If you felt so minded, you could talk about Europe before breakfast, lunch and dinner every day at the Labour party conference, writes Sunder Katwala, as the looming referendum on Europe has proved one of the most popular event themes at the party’s Brighton conference fringe.
The party certainly has some catching up to do in grappling with the challenges of finding its voice for the public vote. This time last year, Labour was continuing to try to hold its line against a referendum to let the public decide on the in/out question – before reversing that position immediately after Labour’s General Election defeat.
Now, the party’s pro-Europeans feel unleashed to make the case – with many of the moderate refuseniks who have chosen not to serve in the Corbyn frontbench saying that keeping Britain in the European Union will be the issue that gets them out of bed in the mornings of 2015 and 2016.
Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic – one who voted no to the EEC in 1975 and, as a close follower of Tony Benn, would have preferred the 1983 manifesto in which Labour planned to withdraw, to the pro-EU manifestos of the New Labour era. By the leadership contest, he had become a pragmatic agnostic, wanting the left to debate what kind of Europe it wants. So the party moderates are proud to have won their first battle, in converting their Eurosceptic leader to a pragmatic acceptance that the party will, in all circumstances, campaign for EU membership when the public vote happens, whatever deal is on the table.
That isn’t quite the view of Labour voters. Survation’s research for British Future shows that one in four Labour voters (26%) say they will vote ‘in’ whatever the deal, while one-third are ‘leaning in’ (33%) but could change their minds. A fifth (20%) are ‘leaning out’ while open to persuasion, with 7% committed to voting out. So Labour voters are more pro-EU than the general public, breaking 2:1 for ‘in’ over ‘out’ in May 2015. But most Labour voters say that they could change their minds depending on what is on the table, a view shared by two-thirds of the public.
So the irony is that Labour’s moderates have won over their leader on the one subject on which he may be rather more in touch with public opinion than they are. Corbyn’s Left Euroscepticism is somewhat different from that of the broader public – his favourite thing about the EU is free movement, while he is sceptical about its economic agenda; many voters’ views are the other way round. But there is a plausible case that undecided voters will be more likely to be persuaded by political voices who can explain that they too feel torn by the choice, before deciding that the ‘in’ or ‘out’ case was stronger. Corbyn could, potentially, have been such a voice – but it is now unlikely that the general public will realise that.
Often, several of the Brighton fringe meetings on Europe took place simultaneously. Sometimes, combining them might have been more illuminating. “I am afraid it feels like we are all going to agree terribly on this panel” said the chair of a packed Policy Network event – and it turned out that Peter Mandelson and Chuka Umunna could indeed find much common ground with John Cridland from the CBI and Mark Boleat of the Corporation of London. “Everything that needs to be said has been said, but not yet by everybody,” said Pat McFadden, speaking fifth on that line-up. Meanwhile, a stone throw’s away in another hotel, the Labour safeguards campaign were providing a rallying point for the sceptical minority in the party to make their case. Any clash of ideas between the contrasting perspectives of the two events was confined to twitter.
Some fringes did bring differing perspectives together. A ‘night owl’ debate at Policy Network on free movement ended with an angry clash between Roger Liddle and David Goodhart of Demos as they fell out over Polish immigration. There was disagreement too at a late night ResPublica fringe, where former leadership contender Mary Creagh said it was time for the case for Europe to involve poetry, not just prose. She provided it too, launching immediately into Italian to quote from Dante’s inferno. We could live and die as beasts or choose knowledge and virtue, she explained, arguing that it should be a high stakes referendum. The new cross-party ‘In’ Campaign will no doubt choose to make its case mostly in the English language, but director Will Straw did express the view at another fringe that there was an “enthusiasm gap” between the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps.
Graham Stringer, a supporter of the Labour For Britain group of Eurosceptics, was sceptical about the idea that the party should see being pro-European as part of its core identity and mission. Every previous political leader, except John Smith, had run on a Eurosceptic platform at some point in their career, he pointed out, arguing that the party’s conversion to Europe had been a tactical response to Thatcherism.
Stringer is not a Corbyn supporter – but he argued that the leader’s Left agenda on rail nationalisation and the economy would be much harder while Britain remained in the EU.
The fringe debates showed a significant appetite for talking about Europe. But three significant questions remain about Labour’s strategy towards Europe.
Firstly, what is Labour’s approach to the reform and renegotiation agenda?
“Anybody can say that they are pro-reform. It doesn’t really mean anything without the content”, Mark Boleat of the Corporation of London told Policy Network. Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn did set out some of the changes that Labour will support at an Open Europe fringe, including a ‘red card’ for national parliaments. There is concern, especially from trade unionists, that the Labour commitment to support any reform agenda has traded-in vital leverage over the renegotiation phase. It may prove very difficult for pro-EU trade unionists to persuade their members to vote for any reform agenda that weakens employment protections.
Labour, as a party of opposition, has a natural instinct to critique the Prime Minister’s efforts on reform – sometimes suggesting he is asking for changes that he can’t get, which risks suggesting that the club can never change, while at other times suggesting he should be able to achieve much more. On the most publicly salient issues – immigration and welfare – the frontbenches support very similar reforms, yet seem unwilling to acknowledge this agreement. One might question how much sense it makes to mount such party political criticisms, if Labour is committed to campaigning for the outcome in a referendum that will be done and dusted long before the next general election?
Secondly, how will Labour make a useful contribution to the referendum debate?
For Labour’s pro-EU majority, the question is whether they have arguments that preach beyond those who are not already onside. Every fringe meeting discussed the need for an effective, positive argument. It was much more unusual to hear what that might be – especially in terms that might make sense to people who don’t attend party conference fringe debates.
The pro-European side has a great deal to say about every detailed question of European policy and politics. It struggles much more to tell an overall story about what is at stake, in a way that resonates with the undecided. On immigration in particular, pro-Europeans revert to a set of comfort zone arguments – ‘we can go there too’ – which will appeal to graduates who are confident, cosmopolitan and mobile. But there was little sign of an effective argument to connect with the concerns of the undecided voters who will decide this referendum.
Thirdly, what does the Labour party do after the referendum?
The scars of the Scottish referendum loom large in the party. One in three Labour voters voted for independence. Within six months, nine out of ten Yes voters were voting SNP in the General Election. It is possible to win a referendum and lose an electorate. A European referendum might turn out to be different, but it is hardly surprising that many Labour people are very wary of repeating the ‘Better Together’ approach to a referendum campaign.
Labour may have been focused on the referendum this week – but one of the hidden divides in the party is between those for whom Britain’s place in Europe is a bigger issue than party politics, and those for whom even an in/out referendum is mainly a distraction from the party’s main political cause.