Labour and the EU referendum

By Alex Bryan

Over halfway into the current parliament, characterised predominantly by economic austerity, one of the main criticisms of the Labour Party from the left (and indeed centrists rapidly losing confidence in George Osborne’s strategy) is that, though they have opposed the coalition policies, they have not done enough to oppose the underlying assumptions that have gone with them. The best example of this is the cut in real terms to benefits recently passed in the House of Commons. The rhetoric which the government used to try and sell the policy was essentially one of divide-and-rule, pitting the ‘strivers’ against the ‘shirkers’.

The reason for the difficulty Labour had in getting their point across was that they used the specific terms the coalition employed to attack the policy. The reason the coalition employed the ‘strivers and shirkers’ line was because the logical conclusion of employing such a divide is a policy similar to theirs. For Labour to attempt to stop that policy whilst simultaneously using rhetoric which presupposed its validity was a doomed strategy.

Since the Prime Minister announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership is to be held in the next Parliament (if the Conservative Party wins a majority, which looks fairly unlikely), commentators in general have seen it as a masterstroke on the part of Cameron and have scorned Ed Miliband’s lacklustre response. However, one must remember that in terms of both the 2015 election and the possible 2017 referendum, it is early days yet.

It is clear that Labour must begin to create a strategy to argue against the Conservatives though, because it is unlikely that the Tories will not place the referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign. And in order to succeed, Labour must learn some lessons from the benefits debate.

Not every Conservative is a Eurosceptic, but it is clear that the campaign to leave the EU will be led by Conservatives. This group has an immediate advantage in that the British public is by and large anti-EU. It will also be helped by the fact that the bulk of the British media takes a strong anti-EU position.

But they still need to make their argument. It seems likely that the argument this coalition of Eurosceptics employs will follow the guidelines set out by UKIP over the past few years, concentrating on sovereignty, EU bureaucracy and the supposed economic loss that comes from being an EU member state.

The pro-EU side (which, at least until 2015, will be most strongly represented by Labour) cannot simply oppose these points if it is to be successful. Much like the debate over benefits, to debate the EU over the terms set out by those against it would result in failure. In order to convince sections of the public that the European Union is not a hindrance to Britain and the British economy, Labour and the Lib Dems must redefine the terms of the debate.

The centrepiece of the pro-EU argument cannot be the economy. Firstly, the economic benefits or losses are so difficult to calculate, with so many conflicting conclusions, that such a stance would convince few outside of those already pro-EU. Secondly, the reason UKIP have been so successful in pushing an anti-EU agenda is because the issues they have focussed on are emotive. People will get passionate about protecting British sovereignty. People will admittedly get passionate about saving British jobs, but the anti-EU side can make that argument in a far more emotive way by concentrating on immigration. People will not get passionate about a macro-economic argument about growth, even if the economic woes of our time persist in 2017.

Labour and the Lib Dems instead must concentrate on the social goods of the EU, so rarely focussed on. The Conservatives will make an argument that the Working Time Directive, the existence of the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are a drag on the economy, an attack on British sovereignty and overly bureaucratic. The pro-EU side needs to focus their campaign on issues like these, for there is significant scope to persuade the public that EU membership protects them as workers and indeed as individuals more effectively than any domestic legislation could.

It is an essential aspect of the British constitutional tradition that any law, no matter how important, can be repealed or replaced by a simple majority vote in Parliament. Whilst this provides a great flexibility for change, it makes entrenching rights very difficult. Our membership of the European Union entrenches the rights of British citizens more deeply than any domestic law could do. By emphasising this, and other social benefits to the EU, Labour and the Lib Dems might be able to begin to overturn the immense Euroscepticism of the British public.


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