Nick Clegg speaks with Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband before Angela Merkel addresses both Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The pro-EU camp is in crisis because no one in Westminster dares to argue for immigration

The deficit is in people who can make the case without sounding like they’ve got grenades stuffed in their mouths. 

Denis Healey once quipped that the sight of a pin flying through the air indicated the presence nearby of John Major with a grenade in his mouth. I was reminded of this old joke by Nick Clegg’s efforts to position himself as the commander of pro-EU forces in the European Parliament elections on 22 May.

The recent televised debates with Nigel Farage were meant to illuminate the Deputy Prime Minister’s courage as he detonated a few Europhobe myths. Getting blasted in the face was not the plan.

Senior Lib Dems deny that is what happened. The goal, they say, was never to stop Farage in his tracks, only to begin the fightback against “the Eurosceptic establishment” – a cute inversion of Ukip’s claim to be maverick insurgents. Inevitably it needs more than two hours of live TV to drill through Britain’s anti-Brussels prejudice – “a Eurosceptic sediment that has built up over 20 years”, in the words of one cabinet minister.

But allies of the Lib Dem leader also admit that they underestimated the likely impact of instant audience polls after the two debates. Both awarded victory to Farage. Any credit due for championing an unfashionable cause was lost in media portrayals of a hapless Clegg vanquished.

Labour and the Tories are happy for the Lib Dems to martyr themselves for Europe, albeit for different reasons. Ed Miliband’s instincts on the subject are hardly distinguishable from Clegg’s. However, the Labour leader wants to use the campaign in May to develop the themes that will be central to his bid for Downing Street next year – the cost of living; the unfair distribution of rewards in a lopsided economy. Labour’s preferred method for countering Ukip incursions into its northern-English heartlands is to depict the party as a virulent new mutant strain of Thatcherism.

David Cameron is more at ease talking about Europe as long as the conversation is limited to Labour’s reluctance to call a referendum and Farage’s inability to deliver one. Things get difficult for the Prime Minister when the question arises of how he would vote in that putative poll. The logic of his position is more pro-EU than he admits. The intent to renegotiate British membership is based on the assumption that any deal would be so attractive that Cameron could sell it as the centrepiece of the “in” campaign. It is also supposed to involve reforms that other member states can embrace as general improvements to European governance. He cannot spell out a plan in detail because Conservative backbenchers would denounce it as insufficient and continental leaders would warn that it is unrealistic. The stability of the Conservative Party currently relies on the pretence that Cameron can broker something that looks simultaneously like a renewal of vows and
a divorce to two different audiences.

Most Tory MPs are aware that the No 10 position is untenable but, with the exception of a hard core that enjoys tormenting the Prime Minister, they play along in the hope that brittle unity will last long enough to get them over the electoral finish line in 2015. None expects it to survive beyond that.

Lib Dem ministers are privately contemptuous of how Cameron buys security from his party by licensing loose talk of quitting the EU, although conspicuous displays of rampant Tory Europhobia help support Clegg’s claim that his party performs a moderating function in government. The Prime Minister’s counterclaim is to depict the Lib Dems as slavish devotees of a European status quo – as fanatical in Brussels idolatry as Ukip is in animus. Downing Street insists Cameron’s reform-and-referendum combination is uniquely aligned with mainstream public preference.

That would help the Tories if the argument were about reforming European institutions but in reality the case for less “Europe” has dissolved in fear of more immigration. Farage exploits the way even mild pro-EU advocates have always internalised but never properly articulated a belief in the economic and cultural merits of a liberal migration policy.

The free movement of labour among member states is a non-negotiable part of the project. Yet politicians who believe the UK gains from the arrangement find the rhetorical muscles they need to make the case have atrophied from lack of use. Abstract arguments based on the aggregate increase in opportunity lack the emotional immediacy of Ukip’s claim that foreign interlopers take UK jobs.

The pro-European cause is in crisis because British politics has for years encouraged the idea that an admirable government is one that stymies the roaming of workers across national borders, while tacitly accepting the condition of EU membership that makes such control impractical. The only honest pro-European argument is one that says it isn’t even desirable.

Clegg has already found to his cost what a tough sell that can be. Labour flinches at the mention of immigration policy, unsure how to resist xenophobia while wooing back voters who abandoned the party because it was too kind to foreigners. The Tories are also split, though more discreetly, between economic liberals who see the benefits of immigration and Ukip-ish gate-slammers. It is a guarded Treasury secret that George Osborne tires of his party’s anti-immigration monomania, since he recognises the relationship between openness to foreign skills and economic growth.

There isn’t a shortage in Westminster of people who know the arguments, whether for Britain’s EU membership or a liberal immigration regime. The deficit is in people who can make the case without sounding like they’ve got grenades stuffed in their mouths. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.