Young voters know Britain's future lies in the EU

New polling by the Fabian Society shows that 18-34 year olds are significantly more pro-European than the previous generation.

Oftentimes, the greatest strength of opposition is to say little and commit to nothing. But so too can there be huge political advantage in a government decisively using the bully-pulpit of power. Thus it was last week when David Cameron committed his party to hold an in-out referendum on the EU after the next election. In so doing, he left the Labour party in a bit of a pickle.

Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s chief consigliere, said recently, "we've found being courageous works for us …We err on the side of boldness much more nowadays." But boldness can work for Cameron too and Labour finds itself caught between supporting a referendum it doesn’t want or going into an election on a platform of ‘denying the people their say’. Neither position holds obvious appeal. Ed Miliband tried to get on the front foot at PMQs, but it was hardly his ‘no, no, no’ moment, and post-match briefings suggest we could be in for a drawn out period of nuancing before Labour arrives at its final destination.

But as right-wing Tories celebrate and the left prevaricates, is Cameron’s referendum necessarily the first step on the road to a British exit?

New polling by the Fabian Society and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung shows a fascinating – and stark – generational divide on the question. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of voters aged 18-34 say they would vote 'yes' to EU membership in a referendum. While nationally there is a 12-point lead for those who wish to leave the EU, among those aged 18-34, there is 32-point lead in favour of remaining part of the EU. In contrast, among the over 60s, leaving the EU has a 23-point lead.

Young people are also far more likely to identify personal benefits from Britain’s membership of the EU. Only 19 per cent of 18-34 year olds said they did not personally benefit from Britain’s membership compared to 51 per cent of people over 60. Forty six per cent of 18-34s cited freedom to travel in Europe as a benefit and 18 per cent mentioned social and employment rights.

Young people also see the benefits of the EU on the global stage. Fifty nine per cent of 18-34 year-olds who expressed a view found the argument that "co-operation between EU countries is the best way to tackle the big issues of our time, like climate change, the global financial crisis and international terrorism" convincing, compared to 43 per cent of people over 60.

Many young people also expressed concern about Britain’s standing on the international stage if the UK were to leave the EU. Forty per cent of those aged 18-34 agree that if the country were to withdraw, "Britain may become isolated in a world of big power blocs such as the United States, the European Union and China", compared to 34 per cent who believe that "Britain could use its own historic international links to punch above its weight in the world". Among over-60s the split was 29 per cent to 47 per cent in the opposite direction.

Europe, we are repeatedly told, is in crisis: economic, political and existential. This era of crisis has hit the left particularly hard, with the economic turmoil – originally heralded as the opportunity for a ‘progressive moment’ which would tame the ravages of capitalism – morphing into a crisis of debt and fiscal imbalance. 


This presents a profound challenge for the pro-European left which Cameron’s announcement has made much more urgent. What is clear is that the positive case for the EU would be easier to make if the EU was better. The left risks further setbacks in Europe without a compelling explanation of what is wrong with the Europe we have and what is better about the Europe we want.

The EU was founded on a 'never again' spirit following the second world war, yet the arguments the first generation of European leaders made for closer integration resonate less and less as time goes by. A growing proportion of the electorate are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin wall, let alone the despair of post-war Europe. For a new generation, the EU is a way of life rather than a political project. It’s not necessarily a cause to fight for. But it is clear that young people are culturally and instinctively comfortable with the European project, and see clear benefits of membership. The task for EU advocates is to harden this soft support.

For New Labour, explicit pro-Europeanism was a core part of creating a modern progressive party, which looked to Europe to deliver on its promise of economic efficiency intertwined with social justice. But Europe is far from integral to Labour’s rethink in opposition, despite the current vogue for the German economic model in Labour policy circles, not to mention Fabian polling which shows the public understand all too well that the major political challenges of the day – climate change, financial reform, fighting terrorism – can only be solved through closer European co-operation.

Miliband needs to remember he’s best when he’s boldest and should not shy away from making a stand against Cameron’s politically motivated and economically disruptive act. Our polling shows that should a referendum become a reality, the state of public opinion is more subtle than many surveys suggest. There is a wide coalition of support that could be constructed, from younger people to business leaders; pro-Europeans should approach any campaign guided by a sense of hope, rather than fear.

Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review

The European Union flag is seen next to flags of members of the EU on January 15, 2013 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.