Labour tuts at the Tories' "public school-boy games" over Europe

The afternoon's Europe debate is purposely designed to discomfit Labour. But Miliband's high-minded opposition is a risky strategy.

Parliament will this afternoon debate Britain’s relations with the European Union. The argument, it is safe to say, will not be terribly focused. The motion is that "this House has considered the matter of Europe." Doubtless, by the end of the day, after a fashion, it will have.

Of course the real purpose of the session – called by the government – is to allow Tory MPs to flaunt their newfound unity and to jeer at Labour discomfort. Now that the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the UK’s membership (which is very popular with his backbenchers) and Ed Miliband has resisted doing the same (which makes many on his side uneasy) the Conservatives feel they are finally on the front foot on European issues and intend to plant their other foot into the opposition as hard as they can.

There are people on the Labour and the Lib Dem side who despairingly agree with the No. 10 analysis. One senior Labour figure calls his party’s position "ridiculous" on the grounds that "we can’t go into an election in opposition to the people." A Lib Dem strategist comments wryly that Cameron’s manoeuvre means effectively that "he has adopted pretty much the position that we had at the last election." (Clegg is the only major party leader with a pedigree of promising in/out EU plebiscites.)

There is residual confidence in the Miliband and Clegg camps that Cameron’s European position will unravel when it bumps into practical obstacles to delivering a deal in Brussels that Tory MPs can stomach. (As a sign of trouble on the horizon, Germany’s foreign minister has fired a clear warning shot at Downing Street.) Besides, Tory MPs are never satisfied with Cameron for long; some new grievance comes along soon enough.

But since the Prime Minister’s speech last week had a noticeably tonic effect on the party it is easy to see why Downing Street has decided to pour out another dose of the same heady brew. Labour’s approach to all this is, I gather, to play it long and high-minded. Miliband knows that Cameron’s position is designed exclusively by the short-term demands of party management and fear of Ukip. That, the Labour leader calculates, is a weak position whichever way you look at it. Under such circumstances, when the government is caught up in desperate short-term tactics, the opposition should be in the business of looking far-sighted and responsible – a sensible government-in-waiting.

Miliband’s aides are keen to point out that the very existence of today’s debate is a sign of panicky tactical machination in Downing Street. Why, they ask, should parliament spend its time kicking around the idea of a referendum that currently only exists in the hypothetical realm of a Tory majority government in 2017. Are there no more pressing foreign policy issues around? (Clue: Cameron himself is in Algeria this afternoon.)

It is all rather reminiscent of George Osborne’s decision to confect a separate Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, carved out of the many announcements in last December’s Autumn Statement. The underlying policy – a real terms cut to the rate at which social security payments annually rise – did not require its own triumphal procession through parliament. The Bill was devised entirely to discomfit Labour and generate as much heat as possible around the question of the opposition’s addiction to welfare profligacy. (As it turned out, the public mood was more nuanced, with some evidence of a backlash against the Chancellor appearing to relish the prospect of picking poor families’ pockets.)

The view from Team Miliband is that this afternoon’s Europe debate is just another example of Cameron and Osborne playing, in the words of a senior aide, "snarky little public school-boy games" when they should be thinking of ways to fix the economy and look after the nation’s long-term strategic interests. It is a fair point. But, whether Miliband likes it or not, much of what goes on in the Palace of Westminster resembles games of varying degrees of shabbiness and cynical subterfuge. Voters don’t particularly respect that aspect of our politics – most of the time they don’t even notice. But tutting in disapproval from the sidelines in the hope of looking statesmanlike is a risky strategy in any competition.

Labour leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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