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
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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