I listened to your interview on this morning’s Today programme with a sinking sense of déjà-vu. With the Tories digging themselves ever further into a Eurosceptic hole, and the Lib Dems shackled to them, Labour has a golden opportunity to differentiate itself, detoxify the UK debate, and show some leadership on the issue of our role in Europe. This morning, not for the first time, I think you missed that opportunity.
Ed, you fell into the trap of most UK politicians and commentators by placing your approach to EU policy in a negative context. It’s a mistake to start from the premise that the EU is broken. You won’t beat the Tories and UKIP at their own, eurosceptic game. You sounded defensive; you sounded reactive; you sounded scared of public opinion; you sounded, frankly, unleaderly. The UK debate is and has for years been framed on a very negative projection of the EU by almost our entire political establishment and this has helped to toxify the debate. You have an opportunity to change that.
There is a clear opportunity for Labour here to occupy new terrain in the centre of UK politics. You should start from the premise that the EU has done a great deal for the UK, and that the UK has contributed a great deal to the EU. This has the benefit of being (a) a positive narrative, (b) a DIFFERENT narrative, (c) true, (d) easily backed up with lots of great hard stats. Additionally, it plays to Labour’s strengths: the many, great things which the EU has done for British people include many things close to Labour voters’ hearts: protection for employees, consumer safety, environmental standards, and much more. These are achievements to celebrate, not denigrate! A pro-membership, pro-engagement stance would also allow Labour to occupy the pro-business mainstream, encroaching on core Tory territory: the EU has allowed UK business to flourish, an achievement which disengagement gravely threatens. The Single Market is not undermined by rules which protect workers, living standards, etc; these rules are themselves key parts of the Single Market and guarantee fair competition! UK business has nothing to fear from the EU – look at how well Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium do as fully engaged EU members with high levels of employee protection and social standards. Their economies flourish BECAUSE of the EU, not despite it. Why would British businesses and employees want to join China and India in a race to the bottom when we have these great role models right next door to us?
Starting from a positive, pro-membership premise would have strong strategic advantages for a party with the courage to launch itself down that path. A party which is openly committed to constructive engagement inside the EU is in a far stronger position to tackle the negatives. Pro-Europeans cannot and should not run away from the problems which the EU faces. But by starting from a position which says “we believe in the institution, and its power to improve British lives,” a real leader can recast the debate, directing it away from the solipsistic, defeatist discussion over which powers should be repatriated and talking instead about his ideas for mending what’s broken. You should begin with tactical arguments: the UK can’t fix things if we have destroyed our own credibility by adopting isolationist, secessionist language. We need to be in at the heart, wielding our influence and injecting our ideas. This is what our allies are crying for us to do; this talks up UK influence, and – handled correctly – could have enormous popular appeal. British voters don’t realise how influential we can be in Brussels, how influential we already are, and how well we are liked when we engage.
Ed, there is a big gap in British politics waiting to be filled by a leader who is prepared to take on the defeatist, negative arguments of what has become the mainstream voice on Europe. Don’t start by denigration, start with celebration of how much better off British people are inside the EU, which we have helped shape; and then move on to what Britain can and should do as a leading European country to mend and improve this amazing achievement. Then – only then – contrast this vision with the Tory/UKIP vision of a UK outside but subject to the same rules, which we can no longer shape, with the Single Market in tatters, with our key relationships destroyed. A wise person does not sit in a house with a leaky roof, moaning about the damp and threatening to go and sit outside by himself in the rain. He takes a lead, organises people, and fixes the roof!
Ed, you have an amazing opportunity here – you can be the leader to step up and defend the national interest at a moment when it is under real threat. We look to you to rise to the challenge.