EU flags float in Lille, northern France, on April 18, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour's opposition to an EU referendum is its trump card with business

Large companies are increasingly troubled by the threat of EU withdrawal under the Tories.
 

The one moment of spontaneous applause during Ed Miliband's speech to business leaders today came when he declared: "I am absolutely convinced that our future lies in the EU". Further applause followed as he reaffirmed his opposition to an arbitrary in/out referendum (Miliband would only hold one in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels) and said "it is not the priority for the country".

The EU is the one issue on which Labour has an unambiguous advantage over the Tories with business. Indeed, it is precisely this that troubles Len McCluskey (whose union has voted in favour of a referendum). He said yesterday: "As things stand, Labour won't [call for a referendum] because ducking this question is seen as part of Labour's commitment to business. That is a vast hostage to fortune. I would not like to be Ed Miliband explaining why he is not joining other parties in offering the British people a vote on something that is clearly a growing source of public concern."

Many large companies are far more worried by the threat of withdrawal than they are by Miliband's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told David Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

It is a point that Ed Balls, who has been troubled by the party's lack of industry support, is particularly keen to make.  Having working hard to ensure that Labour did not rule out a referendum in all circumstances, he has swung firmly behind Miliband's position. After telling Newsnight that it would be "silly" to avoid a vote at all costs (a comment which was mistakenly thought to refer to a referendum at any time), he added: "We are not proposing a referendum now because we think to spend two or three years blighting investment and undermining our economy on the prospect of a referendum which David Cameron says he is going to have after he gets an unknown package of refoms would be bad for jobs and investment".

Labour figures privately concede that they are still unlikely to win the support of  a single FTSE 100 boss at the election, but the increasing possibility that the UK would leave the EU under the Tories may complicate the picture. It is, however, a price that Cameron is undoubtedly willing to pay. As has become ever clearer since his speech last year, had he not promised a referendum, he would likely now no longer be leader of the Conservative Party.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Jon Bartley
Show Hide image

Why I slept on the street outside Downing Street

The government is trying to stop taking child refugees. This means condemning them to the sub-zero night. 

It’s hard to sleep on concrete, with rain threatening and the winds of an approaching storm whipping around you. As the cold reaches your bones, rest evades you. Being so exposed, with no shelter or safety from the weather and the world, the idea of slipping into unconsciousness feels impossible.

This is what I learnt as I slept rough outside Downing Street last night.

In the centre of London, I bedded down on the pavement alongside 60 activists and volunteers who work with refugee children. Some had come in their onesies, others with guitars. As we sat resolute yet hopeful on cardboard boxes and under umbrellas, all were happy to share their stories.

I heard from those who have worked in the Calais and Dunkirk camps, and with children on the streets. They told of the stress and desperation of the children both inside and outside the resettlement centres in which they have been placed following the demolition of the Calais camp. The children have no faith left in our government and feel betrayed. They told me the children's stories - children who had come from conflict zones like Sudan and Afghanistan.

With us was one refugee who spent six months in the Calais camp. He told me of his reasons for fleeing Syria, how he was kidnapped and detained by the secret service because he stood up to the Assad regime. He is now using his skills as an actor, to raise awareness of what is going on with refugees here in the UK.

I didn’t get much sleep. But at least in the morning I could go home to a warm bed and a hot shower. Compare this to the youngsters sleeping rough on the edges of Calais and Dunkirk, in woods and under bridges, with only a donated sleeping bag to protect them from sub-zero temperatures. Next to that, my night outside Downing Street was five star.

For those young children and teenagers, spending the night alone, frightened, cold and wet in a country that is not their own, is a daily reality. By sleeping out last night, I got just a small taste of that reality, and it was enough to know it’s not something I would want my children to have to do. It’s not something I would want any children to have to do.

The big scandal here of course is that the bulldozed "Jungle" camp in Calais, awful as it was, sheltered many of these children. The UK government was implicit in the flattening of the huts and shelters where roughly 1,300 unaccompanied child refugees lived. It is thought at least 90,000 lone child refugees arrived in Europe in 2015. Under the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act, there was the expectation that the UK would step up and take 3,000 of the extremely vulnerable children. But now the government has scrapped it, with just a tenth of this number set to actually arrive.

Is it any wonder then that children with no hope of safe and legal crossing to the UK have started to return to the site of the demolished camp in Calais? The majority of the minors bussed to centres in France weren’t even considered for transfer to the UK, and this combined with the Dubs closure has left them with little alternative but to attempt to come to the UK by other, more dangerous, means. We have pushed these children into risking their lives climbing onto trucks and, in many cases, into the hands of people traffickers.

We didn’t have to end the Dubs scheme, and it is nothing short of a scandal that less than 50 miles from the coast of our country there are children sleeping rough on the streets because we are not doing the right thing. Had the government committed to giving local authorities the resources they need to welcome refugee children, we could have provided shelter to thousands. We are the fifth richest country in the world, and while I know budgets are under pressure, I also know the government could afford this if it wanted to.

In spending a night outside Downing Street with teams from Help Refugees, Hummingbird Project and Voices for Child Refugee, we aimed to raise awareness of what is facing refugee children in Europe, and to demonstrate that we will not allow them to be forgotten. But we also want to see real action, real change. This morning the campaigners went into 10 Downing Street to give Theresa May a petition calling on the Government to rethink the closure of the Dubs scheme – and to say "we must be so much better than this". The petition is just the start of the ongoing struggle to make the government listen – and we won’t stop until it does.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.