Douglas Alexander speaks at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Douglas Alexander's speech on the European Elections: full text

"Labour will not follow the Conservative Party’s approach of first ignoring, then insulting, and then imitating UKIP."

The choice facing the UK

 

The choice on Europe on the 22nd of May is not between the status quo or exit – it is between different priorities for the United Kingdom.

 

Labour’s priority is tackling the cost-of-living crisis and reforming Europe to make it work for working people.

 

Ed Miliband would govern in the national interest and focus on what is best for Britain.

 

The Conservative Party, however, riven by doubt and driven by weakness, has made it clear that its priority is a divisive and deeply damaging debate about whether or not to leave Europe.

 

It is a position forced upon the Prime Minister by his own rebellious backbenchers and his fear of attack from the right by UKIP. 

 

Labour is clear that Europe needs to change.

 

But the real tragedy is that David Cameron seems to be spending more time negotiating with his backbenchers than negotiating with other European leaders.

 

Just two weeks away from the European elections, it is becoming even more obvious that David Cameron's approach depends on him getting unanimous EU support from 27 member states in just 24 months – and the truth is that today he has none.

 

 

A week on from launching our campaign for these elections, Labour is still setting the agenda and dominating the news with our vision for how Britain can do better.

 

Look back at the news from the last seven days and you will see Labour has set out plans for tackling the challenges facing generation-rent, widening the scope of the public-interest test for foreign take-overs and announcing policies to help families deal with the growing cost of childcare.

 

This is a campaign being driven by Labour’s ideas and responding to the public’s concerns - and the Tories and Lib Dems are left trying to play catch up all the way until polling day.

 

Our campaign is driven by our activists, defined by our ideals and being delivered by our candidates.

 

While Labour is running a campaign focused on how we want to change the country, the Lib Dems and Tories are running away from the real questions about how the country is run, and for whom.

 

 

Speak to any British business looking to engage in how Europe works and they will all tell you they need MEPs engaged in the detail of delivering the reforms Europe needs.

 

From our financial services, to our pharmaceutical industries, from our universities, to our manufacturers and they will all tell you Britain needs MEPs that are engaged, at the table and on the side of British families.

 

I know that our Labour MEP candidates are the best people to take this agenda forward.

 

I am proud of the work that our Labour MEPs are doing in Europe - from tackling the dangerous risk-taking culture and big bonuses that contributed to the financial crisis, to championing new initiatives on youth unemployment and consumer protection.

 

Without a strong Labour voice in the EU we would not have successfully cracked down on the marketing of cigarettes to children, or demanded more openness about where our food has come from.

 

So these elections matter. They matter because Labour MEPs are the best champions for change in Europe.

 

Our MEPs are champions not just for Labour, but for Britain.

 

 

In these elections our opponents are not only the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. It is UKIP too.

 

I recognise that UKIP is tapping into a deep sense of discontent.  Millions of families feel they work harder and harder but feel themselves slipping further and further behind. 

 

There are legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration which my own party ignored for too long.  And there is frustration with politics as a whole.

 

That is why Labour’s priority at home is action on jobs, wages and prices, and in Brussels why our MEPs will focus on common economic challenges and anxieties about immigration.

 

We will fight for fairer rules on what happens when people move here from other EU countries, and we would take action to help prevent pay and conditions in the UK from being undercut. 

 

UKIP’s domestic policies are out of date and out of step with the British public – but so too are their naive views about Britain’s place in the modern world, because there is simply nothing splendid about isolation in the twenty first century.

 

I reject a UKIP-style view of foreign policy, with Britain relegated to an economic and diplomatic island – isolated from Europe, irrelevant to America, and invisible to Asia.

I take the challenge that UKIP poses to all political parties seriously.

 

Labour will not follow the Conservative Party’s approach of first ignoring, then insulting, and then imitating UKIP.

 

Where Labour differs from the Conservatives is that we know our approach must not to try to be a better UKIP, but to be the Labour Party at its best.

 

The truth is that voters only know one thing about UKIP. And the more they know, I think the less they will like.

 

Nigel Farage likes to say he is the only politician “keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive”.

 

UKIP’s policies towards working people are more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself.

 

They promise higher taxes for working families and huge giveaways for the rich.

 

UKIP wants bankers’ bonuses to be bigger. They would risk 3.5 million jobs by pulling out of the EU. They think the UK spends far too much money on the NHS.

 

UKIP wants to impose charges for visiting a GP. And scrap basic rights at work like maternity or sick pay.

 

That is why Labour’s message to the voters in this campaign is to say - UKIP don’t share your values.

 

 

And it is no coincidence that as the issue of Europe starts to rise up the agenda here ahead of the European elections, so too do the noises-off in David Cameron’s own party grow louder. 

 

Because ultimately, when it comes to the EU, David Cameron seems willing to simply march along to the banging drum of Tory backbenchers, without even a thought for where he is heading.

 

And the real tragedy is that we now have a Prime Minister willing to let the country sleepwalk towards exit, regardless of the costs to British families, jobs or businesses.

 

Because by forcing Britain to the margins of Europe, the Tories risk permanently downgrading our influence and relevance in capitals across the world.

 

And when it comes to EU reform, David Cameron is either unwilling or simply incapable of setting out any clear priorities, proposals or policies about what he wants to change in Europe. 


So just days away from the European elections, the British public are still none the wiser about what reforms he actually wants, whether he can deliver them and what he will do if he doesn’t.

 

You do not need a crystal ball to predict the consequences of such a state of affairs; you only need to read the history of John Major’s government: an ungovernable Conservative party unable to govern in the national interest which threatens to inflict huge uncertainty on business and undermine Britain’s influence abroad.

 

 

Labour does believe that the EU must be made to work better for Britain.

 

And it is Labour that has been leading the debate, from Opposition, about how the EU can and should change.

 

That’s why our MEPs called for a cut in the EU budget back in 2011; why I delivered a speech in 2012 setting out how to get the EU focused on promoting growth; why Ed Miliband set out Labour’s reform agenda in a speech this year and why only last month Gareth Thomas set out how to improve scrutiny of EU affairs.

 

A drumbeat of EU reforms from Labour, met only by the sound of silence from David Cameron.

 

Because unlike the Tory party, reform of Europe is not an off-limits conversation for Labour.

 

For Labour, being willing to speak up for our place in the Europe, does not mean being deaf to the concerns that some people have about our membership.

 

 

Labour’s reform agenda for the EU is focused on boosting Europe’s competitiveness, ensuring EU migrants coming to the UK contribute to our economy and our society, and avoiding a race to the bottom on skills and wages.

 

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 focused on Growth, and an independent audit of the impact of any new piece of EU legislation on growth, would be key to helping re-focusing the Union on this key task.

 

Second, our reforms will help ensure that EU citizens seeking work here are expected to contribute to our economy, and to our society. So we will extend the period of time that people from new member states have to wait before being able to come to the UK to look for work. We will work to stop the payment of benefits to those not resident in this country, will consult on changing the rules on deporting someone who receives a custodial sentence shortly after arriving in the UK, and have called on the government to double the time that an EU migrant has to wait before being able to claim the basic Job Seekers Allowance.

 

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’.

 

Labour has called for national parliaments to have a greater role in EU decision making by being able to ‘red-card’ any new EU legislation before it comes into force; for serious reform of the EU Commission; and a zero based review of expenditure by EU agencies to help ensure that any overlap, duplication or waste is addressed and tackled.

 

We also need to change the way in which our Parliament here considers and scrutinises EU issues, which is why Labour has suggested a range of reforms to increase our Parliament’s influence over EU decision making. From the reinstatement of allocated debating time in Parliament for MPs to discuss the agenda before critical EU Council meetings, to a dedicated EU Select Committee and radically changing the process for appointing the UK’s EU Commissioner by giving Parliament more of a say.

 

 

Labour does not support more powers going 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 on our continued membership of the EU. 

 

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.

 

 

Labour are clear that Britain’s future lies in Europe.

 

Because those opposed to our membership of the EU, today advocating exit, are not just on the wrong side of the political divide, but on the wrong side of history.

 

The modern world provides both the rationale for Europe, and reinforces the need for real reform and change within the EU.

 

Because in an era of billion-person countries and trillion dollar economies, the EU gives us influence collectively that when we act alone, we lack - and it does so at a time in our history when this has arguably never been more important.

 

If mechanisms for cooperation at a European level did not exist today, I believe that they would need to be invented.

 

So the stakes at these European elections are very high - for our national interest, for our economy, and for our place in the world.

 

And at a time when the game changing trade deal between America and Europe is within reach - Britain should be focussed on securing those jobs and investment rather putting our place in Europe at risk.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.