Europe was the future once – and it could be once again. Pro-Europeans like to accuse Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptics of wanting to take the country back to the 1950s, perhaps the 1850s. But the uncomfortable truth is that they have done more to modernise their arguments and broaden their coalition than the pro-Europeans.
With the euro crisis and the enlargement to Eastern Europe, they’ve seized their chance. Their signature achievement – merging the EU issue with migration – has transformed Europe from being a topic for political obsessives into a central battleground for the next election. As well as capturing older working class voters who feel left behind by globalisation, they have made in-roads into core support for the EU by raising questions about the economic benefits of the single market, and the suitability of the EU for the networked age. Meanwhile the pro-Europeans have been living in the past, appealing to an ever-narrower section of society.
Many of the arguments and most of the leading figures making the case for Europe hark back to the 1990s. Although they talk about reform, pro-Europeans have often found themselves defending an unsatisfactory and unsustainable status quo. Too often they sound like technocrats who struggle to grasp the public’s concerns about the local side-effects of EU integration.
Nick Clegg’s campaign in the European elections was a disastrous expression of this trend. Faced with electoral wipe out, he wanted to show that the Lib Dems are as popular as EU membership in this country. But, by losing the debates with Farage so comprehensively, he persuaded many that Europe is as unpopular as the Lib Dems.
In this situation, the Labour leadership has been understandably reluctant to talk about Europe because it thinks there is little it can say that is simultaneously popular, Labour and politically feasible. Where it has spoken out – as in Douglas Alexander’s interventions and Ed Miliband’s excellent London Business School speech – it has been thoughtful, principled and politically shrewd. But Labour has given the impression that it has said the minimum necessary to shelve the issue – rather than engaging with it and trying to reframe the debate.
There is some evidence that Labour’s reluctance to talk about Europe and migration has been more damaging to its electoral prospects than the relative unpopularity of any its policy positions. Furthermore, it seems that UKIP could in the long term pose a bigger threat to Labour than it does to the Tories.
Steve Fisher from Oxford University has shown that although UKIP mainly took votes from the Tories between 2010 and 2012, it has had more success since 2012 in attracting Labour voters. Using the BBC’s elections data for the 2014 local elections, he estimates that UKIP took 5 points from Labour, and 6 points from the Conservatives. “The net effect”, he argues, “is that the UKIP rise from 2010 to 2014 has been at similar expense to Labour and the Conservatives”. Even worse, UKIP has deprived Labour of the ability to harvest discontent with the government by stealing much of the oxygen of opposition and making Labour seem like part of the political status quo.
Europe has emerged as a key dividing issue in British politics – and there is now a risk that Britain could end up leaving the EU. There is a danger that the Westminster obsession with whether and when to have a referendum will crowd out a more important debate about how to reform the EU to promote British interests.
An exit from the EU would be a massive blow to the national interest: shrinking Britain’s economy, reducing its standards of living and muting its voice in the world. It would also be a fundamental defeat for the values of solidarity, peaceful co-existence and internationalism that have done so much to define the post-war politics of the left.
There is still time to turn things around. But to do this, Labour will need to start engaging at the highest level, and showing much greater message discipline than it has done in the past (in particular on the referendum question). Labour must work harder to transform the way it is seen – from being a supporter of the status quo to setting to a radical reform agenda.
Labour should start by acknowledging the crisis affecting the main pillars of European integration. Rather than defending Europe as it is, it should define what it wants Europe to be. In order to win back some of the ground it has lost to UKIP, it needs to set out:
- a strategy to manage and mitigate the costs of migration
- a plan for turning Europe from a zone of austerity to one of growth, jobs and protection from the iniquities of China-led globalisation
- a campaign to reclaim the mantle of ‘self-government’ by showing how Europe is the answer to 21st century problems – from the rise of China to the NSA
Labour will also need to help build a new kind of pro- European organisation that goes beyond elites. For much of the last two generations, Europe was an issue that did not attract much interest from the public. Because the issues were abstract, voters were willing to defer to experts and follow the politicians and business leaders they respected the most. But this theory of change now needs to be updated for an era defined by distrust of elites and the death of deference.
What’s more, political arguments today need to be made in a way that links with the lived experience of individual people rather than dwelling on economic and other benefits in the aggregate. If Labour wants to present itself as a government in waiting it needs to engage with an issue that has enormous implications for our national interest: the future of our EU membership.
The next general election – like all political contests – will in part be a contest over who ‘owns’ the future. Key to this is showing how the world is changing and what Britain’s role within it will be. In 1945, 1964 and 1997 Labour set out a new British story – showing how we should adapt to a changing world whether by winning the peace, catching up with the modernisation of our European neighbours or taming globalisation. It is time to link the ‘cost of living crisis’ with a modern, global narrative and to develop an ambitious agenda of European reform as a passport for British success in this new world.