The EU flag blows at Reichstag building is on October 01, 2013 in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour will work for real change in Europe

We need to boost Europe’s competitiveness, avoid a race to the bottom on skills and wages and ensure EU migrants contribute to our economy and our society.

This week Ed Miliband made clear that a Labour government will be as bold in defending membership of the EU as we are in pushing for real change in Europe. Because being willing to speak up for our place in Europe, does not mean being deaf to the concerns that some people have about our membership.

Securing Britain’s future in Europe means the UK needs to work for change within Europe: setting out how the EU can be made to work better for Britain. That is why Labour has set out a reform agenda focused on boosting Europe’s competitiveness, avoiding a race to the bottom on skills and wages and ensuring people coming to the UK from other EU countries seeking work contribute to our economy and our society.

First, on the economy, our reforms will help deliver a Europe focused on jobs and growth, not more austerity and rising unemployment.  An EU Commissioner for growth, and an independent audit of the impact of any new piece of legislation on growth, would be key to helping re-focusing Europe towards this key task. Ed Miliband also announced that Labour is working with British businesses – through the CBI – to agree a plan for the completion of the Single Market in key sectors like digital and services, helping create new jobs and expand our economy in the years ahead.

Second, we will put in place reforms to help do more to ensure that EU migrants contribute to our economy, and to our society. We will work for greater flexibility on transitional arrangements for new member states, including extending the period of time that people from them have to wait before being able to come to the UK to look for work. But EU migration is not just about who should be able to come to the UK, it is also about what those already here should be entitled to. That is why Ed Miliband announced that we will address the payment of benefits to those not resident in this country, and will look again at the rules on deporting EU citizens who receive a prison sentence for committing a crime after arriving in the UK.

Labour has made clear that we do not think it is right that EU migrants should have access to all UK benefits from day one of entering the country, which is why we have called on the government to double the time that people coming to the UK from other EU countries seeking work have to wait before being able to claim Jobseeker's Allowance. None of us want to see a race to the bottom on wages and skills between EU workers and local workers. That is why we will take action to ensure the minimum wage is properly enforced, close loopholes in rules for agency workers, and look at EU Directives designed to prevent undercutting.

Finally, we recognise that any agenda for change in Europe must also address people’s concerns about how power is exercised at a European level. Labour does not support a drive towards an "ever closer union". EU cooperation is important but so too is the role of the UK Parliament. To uphold this principle, national parliaments must have a greater role in EU decision making, and we should be prepared to work to bring powers back to Britain where EU cooperation hinders rather than advances our interests.

No one is today calling for more powers to be transferred from Britain to Brussels. But given the uncertainty about precisely what a changing Europe and further integration in the eurozone might involve, Ed Miliband has acknowledged that a further transfer of powers remains unlikely, but possible. That is why he announced that a Labour government will legislate for a new lock: there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum. This would not just be a referendum to ratify a decision on powers, because as we saw in other countries, referendums of this kind are too easy for governments to ignore. Instead, it would have to be an in/out referendum, with a clear choice for the public to make on our membership of the EU.

After Ed Miliband’s speech this week, it is clear that the dividing line on the EU is not status quo vs change. The choice in 2015 is between a Conservative Party fast unravelling over Europe, and a Labour Party committed to working to make the EU work better for Britain. Ed Miliband leads a Labour Party united on what is best for Britain – and committed to delivering real change in Europe.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era