One-time FT journalist Stefan Stern recently blogged some advice from Napoleon about how to respond to the Conservative implosion over Europe. “Do not interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake,” was the broad thrust, and it is wise advice. As someone who started referring to “swivel-eyed” europhobes way back in January when Cameron made the European speech that his coterie crowed over but which may turn out to be his biggest error, I am well aware of the dangers of entering the Conservative-UKIP ‘debate’.
But unions need to beware of standing on the sidelines. The stakes are too high. We need to shift the terms of the debate back from Britain’s relationship with Europe to the economic crisis. As ATL General Secretary Mary Bousted put it last week “I wish they’d obsess about jobs, instead of Europe!”
First, the persistent bidding war is pushing the main party in the coalition to escalate the good things offered by the EU that they would willingly ditch – guaranteed holidays and rest breaks, health and safety generally, employment rights and influence over global issues like climate change, tax avoidance and so on. We can rely only so far on the Liberal Democrats to prevent this becoming the policy of the UK Government: in his otherwise excellent attack on Lord Lawson’s call for a Brexit last Thursday, Vince Cable still stooped low enough to take a swipe at health and safety standards as burdensome.
Second, the overwhelming noise generated by the UKIP-Conservative conflict about who can be tougher, amplified by a media generally hostile to the EU, could shift the political centre rightwards, emboldening europhobes in Labour’s ranks and frightening the timid triangulators who conceive of political leadership as slavishly following simplistic opinion polls rather than developing narratives that move public opinion in a progressive direction.
What this means in practice is that when people ask what is the cause of the problems they face in their everyday lives, the EU becomes the target (or migrants, or scroungers – the right is nothing if not replete with potential scapegoats), and Brexit the solution. There is some scope for arguing the toss on this, as Lord Howe has, Vince Cable did on Thursday and Lord Mandelson is doing today (although I’m not sure any of them are convincing advocates.)
But what is more likely to succeed is a remorseless focus on the alternative narrative, that pins the blame for the economic woes facing families and communities – higher prices, lower or stagnant wages, rapidly worsening public services – on austerity economics, growing inequality and a tax system based on one rule for us and no rules for the rich.
There is a place for the EU in that narrative, but only if it changes course itself, for example ending the hatchet job on the ‘programme countries’ and workplace rights; building on the youth guarantee and a significant and sustainable investment stimulus; and tackling tax havens, base erosion and profit shifting. Only on the last issue is the EU beginning to move, and there is a lot more to do, as the ETUC social compact proposes.