s. So what should Labour's response be?

There is a short term flurry of Newsnight or Today appearances but Labour needs a long term strategic response to the European question.

After John Smith took over as Labour leader in 1992 he realized that the piece meal approach to the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s was insufficient. Shadow cabinet ministers did not have the capacity to think more widely beyond the demands of tactical Commons oppositionism.

Smith set up the Commission for Social Justice with a broad membership and a wide remit to come up with what turned into the modernized social democracy that won Labour three elections. It brought new younger thinkers and future politicians like David Miliband into active politics.

Ed Miliband should set up a wide ranging Commission on Europe to produce, ahead of the 2015 election, a wide ranging programme for Britain's future relationship with Europe. A Commission on Europe should have a membership well beyond Labour and should search new younger thinkers not the representatives of the Blair era pro Europeans. It should involve business leaders - not those who sign the usual letters to the FT on EU matters but new generation entrepreneurs. Seats should be reserved for thinkers from continental nations.

The Commission should ask hard questions about economic reform, including how to improve genuine cooperation that can lead to greater competitiveness while promoting social justice. It could examine why so many trade unions in the EU still feel comfortable with 20th century oppositionist and confrontational politics rather than the no-strike cooperation with capital that has preserved jobs and training in Nordic or German speaking Europe.

It should propose serious reforms to EU institution including the size and scope of the Commission and how national parliaments could have co-decision powers with the Parliament in Strasbourg.

The question of a referendum is part of the process. But in contrast to David Cameron's opportunistic vote seeking decision to begin by offering us a chance to quit Europe, a Commission on Europe would offer the fresh analysis and thinking that political parties have avoided for more than a decade.

Alan Donnelly was Leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament

 

David Cameron gives a press conference after an EU summit last October. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.