Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Show not tell

It is our lack planning that is losing the EU debate

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“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.

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Jonathan Roberts

is an officer for the Labour European Movement

5 comments

  • the article relies on the premise that we would want to say yes, but I definitely agree. I have been active for almost 15 years and never once been encouraged to do anything on Europe

  • A europe liaison officer per constituency a good idea. There’s loads of officers in all the many (10!) constituencies I have been in and many do not a lot but like their 10 minutes a year on their favourite subject.
    I suspect most members would now see the EU in the ‘important but boring’ category.
    Europe Liaison officers may have the incentive of a trip to Strasbourg or Brussels with an MEP
    If you include former graduates in Euroepan studies, people who have lived on continental Europe, former MEPs’ researchers and stagiaires, there’s a small army of interested people

  • Since 1999 there has been no Labour Party structure to enable MEPs to communicate regularly with grass roots members. The elections that year and in 2004 were lost opportunities to disseminate positive information about the benefits of EU membership, and the new electoral system has put resources into the hands of Ukip et al to put out negative propaganda.
    Why is Linda McAvan MEP, who was on the Commission which drew up the Treaty, never asked to speak on the media, but only Gisela Stuart MP, who is less well informed and very negative? The people working at European level are much better able to give a non superficial view of the workings of the EU than most MPs.
    Give back to our MEPs a direct link with the party members, difficult as that is on a regional basis, and that will show that we do take the work they do seriously.

  • meps need to get their heads out of the sand on this one. they can not expect to win the respect of ordinary people when they keep themselves at such a distance.

    giving control of EU campaigning back to party members is what’s needed – but will enough people be interested to make a proper go of it?

  • I tried last year with Steve Hughes to organise some Party meetings in the Region to talk about EU issues. The numbers were most disappointing. The best was a meeting which Steve organised with the Secretary general of the Socialist group. I had been thinking ahead to the next Euro elections and it is not too soon. Maybe the task has to start at constituency level. Unless we get a move on there will be lttle prospect of increasing our MEP numbers.

    I still keep in touch with events in the Parliament (limiting this to energy issues) and it is clear that the work pressures on our MEPs continues to grow. Even in a small region like the North East Steve has an unenviable task.

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