Angela Merkel says changing free movement rules is the UK's "point of no return". Photo: Getty
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What does Merkel's "red line" on EU migration rules mean for British politics?

Germany would sacrifice UK’s EU membership in order not to compromise the EU’s principle of free movement of workers. What are the political implications?

Angela Merkel has made some highly telling comments about the future of Britain’s EU membership.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reports that she would accept UK’s exit from the European Union in order not to compromise over the core principle of free movement of workers. This suggests that she would refuse David Cameron’s attempt at curbing the level of EU migrants entering Britain in any future renegotiation.

Reportedly, Merkel sees any attempted change to the freedom of movement rules as the “point of no return” for the UK’s EU membership. The Guardian reports that Merkel has warned Cameron about this, and that Downing Street has not denied that such a conversation took place.

What does this mean for British politics?

 

David Cameron

Comments like this make things very difficult for the Prime Minister. He has said that changing EU rules about migrants would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe”.

But he hasn’t so far said that he would campaign for an Out vote in a future EU referendum if he doesn’t achieve the renegotiation he’s aiming for – partly because he needs to appear to have faith in his renegotiation, and mainly because he believes in the benefits of Britain’s EU membership.

The idea of Cameron being unable to achieve such a renegotiation – and therefore unable to curb immigration from EU member states to the UK – is what allows Ukip, disillusioned voters and his more eurosceptic backbenchers (and, privately, frontbenchers) to say he lacks credibility on the EU issue.

 

Tory backbenchers

Not all Conservative backbenchers, but many of the “awkward squad” eurosceptic and generally rebellious rightwingers, will use this as yet another opportunity to criticise their leadership for delaying an EU referendum until 2017, and waiting for a renegotiation which will not bring the changes they so desire. Indeed, many of them would prefer the renegotiation not to work so that the only option would be to leave the European Union.

However, the eurosceptics have always been troublemakers on the EU. What should be more worrying to the Tory leadership is those in the party with more nuanced views towards Europe seeing the PM lose further credibility in Brussels. One usually loyal Tory MP told me that, “no one believes him [David Cameron]” when he talks about calling a referendum, let alone achieving a beneficial renegotiation.

David Davis, an influential former Tory minister, and a eurosceptic MP who doesn’t call for outright departure from the EU, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning: “we should have started renegotiating much earlier. Both sides [anti-EU voices in Britain, and EU states who want Britain to stay] don’t really believe you when you really do mean it.”

Davis also said a “red line” for Britain “has got to be a change of the so-called free movement rules” and that concessions on benefit changes are “not enough”. He argued that Cameron should give a suggestion to Germany and the EU leadership that there is a prospect that Britain could leave, if they don’t compromise: “If you’re going to get the Europeans to take you seriously, you’ve got to hold out the prospect of leaving”. He revealed that there are “quite a few cabinet ministers who do believe that”.

 

Ukip

One of the major factors behind Ukip shoring up the Tory vote in many constituencies is that it calls itself the only party that would take Britain out of the European Union. It has a very simply message: the Prime Minister would not be able to negotiate a curb on EU migrant levels, and the only way for him to do it would be to take the UK out of the European Union. Merkel’s comments give Ukip more ammunition when saying that Cameron’s planned renegotiation is impossible.

 

Labour

Although on the surface a weakened Prime Minister is Brussels provides an opportunity for the opposition to question his credibility, this isn’t good news for the Labour party.

Labour is the only main party that has not agreed to support an EU referendum – even the Greens would back one – and is serious about making the business case in favour of Britain’s membership, with its recent appointment of Pat McFadden MP as shadow Europe minister. Although there has been a dilemma among its MEPs and national party on its approach to defending UK in the EU, as I reported last week, the party does now acknowledge that it must up its game on this. Merkel’s comments make it harder for Labour to make a positive, but popular, case for remaining in the EU. The party must identify, and agree to solve, problems with Britain's membership if it makes it to government.

According to the respected MP and former Labour frontbencher Alan Johnson, Labour must be prepared to use its diplomacy to achieve its own renegotiation of the free movement rule. Johnson told me last week:

Away from the childish shenanigans of Cameron, who really hasn't learnt the ABC of negotiation, [we must] say we're the answer to solving some of those problems, including some of the issues around free movement, which in a proper dialogue amongst allies, without threats, I think we'd find a lot of support around Europe for changes to the system, now that there's 28 member states and not six. We have to make that argument without chasing a Ukip vote, trying to out-Ukip Ukip. We'll leave that to the Tories.

Labour articulating the need to achieve "reform within Europe", as voiced by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander today, means that Merkel could just as easily refuse to compromise with a Labour leader attempting to renegotiate Britain's position in the EU.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.