Miliband's agenda lacks a whole lot more than an EU referendum

The Labour line that Europe is a needless distraction would sound better if the opposition had more to say on everything else.

The fury that some Conservative MPs feel towards the European Union and the contempt in which a hardcore of them hold David Cameron is now familiar. It is unusual but not surprising that 116 Tories last night supported an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, expressing regret that their government’s legislative programme didn’t include plans for an EU referendum. Arguably the more peculiar feature of last night’s vote is the fact that the motion was defeated by Labour. Conservatives who didn’t want to look actively disloyal to the Prime Minister abstained.

The opposition rode to Cameron’s rescue, marching through the “no” lobby in an expression of implicit satisfaction with the Queen’s Speech in the form read out by Her Maj. Of course that isn’t the point Labour was trying to make. Ed Miliband wanted to disagree with the specific view that there ought to be a referendum bill in this parliament. That doesn’t mean he endorses everything else the coalition plans. Quite a few Labour MPs are unimpressed by that subtlety. Parliamentary combat of the kind played out last night doesn’t lend itself to nuance. The opportunity was there to wound Cameron more than he ended up being wounded.

If Labour had supported the amendment it would have implied a screeching U-turn. Miliband has said he doesn’t think an EU referendum is currently a priority, so he could hardly start voting for one. We’ll come to the disputed wisdom of that position in a moment. Meanwhile, Labour could still have abstained, declaring that the whole soap opera was a private coalition grief in which the opposition felt no need to intrude. The line that Miliband would rather be thinking about ways to deliver jobs and growth than banging on about the EU and chasing alliances with Ukip would not have been contradicted by Labour MPs standing aloof from the Tory rebel amendment. Instead, they put their parliamentary muscle into opposing it. Had it passed, Cameron would now look close to crushed.

An old convention holds that a Prime Minister should resign if his or her Queen’s Speech is defeated. That notion has since been made obsolete by the fixed term parliament act, which makes more explicit the circumstances in which a government falls. But there is still a unique depth of humiliation contained in having a legislative flagship holed. As things stand, Cameron looks weaker as a result of last night’s vote but not, technically, defeated.

One Labour MP told me there were Tories laughing at the opposition trooping through the “no” lobby in defence of the Prime Minister, with only Lib Dems for company. The mischievous jeer from the Conservative side is that, had the roles been reversed, raw opportunism would have been embraced with glee. What is the opposition for if not to injure and eventually kill the incumbent government? It is a question that Tories posed in mockery and some Labour MPs asked themselves in despair.

The response from Miliband’s allies is that Labour should aim to look like a responsible government-in-waiting; that it should not be indulging distraction from the core questions of the economy and the rising cost of living and that, as one shadow cabinet minister likes to put it, “our problem is hardly that we don’t look opportunist enough.” It is a view with some merit. Indeed, I’ve blogged before in defence of Miliband’s position on an EU referendum. There are some voters who are obsessed with this question and who will stride into a polling booth with the express aim of facilitating a plebiscite on relations with Brussels so they might then vote to end them. But those people almost certainly aren’t voting Labour anyway and won’t be swayed if Miliband performs a desperate U-turn. According to this argument, authenticity – that most cherished of modern political virtues – resides in sticking with a principled position.

There are two problems. First, if Miliband’s principled position is support for British membership of the EU, he could just as easily say he agrees that a referendum has become inevitable and declare himself up for the fight to secure an “in” vote. Yes, it might be a distraction from more pressing matters and, yes, Labour shouldn’t have to customise its putative governing agenda to suit a neurosis on the right wing of the Tory party. But there is clearly some appeal to opposition MPs in having a leader who will come out and say: “Come on then. Bring it on! You want this bloody referendum so much, Cameron, so call it. You say you think Europe can be reformed and that the UK can stay on board. Let’s settle it. We’ll fight for the pro-European cause together and we’ll win.”

After all, it is clear that no amount of renegotiation of membership terms will satisfy Tory rebels. The ultimate question is whether or not Britain sees itself as inside the European project. Cameron doesn’t want to be the man to take Britain out of the EU; much of his party wants a leader who will do just that. By supporting a referendum sooner rather than later, Labour could force the Prime Minister to either campaign against his own party or share platforms with Ukip and announce himself as a wobbly facsimile of Nigel Farage. Miliband would have the quiet but sensible wing of the Tory party on his side along with the Lib Dems, the overwhelming majority of British business, trade unions and, for what it’s worth, Barack Obama.

What, then, of the claim that Labour would be better off talking about something else? That is the strongest argument for Miliband’s current position. Europe is not most voters’ number one concern. It isn’t usually in the top ten. If swivelled-eyed fixation on Brussels makes the Tories look out of touch, Labour should certainly not be swivelling its own eyes in pale imitation of fringe mania. Rise above it, goes the argument, and concentrate on a programme for sensible government that meets the concerns of the masses.

That position would be a whole lot stronger if anyone really knew what Labour’s programme for government might involve. This isn’t a question of specific policy. (The case for not revealing that hand a full two years before polling day has been made ad nauseam, but it remains sound.) The shortage is not in detail but direction. Not enough people can say with certainty what kinds of things a Labour government would prioritise. There is some clarity about what the opposition is against – tax breaks for millionaires, cutting “too far, too fast”. It is less obvious what Miliband is for. The One Nation message describes a vague aspiration towards solidarity, with an implicit attack on the government for pursuing nasty policies of social division. It tells voters that Labour wants everyone to get along. It hasn’t been fleshed out with an account of how Labour would make everyone better off.

Meanwhile (as I wrote a couple of weeks ago) Miliband isn’t making much progress winning big arguments on the economy, public spending and welfare, which are sure to be the fields of battle at the next general election. How does this relate to the debate about how to handle Euroscepticism? The way one Labour MP described it to me after last night’s vote, there seems a lot less to lose from being mercenary and opportunist when there isn’t much of a responsible government-in-waiting image to sabotage. It may sound defeatist, but there is a feeling in some quarters for the party that if Miliband doesn’t really look like a lofty statesman poised to serve as Prime Minister he might as well get down into the trenches and start hurting the Tories any way he can and at every available opportunity.

According to this view, no-one will care or even remember what Labour’s exact position on a Queen’s Speech amendment was one Wednesday night in 2013, but if the outcome of that vote is to hasten the coalition’s demise, the opposition is winning. Or, to put it another way, the strategy behind last night’s vote springs from a kind of delusion that Miliband can soar above the dirty business of parliamentary game-playing because his mission is loftier. That would be a more plausible approach if the mission was comprehensible beyond his most loyal supporters.

That is a pretty bleak account of Labour’s prospects for the rest of this parliament. With two years to go, Miliband might yet supply the missing parts of the picture and become the candidate of visionary, optimistic change and national unity that he and his closest allies are sure he is capable of being. It is true that consistency and authenticity are political commodities of more enduring value than an appetite for short-term tactical sabotage. There is still time, but not much and the ticking clock provokes anxiety on the Labour benches. If the party felt it had a whole bunch of popular, election-winning things to say, it wouldn’t be sweating the absence of an EU referendum in its offer to the country. Miliband’s problem isn’t his reasonable refusal to follow a Conservative/Ukip agenda on Europe. It is his difficulty in articulating a Labour agenda on everything else. The line that a Brussels fixation is a pursuit better left to a Tory party marching blindly into opposition would sound more authoritative from a Labour party that looked confident in its march towards government. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?