The Tories' EU games are undermining their "grown-up" economic message

The threat by Nissan to withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU shows how the Tories' euroscepticism pulls against their emphasis on stability.

As Labour gains ground with its cost-of-living offensive, the Tories have sought to present themselves as the "grown-up" party that can be trusted to maintain economic stability and avoid short-term "gimmicks" that threaten this aim. But this strategy risks being undermined by their decision to raise the spectre of EU withdrawal. On the day that MPs debate Conservative MP James Wharton's bill guaranteeing a referendum in 2017 (and Adam Afriyie's amendment for a vote in October), the head of Nissan has warned that his company could withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU. Carlos Ghosn said: "If anything has to change we [would] need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future." Were Nissan to leave, 6,500 jobs at the company's Sunderland site would be lost.

For the Tories, who have made much of the renaissance of car manufacturing in Britain (with output forecast to reach a record high by 2015), it's an awkward message. Of the 30 brands manufacturing 70 models in the UK, Nissan is the largest and recently announced that its Sunderland plant would move to 24-hour production in 2014 to meet demand. With the uncertainty now set to endure until at least 2015, Ghosn's warning is likely to be the first of many that tarnish the Tories' economic brand.

And for what gain? Those who confidently predicted back in January that Cameron's EU referendum pledge would shoot Farage's fox, or even set the Conservatives on the road to victory, have been proved entirely wrong. The motivations of those who support UKIP are too complex and long-term for them to be bought off by the promise of a vote in 2017.

While the public share the Tories' euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject. As polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown, voters do not regard it as one of the ten most important issues. It's true that they overwhelmingly support an EU referendum but as pollsters regularly attest, this merely reflects their general predilection for such votes.

Cameron knows and understands all of the above. One of the principal aims of his speech was to settle the debate, calm his restive backbenchers and move on. But with the focus now likely to shift to exactly which powers he will seek to repatriate, there is little prospect of any relief.

David Cameron gestures during a press conference at the end of the second and last day of an European Union (EU) Council meeting on October 25, 2013 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.