“Know thine enemy” I mutter to myself as I walk into my local gym, where a kind Assistant has thrust a free copy of the Daily Mail into my hands with military precision. Whilst the sports pages undoubtedly sustain me through 30 feeble minutes on the treadmill, the latest ramblings about how evil the EU is inspires nothing but an uncontrollable fit of tutting.
The right wing media, it is so lazily observed, stirs up the sea of Euroscepticism that periodically drowns our little island. It is without doubt a fantastically convenient excuse, and one in which even the most energetic of pro-EU campaigners will often seek refuge.
It’s not that pro-EU voices aren’t trying. My heart is often warmed to see an MEP or, rather less frequently, an ordinary citizen writing in the comments page of a regional tabloid, praising the effects of EU directive X, Y or Z. But within 48 hours those same pages are certain to be filled with the angry response of Europhobes and little-Englanders disgusted at the very thought of anything positive coming out of Brussels. I subsequently begin to wonder whether the author’s good intentions ended up doing more harm than good.
Imagine for a second that Gordon Brown caves in to pressure for a referendum on the Reform Treaty – something still not completely out of the realms of possibility – how prepared are we to fight a “Yes” campaign? The truth appears to be that our party is lacking any kind of subculture specifically designed to deal with Europe as an issue, and as such we are probably not very well prepared at all – a situation which could prove disastrous.
Barring election time, I wonder how many MPs have any kind of partnership with their MEP. I wonder how many MEPs have a relationship with grassroots members that ventures beyond the occasional newsletter or branch visit. I wonder when the last time Joe Bloggs had a leaflet through his door highlighting how the European Parliament has instigated massive improvements to the environment, animal welfare standards or consumer rights. Whilst undoubtedly there will be the odd exception, as far as I can see these things simply don’t happen.
This absence has led to a complete lack of direction for many of those who do campaign on European issues, with some even developing a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. I’ve seen my fair share of campaigners at all levels unfairly branding people as “dinosaurs” for having legitimate concerns over the Union, and it is similarly frustrating to be told how we should all “feel European”. It’s all a bit too bossy, and unhelpfully centres on attitudes nobody really seems to share.
If you tell someone, they probably won’t listen, but if you show them the facts and leave them to figure it out for themselves, they probably will – and that is why Labour MEPs and EU campaigners alike should bin the endless cycle of press releases in favour of demanding structural change that will help us work with ordinary people on issues that actually effect them.
The question is, how do we actually do it? For what it’s worth, I would like to see a European Officer appointed in every CLP. The position would be the liaison point for MEPs, and ensure that raising awareness of European Parliamentary successes are promoted within their campaigning agenda. The European Parliamentary Labour Party should assist the process by creating issue-specific campaign packs to help local branches spread a positive message about the EU.
It is probably fair enough to say that Labour has had plenty of other things to think about in recent years, but the European Union has been forced back on to our domestic agenda – and if we don’t address its absence from our internal structures soon, we may well live to regret it.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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