As a part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority, last Tuesday’s Progress event, co-hosted with the Labour Movement for Europe, explored the emotionally charged issue of Europe and what Labour needs to do on the issue of Europe to win a Labour majority in 2015.
Gareth Thomas MP, shadow minister for Europe, gave the meeting a comprehensive context for the debate, outlining the benefits Europe has brought us including workers’ rights, equality legislation, environmental protections, provides significant economic benefits and playing a critical role in ensuring peace and security across the European Union. Gareth also discussed areas that need reform and evolution, including reorientating investment from traditional areas such as agriculture, to research and development, and targeting job creation.
Sarah Jones, parliamentary candidate for Croydon Central, drew on her communications and media background. She described her experience that concerns on ‘European’ issues are actually about the domestic concerns and these needed to be addressed head-on. Sarah also discussed the need for clearer, more resonant messaging on our European story.
David Schoibl, chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, described the need to create clearer narrative on Europe, highlighting the benefits and importance of a social Europe.
Will Tanner, vice-chair of Business for New Europe, outlined his views on a number of issues, including the steps Labour could take to ensure Europe works for business, explored our beneficial and close economic relationship with Europe and the potential damaging consequences of leaving the union. Will also urged the party to take the thorny issue of immigration head-on, and discussed his perspective on the futility of David Cameron’s efforts to deliver a deal on reform of the EU.
The context set by the panel raised a significant amount of debate, the first broad area of which was, simply put, ‘Are we challenging enough to the anti-Europeans?’
The panel, the audience and party were in turn challenged to imagine a UK governed by anti-EU/United Kingdom Independence party policy. It would mean a withdrawal of the workers’ and social rights we have come to treat as a norm, the environmental protections provided by the EU, the consumer rights and so on (unless we are optimistic enough to believe that the right would fight to maintain these rights!). It would also mean losing economic benefits – Will reminded us that leaders of big business including Airbus, Siemens, and Nissan have all claimed that their major presence and their thousands of jobs are in the UK as a result of the UK’s EU membership. The issue of a referendum inevitably arose and it was felt by the panel that the Conservative commitment to a referendum was an instance of party interest over national interest. The uncertainty a referendum causes would harm UK economic and social interests.
So is the answer to throw the ball back in the court of the anti-EU/Ukip brigade – ask them what the UK would look like without these critical benefits.
It sounds good, but Nigel Farage in particular does not seem particularly troubled by getting the facts right, nor does he respond to questioning on policy, but rather seems to disown policy when the holes appear. He gets a relatively easy ride with the popular media and is seen to speak common sense.
So are our messages sharp enough as a party? Is the party talking positively about our approach to Europe and the benefits our membership brings, and in a way that is easily conveyed on the doorstep? What is our story on Europe and do we have a common set of messages that tell that story? Do our candidates and activists know what they are? As a party we feel that ‘European growth’ must be made to serve the principles of a ‘social Europe’ – do we talk about this? Are we myth-busting on Europe as effectively as the myths are being created and embedded? Do we need to remind people that a major contributing factor to the peace, security and democracy we have enjoyed across the EU for many decades, is in significant part owing to the existence of that union.
The meeting’s broad conclusion was yes, we have a compelling story to tell but that we are not telling it sharply or loudly enough, and we had better start telling it now in advance of the European elections.
The second broad theme of discussion was, ‘Are we addressing the issues that are at the root of people’s concerns’?
All our panellists suggested that at the root of many public concerns on Europe actually lie issues of domestic concern – be that pressure on public services, low employment rates, school places, immigration, cost of living and so on.
A broad consensus emerged from the meeting that we need to start by addressing, in an open and honest way, people’s concerns without shying away from the thorny issues, and explain how a well-managed relationship with Europe (be it through European investment into research and development, a growth commissioner to support job creation, youth employment guarantee schemes and so on), could actually help us tackle these concerns far more effectively than trying to go it alone.
In a nutshell, what does Labour need to do on the European issue to secure a majority in 2015? Clearer, sharper messages that tell the Labour story on Europe? Let’s be challenging and talk about how we would address concerns regarding the union. Let’s recognise that many issues that come under the guise of ‘Europe’ are actually domestic concerns; let’s take on the thorny issues and provide the alternative solutions. And let’s get one of our greatest assets – our activists and candidates – tooled-up to tell our story.
Farah Nazeer is a candidate for the south-east region in the European parliamentary election. She tweets @FarahNazeer
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