Why you haven't heard of the five most important (only) pro-European movements

They punch… well, they pretty much punch their weight.

I’m pro-European. I very much want to make that clear. 

I don't just mean in this article: it's something I increasingly want to make clear all the time. When I'm talking about politics; when I'm discussing my holidays; when someone tells me it's my round – whatever the topic, I find myself compelled to tell people that, I know it's flawed, I know it's imperfect, but yes, I remain committed to the rather unlovely continental bureaucracy hanging around at the far end of the Eurostar. 

The reason I'm beset by this urge to tell all and sundry that I'm pro-European is simple: no one else seems to share it. You can't throw a stone in Westminster without hitting a dozen people who'll lecture you on the Norwegian model or the fact the European Parliament costs us a million zillion quid per day. But vocally pro-Europeans – those willing to say, out loud, that there might be benefits in not pissing off our neighbours and abandoning the world's largest free trade zone – are in distinctly short-supply. 

1. Britain in Europe

Twas not always thus: 1999 saw the launch of the non-partisan Britain in Europe (BE) campaign, intended to improve Brussels' image in the UK. Its supporters included such big hitters as Tony Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Charles Kennedy; its head of communications was one Danny Alexander. 

BE's initial purpose was to make the case for the single currency. But that, it swiftly became clear, was a non-starter, so after a couple of years it instead moved to focus on getting a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on the EU constitution. Once the French and the Dutch had killed that, BE wasn't fighting for anything in particular. So in 2005 it was wound up. Google 'Britain in Europe' now, and you'll find this site, which promises you the facts without bias, but also includes the disarming admission that "The factuality of the information is not guaranteed". This seems to sum up the entire debate.

2. European Movement UK

There are other groups purporting to speak for Europe, but all are so titchy as to be little more than flies buzzing round Farage's head. There’s the European Movement UK, which is part of a continent-wide pressure group and which calls, uniquely, for greater integration. It promises to brief journalists, correct mistakes and counter anti-European bias.

But if it's had any success in this job, it's keeping it quiet: most of what little press coverage it's received was concerned with the fact that Danny Alexander used to work there, too. Its Twitter followers number fewer than 1,500, which is diddly squat in social media terms, but those who do follow are in for treats such as stock images of Euro-fans, explaining what the EU means to them. For some its travel opportunities; for others, environmental cooperation. For Daniel and Christine and their baby Hector, meanwhile, it's the fact that "EU Judicial and policing co-operation helps fight international organised crime", which is quite an advanced political position for a toddler to articulate, I think you’ll agree.

3. Centre for European Reform

The other pro-European think tanks are not only small, they're also not that pro-European. The Centre for European Reform, for example (followers: 3261) writes comment pieces in the FT, the Guardian, and so on. But it positions itself as Atlanticist, facing Washington as much as Brussels, and while it says it "regards European integration as largely beneficial", it also recognises that "in many respects the Union does not work well". No help there, then.

4. Open Europe

More successful, but more tepid, is Open Europe. It's by far the best at making its voice heard, garnering frequent press coverage and a whopping 19,300 followers. It started life, vexingly, as the campaign against the 2004 European constitution. Today it claims to back Europe, and has the highly cosmopolitan staff roster to prove it – but true to its roots it wants a different Europe, one that emphasises free trade and the nation state.

It wants, in other words, a Europe that does the bits the British like, but none of the nonsense we don't. This might explain why its backers include such prominent right-wingers as Ruth Lea, Maurice Saatchi and Kirstie Allsop – and, as so often happens when the Tories talk about Europe, it ends up satisfying nobody. To the pro-Europeans Open Europe is just a cover for exiting via the back door ("insidious", Peter Mandelson calls it); while to the sceptics, a campaign for a Europe that isn't on offer amounts to little more than a promise of a free unicorn for every supporter.

5. British Influence

Last January, a cross party group of pro-Europeans (Mandelson, Clarke, Lord Rennard) decided it was finally time to resurrect BE to counter UKIP's lies. British Influence describes itself as "more than another think tank", and promises to be the "go to source for journalists and policy makers who want to hear a more balanced side of the debate". 

How successful it's been is difficult to judge – like all these think tanks, it’s cleverly chosen a name that's almost un-Googleable. Despite being four months old, its Twitter following is already twice the size of the European Movement's, and it did somehow persuade the Telegraph to run a pro-European comment piece written by Lord Mandelson. But the only person who seems to have treated it as any sort of a force is a writer at the right-wing website the Commentator, who angrily suggested that Clarke's involvement should be enough to get him sacked.

Two conclusions present themselves from all this. One is that those pro-European pressure groups that exist are entirely reactive. They're not making the case for Europe, they're just waiting for Nigel Farage to open his mouth so they can blurt out, "Isn't!" Perhaps the British press makes it hard to be otherwise, but there's little sense that anyone's even trying.

The other is how unenthused even our pro-Europeans are about Europe. This may be because it's hard to shout "Bureaucracy! Yay!" with a straight face, but nonetheless it has consequences. As it stands the Overton Window – the range of policies and views seen as acceptable to the public – clearly leans towards scepticism. The result has been that the Eurosceptics are out and proud, while the pro-lobby are nervous and cowering.

But this process is self-reinforcing. The more Eurosceptic the public seem, the more timid the pro-lobby has become, the less likely people are to hear their arguments – and the closer to the exit the mainstream of thought has moved.

The only way to change all this is for the pro lobby to be as loudly, cheerfully, brazenly pro-European as UKIP is Eurosceptic. They might not make many friends that way at first. They might not even feel like it. But the less we hear of the case for Europe, the harder it becomes to make. Someone should make it, before it's too late.

Danny Alexander, the star of our story. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

A protest in 2016. Getty
Show Hide image

Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496