Labour has finally ended its vow of silence on the EU. Photo: Getty
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Labour is right to rebuild EU relations damaged by David Cameron

How the Labour party is moving in the right direction by trying to rebuild relations with our European allies.

It has been a while coming, but Labour has finally acknowledged the need to repair the damage that David Cameron has to Britain’s reputation in Europe.

The shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander’s speech in Paris last night was a bit light on substance, but the overall message that a Labour government will seek to build bridges with other European leaders is not before time.

“A key foreign policy priority for an incoming Labour government will be to review, repair and reset relations with Europe upon entering office,” Alexander said, adding that, “no country that seeks to play a leading part in the modern world could contemplate walking away from the world’s largest single market, or to cut itself off from some of its closest allies.”

Labour has kept a vow of silence on all things EU-related for most of the past four years.

On the main issue – whether to hold an "in/out" referendum on EU membership at some point between May and 2017 – Labour has rightly refused to match Cameron’s reckless promise. The referendum pledge is a recipe for paralysis: two more wasted years spent annoying our few remaining allies in Europe at a time when the UK economy and the eurozone remain fragile.

This has made some sense tactically – why enter the debate when you can sit back and watch the Tory party tear itself to pieces? – but it has made Labour look as though it has nothing to say.

Labour could start its bridge-building by giving up on the frankly unseemly rhetorical arms race with the Conservatives on who can talk toughest on EU migration.

Although "welfare tourism" is a far smaller problem than Cameron or, for that matter, Labour, have admitted, it is not just a British concern. The French, Dutch and German governments have all expressed concern about the ease with which migrants from other EU countries can claim welfare and other social benefits in their countries. They just haven’t demanded a rewrite of the EU treaties to deal with the problem. Instead, it can be dealt with through cooperation rather than confrontation and threats.

Demanding treaty change and caps on eastern European migrants to deal with a couple of hundred benefit claimants is like trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer. Curbing abuse of the benefits system can be achieved through national law – like Angela Merkel’s government in Germany is attempting to do – without insulting the many thousands of Europeans who work hard and pay British taxes.

The UK’s stock in the rest of Europe has seldom been lower.

While most EU governments want the UK to stay, they doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity as a would-be EU reformer.

A report by the German Council for Foreign Relations last autumn concluded that, while many of Cameron’s proposals for reform were broadly supported in other capitals, no government was prepared to stick its neck out for Britain.

"Some of the UK's criticisms of the EU and proposals . . . are seen as legitimate," the paper states. "What is not seen as legitimate is advancing these as a purely national interest and using the threat of a Brexit as leverage”.

Meanwhile, the constant threats to leave the EU have merely persuaded other capitals that British ideas to reform the bloc cannot be taken seriously.

Even on the issues where Cameron has been right, such as his opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker taking the European Commission presidency or the fiscal compact treaty that he claimed to have vetoed (but in fact had not), tactical mistakes and cack-handed diplomacy have ensured that he was isolated on each occasion.

In Paris, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, Labour will be pushing at open doors. The truth is that most European governments, including many of the centre-right, would much rather see Ed Miliband in No 10 in May rather than another five years of Cameron, who has dragged Britain to the brink of an EU exit that he claims not to want.

Now that Britain has reached "the point of no return" in Europe, rebuilding these relationships is vital to our national interest. Taking a leading role in Europe requires allies, not sniping from the sidelines.

Ben Fox is a reporter for EUobserver. He writes in a personal capacity, and tweets @benfox83.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.