2015 General Election, Capitalism, Democracy, Ed Miliband, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Union, Frank Field, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey, Labour, New Labour, Opinion, Politics, Tony Benn, Tony Blair
In the history of democracy, 2017 is likely to be a year of profound significance. The UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union is essentially a decision about whether unrestrained democracy is really realistic any more. Should power still issue from us, through the ballot box, or are we no longer up to fulfilling such a role without external bureaucratic supervision?
We are not so much in the position of turkeys voting for Christmas as we are voting to decide whether or not we are turkeys.
David Cameron wants to point the referendum at the EU like a blunderbuss, and demand that it stand and deliver powers back to the UK parliament. He is optimistic that the UK’s relationship with the EU can be “renegotiated” and the EU’s institutions “reformed.” In everyday politics, “we must reform the EU” is usually a sentence which is never elaborated upon and only ever used to defer debate. For Tychy, however, the issue of renegotiation “little relevancy bore.” The EU is, simply by virtue of being the EU, as politically unacceptable as the House of Lords or the monarchy. Nothing short of a trading relationship, brokered and overseen by foreign secretaries, could adequately replace the present, disastrously undemocratic arrangements.
The UK Labour party seems to be in the process of concluding that if it had been identical to the Tories then it would have won last week’s election. Maybe, in a supreme political counterstroke, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham will each make a bid for the leadership of the Tory party, and in this way, deliver a Labour government for the UK. Labour ultimately lost because it did not have any popular or inspiring policies, such as that mass house building programme or that dedication to funding a revolution in stem-cell therapy. But where Labour was firmly to the right in this election was in its opposition to an EU referendum.
Ed Miliband maintained throughout his leadership that a referendum would be too disruptive to capitalism and the short-term profits of British businesses. Sir Mike Rake, the president of the CBI, duly praised, “Ed Miliband’s view that we are better off in a reformed EU than outside with no influence… business believes that future investment, growth and jobs depend on the UK being part of a competitive and outward-looking EU.”
Never mind that half of the nations in the EU are complete basket cases and that trading freely with these countries, and not with India or Brazil, is the economics of the 1980s. Both the “left” of Labour and the right, in the persons of Ed Miliband and Tony Blair, were equally passionate in making the same case against democracy which the Chinese state machine has been making repeatedly since Tiananmen. It causes chaos, it distracts from wealth creation, and it must be postponed to some remote time when it is more convenient.
The Labour leadership contest is currently vomiting out Blairites all over the media, and the party will have the unenviable job of trying to select from these undistinguished and indistinguishable personalities. Yet would Labour be better off with a Eurosceptic in the race?
Such a candidate could not win and for the moment it seems unlikely that they could even be nominated, needing as they would the signatures of 34 MPs (BBC) or 35 MPs (New Statesman). To put these figures into context, 29 Labour MPs had voted for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, and by 2013 this had been reduced to 15 members of the lobbying group “Labour for a Referendum.” And not all of these MPs were calling for an EU exit. The 34/35 MPs barrier is presumably in place so that the winning candidate will have enough like-minded MPs at their disposal to form a cabinet. Within the rarefied climate of Westminster, therefore, a Eurosceptic candidate is scarcely imaginable, but outside of this world it might be the shock which brings Labour back to life.
A Eurosceptic candidate would not just make the droves who are fleeing to UKIP stop and glance back over their shoulders at Labour; such a candidate would demonstrate that the party had finally changed after Blairism and that it could co-exist with genuine debate and dissent. But without enough signatories guaranteed, a Eurosceptic candidacy would be dependent upon a generosity within the parliamentary Labour party over the permitted scope of the leadership debate.
Labour’s Eurosceptic voices will need to grow louder in any case in the months leading up to the referendum. There is presently a disturbing imbalance between Europhile and Eurosceptic voices in the parliament, with one party for “In” and three parties so far denying that there should even be a referendum. The between a third and a half of the UK public who are for “Out” are bereft of parliamentary representation. In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the referendum campaign can be conducted fairly.
I am going to stop using this wretched word “Eurosceptic” – as I have previously argued, it is an entirely superfluous word. So, who is a democrat here? Who could feature as Labour’s pro-democracy candidate?
Unfortunately, there are so few pro-democracy Labour MPs in the latest parliament that they barely outnumber the Liberal Democrats (another misnomer!). Tony Benn, the most famous Labour critic of Europe, and Austin Mitchell, the Chair of the Labour Euro-Safeguards Campaign, are respectively deceased and out of office. What remains is a handful of “veteran” figures, politically rather shabby, with spots of ministerial experience here and there. Some are on the right, such as Frank Field, and others on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn. There are no fresh or smooth or very trendy faces amongst them, not least because they generally hail from the era prior to Blairism and the remorseless promotion of conformists to parliamentary seats. Yet if they already have seats, they usually retain them with large majorities. They are only popular with the voters and not with the political establishment.
The prickly Frank Field, the 72-year-old Labour MP for Birkenhead has previously called for a “major return of powers from Brussels to Westminster.” He arrives with a surprisingly broad range of Labour, Tory, and traditionalist views, however, and to believe that the Labour party could come to share all of them, in Field’s precise combination, would be to think the unthinkable. The Guardian commentator Michael White is doubtlessly right to conclude that, “FF could not lead his way out of a paper bag.”
Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, similarly floats about the political spectrum. She is eye-catching as that rarest of things, a left-wing libertarian, and she has fought for the Left against welfare cuts and tenant evictions, whilst also offering solace to fox hunters and handgun toters. Despite being a perennial critic of the Labour party, her piece in Monday’s Belfast Newsletter does not seem wildly out of kilter with the language of mainstream Labour. Hoey opines that, “Many of our policies were rightly standing up for the less well off but they were put forward in a way that seemed we had to demonise the better off in order to help the poor.” Still, for today’s Labour party to acquire such a figure as its leader is rather like the mountain moving to Mohomet.
And so on to Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston, where it is much the same story. Like Hoey, Stuart has some brief ministerial experience; like Hoey, she is personally impressive but politically marginalised. She has the added tendency to say things of dubious practicality which alarm Labour supporters, such as her call in March for Labour and the Tories to form a “grand coalition” in the event of there being no overall majority. Other prominent democrats include Graham Stringer (Blackley & Broughton), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) and John Cryer (Leyton & Wanstead).
When it comes to Europe, this faction is galvanised by the knowledge that they had scored a rare victory over the Blarites within Labour, on the question of joining the single currency. John Cryer asserted in 2011 that, “There are a lot of Labour MPs who didn’t want to join the single currency who feel the same way about the EU as a whole.” Kate Hoey has commented about those opposing an EU referendum that, “ironically, it’s the same people who were saying how dreadful it would be if we didn’t join the Euro, and of course we all know how wrong they were.”
Ah, but then there is Scotland. A YouGov poll which was conducted last November determined that 57% of Scots would vote to stay in the EU, whereas the figure falls to 37% for the rest of the UK. Admittedly a poll was conducted a month later by the Freedom Association which found 39% of Scots supporting continued membership. Labour is nonetheless at the stage where it has nothing to lose from taking a more combative stance against the SNP and this should include challenging its ludicrous and politically unsustainable reverence for the EU.
Iain Martin, writing for the Telegraph in 2012, recalled the mess that Labour had previously gotten itself into over Europe:
Commentators talk about the Conservative party being split on the subject, but Labour did actually split in the 1980s with some of the party’s best and brightest going off to form the pro-EEC SDP. Others – such as John Smith – stayed and fought to make Labour pro-European. A commitment to Europe then indicated modernity and openness to the idea that not all business was bad.
It is time for Labour to get over any lingering aversion to debating Europe. That core of Labour MPs who oppose EU membership is declining parliament by parliament, but their political passivity can no longer remain an option as the EU referendum approaches. Far better that the party open the closet door and blow the dust off some skeletons. In this instance, the skeletons in the cupboard turn out to be morally obese.