Labour’s pro-Europeans must stick to their guns, writes Pat McFadden
Labour’s general election defeat means the government’s proposed referendum on British membership of the European Union will go ahead. It is the prime minister’s top priority. It featured strongly in the Conservative manifesto and the government has placed it at the centre of the Queen’s speech.
Recognising that the referendum will happen is not the same as changing our position on the desired outcome of keeping Britain in the EU. On this Labour must stick to its guns.
We were right to argue in the election that Brexit poses huge risks for British jobs, trade and investment. The EU is still by far our biggest export market. Tariff-free access to 500 million customers is hugely important for our businesses. Half of our inward investment comes from the EU. And a significant proportion of the investment from outside the EU is helped by our status as a gateway to the single market.
And it is not only about economics, it is about security and values too. With a proxy war taking place in Ukraine it makes little sense for Britain to be calling for maximum European unity in sanctions towards Russia and in the next breath threatening to leave the EU. The hard end of our security will continue to be provided by Nato but we should not underestimate the importance of the shared values of peace, democracy and the peaceful resolution of disputes that are embodied by EU membership.
Labour should continue to argue the case for British membership in our economic and wider interests.
There will of course be much debate about the details of the referendum over the coming weeks. Who exactly should get to vote? We will argue for 16- and 17-year-olds to be allowed to take part. It worked well in Scotland and this referendum is about the country’s future so why should 16- and 17-year-olds not get a say?
On what date will the vote take place? We have already said that, whatever the timing, on an issue of such constitutional importance we do not believe this vote should be folded in to another set of elections such as the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and London mayoral elections next year.
These are important issues and there will be others as the bill is debated. But none of them is the exam question. That remains the issue of Britain in or out.
David Cameron has consistently placed tactics above strategy on this most crucial of issues. First, he pledged not to have a referendum, only to change his position under pressure from both the United Kingdom Independence party and his Eurosceptic backbenchers. Then he led his troops up to the top of the hill on immigration. Last year Cameron claimed he would stop the principle of free movement before announcing a retreat to the issue of benefit entitlement in his speech in the following autumn. Now his agenda for renegotiation is unclear, with a regular procession of ideas being floated and discarded.
There is a reason for the lack of definition in the government’s position. The prime minister must know that his renegotiation, whatever it produces, will inevitably be too timid for Ukip and for a proportion of his parliamentary party. There is nothing he can negotiate that will satisfy those who want to return to the days before Britain chose to engage in any joint decision-making in Europe. For them it is not about reforms to benefits or some new wording on ever closer union. Unless there is an individual United Kingdom parliamentary veto over everything the EU proposes, they will view his deal as paltry and insignificant.
Of course, like the emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen story, Cameron will end this process claiming to be wearing a beautiful new suit of clothes. He will say he has transformed the relationship. Some in his party, through loyalty and relief, will marvel at the colour and texture of the emperor’s clothes. But not all. The hardline Eurosceptics are already gearing up to point out that there will not be much keeping him warm.
What should Labour do in these circumstances?
On the campaign tactics, there is debate over learning from the Scottish experience. There is no doubt that the way we argued our referendum case was an issue on the doorstep in Scotland, though the troubles of Scottish Labour go deeper than that. The Scottish National party had been running Scotland for years and already held a majority in the Scottish parliament. That was why the referendum was held in the first place.
So let us debate how we shape our argument and if learning from the Scottish experience points to a more distinct Labour ‘yes’ campaign then we should establish that. But there is a difference between campaign tactics and holding to our strategic position. We could not have opted out of the argument to maintain the UK. We are not a nationalist party. And it would be a huge mistake for Labour to consign itself to irrelevance on the critical issue of the country’s future membership of the EU or the wider issue of how Britain sees its world role.
The argument to stay in the EU will be about far more than what politicians do. It will involve business, universities, people at work, people from all walks of life.
But Labour cannot stand back when this issue matters for every company in the country that exports to the EU, and every company that supplies them. The jobs and living standards of our supporters and those we want to reach out to are on the line.
Britain’s position as a country that attracts inward investment from both the EU and around the world is under threat. So too are some of the rights of millions of people at work which have been built up through the EU.
And if we believe in a rules-based world then we cannot regard with indifference the prospect of leaving a group of 28 member states where differences are resolved round a table rather than in older, tougher ways.
Being in opposition does not absolve us of our responsibilities to make the case.
Of course there are some in the Labour party who may favour withdrawal from the EU and they will argue their point of view. But in the past generation the centre of gravity in Labour has shifted firmly in favour of staying in the EU.
Britain’s retreat from the world is not an issue of passing importance. We should stand up for what we believe in and argue with passion for a Britain engaged in the world, leading in Europe not leaving it. That is the best future for our country.
Pat McFadden MP is shadow minister for Europe