David Cameron: The Good European

The PM sees the EU as part of the solution, not the problem for the UK economy - a brave position to take as leader of today's Tory party.

Well that’s me told. Back in January, a couple of weeks before David Cameron delivered the speech in which he first promised an in/out referendum on Britain’s European Union membership, I wondered whether the Prime Minister’s “Global Race” story was pro-EU or anti.

It could go either way (which is, I suppose, the purpose of a plastic slogan). The demands of creating slim-line, super competitive, non-bureaucratic, low tax economy might militate against the onerous obligation to run every decision through Brussels. Or, the prospect of a future in which the rules of trade will be dictated by continental Titans – the US, India, China – might make it imperative that the UK amplify its power in the only forum that can match those beasts for market heft, which is the EU. Which way would Cameron jump?

Now we have the answer, and it isn’t going to go down well on the right of the Conservative party. In a speech today on the topic of Britain’s role in the world, Cameron makes it clear that he sees EU membership as a race-winning supplement not an obstacle:

Another key part of that effort is our place at the top table. At the UN. The Commonwealth. NATO. The WTO. The G8. The G20. And yes – the EU. Membership of these organisations is not national vanity – it is in our national interest. The fact is that it is in international institutions that many of the rules of the game are set on trade, tax and regulation. When a country like ours is affected profoundly by those rules, I want us to have a say on them. 

This should be an uncontroversial statement. There is no credible model of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe that doesn’t require deep integration with the single market – the agreed space for internally consistent trading rules, allowing free cross-border movement of goods and labour. The obvious way to make that arrangement work to the UK’s advantage is to be one of the countries at the negotiating table when new regulations are discussed. Leaving the EU would mean ditching the right to change the rules while, in most cases, still being bound by them. If you want to be all purist about the sovereignty issue, that sounds like being “out” involves a greater surrender of national autonomy than staying “in”.

Cameron will have been prompted to make this intervention by alarmed noises emanating from British exporters. Although business leaders are generally reluctant to get involved in political controversies, the message being passed to Downing Street is that wild speculation about the UK walking away from the EU table is most unwelcome. London’s diplomatic influence in Brussels is already waning with alarming speed.

Of course, the hardline sceptics see this as typical lily-livered Europhilia. The rest of Europe needs the UK’s market and wants to export to us as much as we want to export to them. A mutually beneficial deal, say the sceps, can be done that keeps the benefits of free trade and junks all the pseudo-state apparatus of legal and political integration. Besides, if the future of trade is with China, India and Brazil, why shouldn’t the UK strike out alone, in true buccaneering fashion, no longer “shackled to the corpse” – as some Tory MPs describe it – of a sclerotic, statist, debt-laden, enfeebled Eurozone. (What this argument likes to ignore is the way that Germany manages quite happily to sell six times as many goods to China as the UK while remaining entirely enmeshed in institutional apparatus of the EU. For more on that, and other rebuttals of the anti-EU case, I recommend this article by Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform.)

The reality, of course, is that the anti-EU position begins with visceral, nationalist hatred of the whole project and then retro-fits libertarian ideas to make quitting sound economically feasible. It is to Cameron’s credit that he doesn’t play that game and that, ultimately, he recognises the long-term strategic advantages of active engagement in Brussels. Where it gets a bit awkward is if he follows that logic to ponder which powers he seriously wants to “repatriate” as part of his planned renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

If, as his speech today implies, he wants Britain’s role in Europe to be advancing an agenda to boost competitive reform within the single market – playing “global race” personal trainer to the rest of the continent – he won’t want to spend too much diplomatic capital demanding special UK exemptions from EU law to satisfy his insatiable back benchers. He knows that a British Prime Minister has better things to ask for in Brussels than concessions that Ukippers and Tory militants will in any case jeer as inadequate. By acknowledging today that participation in the EU project is part of the solution not the problem of British competitiveness, Cameron has finally outed himself as a “good European.” Very brave, Prime Minister.

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU headquarters on May 22, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.