David Cameron answers journalists' questions on May 27, 2014 as he arrives at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron is running out of time to show that he is serious about keeping Britain in the EU

The Prime Minister should stop indulging the idea that Europe is a conspiracy perpetrated by other countries against Britain.

The Conservatives don’t have a position on EU membership but they have a trajectory. The motion is towards the view that Britain should leave; the speed is controlled by David Cameron’s ability to pretend that reform can persuade most Tories to stay.

If the next election is lost, that fiction will expire along with Cameron’s premiership. His successor would be chosen by despondent party members craving congress with schismatic Ukippers. Only Europhobic candidates need apply. If, on the other hand, Cameron wins a second term, he will discover before October 2017 – the date proposed for a referendum – that no amount of “renegotiation” can unify his party around an “in” campaign.

Cameron doesn’t want to be remembered as the prime minister who lost Britain’s EU membership by accident but his attachment to the project is plastic. It yields under pressure from anti-Brussels hardliners. Every precedent of his nine years leading the party suggests that if he felt his security as leader depended on making yet more concessions to the Brexit camp, he would do it.

The current Downing Street line has two strengths. First, it avoids civil strife in the party – there are, after all, still a handful of pro-European Tories and a silent agnostic majority that simply wants the issue neutralised. Second, it reflects what voters appear to want. Opinion polls show support for staying in a reformed EU to be the most desired outcome – a golden mean between quitting and the status quo. The way No 10 draws the map of European policy, Ukip occupies one fringe, banging the drum for embittered isolation, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the other extreme, drifting towards Euro-federation. In theory, that leaves Cameron in possession of the moderate, sceptical centre.

The obstacle to holding that course is the belief that Ukip is a lost tribe of the right that needs clutching ever tighter to the Conservative bosom. So Cameron is sure to come under pressure to toughen up his line on Europe in the coming months. Tories report their referendum offer is rejected on the doorstep as counterfeit currency – just another flimsy politician’s promise. The bigger concern is the way Nigel Farage has successfully conflated views about EU membership and anxiety over immigration. Ukip voters are not all fretting about constitutional cessions of parliamentary sovereignty but they do say they want the “gates shut”, which is incompatible with participation in the single European labour market.

For Tory sceptics, the natural conclusion is that changes to the rules on free movement of workers should top Britain’s list of renegotiation demands. Other EU leaders have made it clear that the principle of porous borders is sacrosanct. In any case, there won’t be any substantive discussions before May next year because other heads of government – chiefly the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whom Cameron regards as the pivotal figure in his plan – are waiting to see whether the Tories can survive a general election before deciding how likely the prospect of a British exit is.

Meanwhile, the UK’s diplomatic capital in Brussels is running low. Merkel is unimpressed by the decision of Tory MEPs to make common cause in the European Parliament with Alternative for Germany, a fringe party hostile to the single currency. The alliance compounds the offence caused in 2009 when Cameron took the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the mainstream centre-right group of which Merkel’s Christian Democrats are lead players. German officials and diplomats are scathing about that choice, seeing it as a naive and self-defeating gesture that surrendered British influence in exchange for a moment’s respite from implacable Tory MPs. Merkel took some persuading that Cameron should be taken seriously after such an elementary blunder.

On another front, Cameron is campaigning to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, as the next president of the European Commission. (Even quite ardent British pro-Europeans fear that Juncker’s unrepentant federalism would be counterproductive.) That the Tories would have more of a say in the matter had they stayed in the EPP is a point made with some relish by those in Brussels who are tired of British equivocation and who doubt that Cameron’s heart is really in the EU.

It is still possible that Juncker will be thwarted, in which case No 10 will boast that Cameron’s way works after all and that supine Europhiles are always too quick to surrender. But each time the Conservative leader advertises himself as the antidote to whatever is brewing in Brussels, it becomes harder to see how he can one day stand at the front of Britain’s “in” campaign.

The logic of the referendum policy is that the threat of exit must be real if other countries are to be jolted into making concessions. Yet there are no concessions that can satisfy those Tories who only ever wanted a threat of exit so that it could one day be realised.

If the Prime Minister is serious about keeping Britain inside the EU, he would stop indulging the idea that Europe is a conspiracy perpetrated by other countries against Britain. He would defend Brussels institutions and their founding principles and support, without queasy caveat, the idea of free labour movement. He would push back when his MPs nudge him towards the exit. He would declare that Conservatives do not believe “out” at all costs is a sensible position. He would, in other words, alter the trajectory of his party. He does none of those things and it is almost impossible to imagine him doing them before the election. Afterwards it may be too late. 

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

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change