Europe: Labour focuses on jobs and rights, instead of distraction
This morning I listened to Ed Miliband setting out Labour’s stall on Europe. A lot of the coverage will focus on what he said about a referendum and benefits (see below.) But I thought that what was much more interesting was what he said about the economic and workplace issues that the General Council emphasised to Congress in September when the referendum issue was debated. He firmed up a number of policies for Europe that look very similar to those in the European Trade Union Confederation’s New Path 4 Europe.
The speech was trailled in the Financial Times (£) and Ed had an op-ed in this morning’s paper. He stressed the economic importance of British membership of the EU and how David Cameron’s EU referendum pledge “has sent such a chill down the spine of businesses round the world” (as the TUC Executive Committee warned when he made it), calling the issue a distraction – just as TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady also did in January 2013.
But in arguing that the concentration on a referendum was detracting from tackling the living standards crisis, Ed Miliband accepted that what people want is an EU that delivers quality jobs and decent wages. He said:
“My vision is of a European Union with a proper focus on building a high skill, high wage economy…. We need more of the money to be spent on public goods that help our economy grow, like infrastructure, energy and innovation. And tackling crucial issues like youth unemployment. Britain accounts for one in six of the unemployed young people across the European Union. This should be a major part of our agenda within the EU. … And the European Union needs to be far more focused on how we strengthen growth across Europe.”
Those first two sentences are the heart of the ETUC ‘plan for investment, sustainable growth and quality jobs’, and it goes further (along a path already signposted, for sure) in nailing down Labour’s economic strategy for Europe, instead of the Coalition Government’s offer of austerity and deregulation.
On deregulation, I think he made his firmest commitment yet to resist the repatriation agenda on workers’ rights. He said several times that Labour would act to “prevent a race to the bottom”, and more specifically, said that:
“some Tories want to weaken rights to paid holiday, maternity leave and other social rights. These protections are not only good for employees. They are also good for business because they prevent firms elsewhere in Europe seeking a competitive advantage by undercutting working conditions. Rather than weakening these protections, we should be defending them.”
The other race to the bottom he dealt with was the one resulting from free movement of workers. On other occasions, he has been reported (not necessarily the same as ‘quoted’, of course) as using language that blames the migrant workers themselves for undercutting, but today he focused on the issue of labour regulation, when he said:
“We should ensure that the law on the minimum wage is properly enforced. We should stop companies using tied housing as a way to side-step the minimum wage. We should take action here at home on loopholes in agency worker contracts which allow wages to be unfairly undercut. And we should be looking at EU directives, like the posted workers directive, to make sure they are effective.”
The TUC still disagrees with an idea he repeated, that transitional controls on employment of workers from new EU member states (not, as he stated, that there will be many in the near future) should be strengthened. We have consistently argued that the right to freedom of movement is so fundamental that it should apply from day one, and also that transitional prohibitions on employment only lead migrants from new EU countries to migrate as self-employed, precisely without the coverage of labour market regulation that Miliband advocates. This is clearly one reason why there were not ‘floods’ of Bulgarian and Romanian workers entering Britain on 1 January: those planning to migrate had already arrived in the years since their countries joined the EU, but in vulnerable, insecure, often bogus self-employment.
On benefits, the policies he set out (changing the residential qualifying period for JSA from three months to six months; restricting Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit to children living in the UK; and more scope to deport new arrivals who commit crimes) are not new, and nor are they earth-shattering. But he set it in the context of a contributory principle, saying:
“Solidarity between those receiving benefits and tax-payers must be built, through a system in which people can have faith. … British people recognise that Britain gains when people come here and contribute. But they don’t believe that people newly arrived should have exactly the same rights as people who have contributed throughout their lives.”
And finally, on a referendum, he raised the volume there too. But the Financial Times suggested that, while pledging a referendum under certain circumstances, he was making clear that those circumstances were so unlikely to happen that he was in effect ruling a referendum out! The BBC’s Nick Robinson described the policy as “a promise of reform and a referendum but not, as they used to say in Star Trek, ‘as we know it’.”
There is more that Labour needs to do to set out a clearer, more popular vision of how Europe could be better with a revitalised social model, but Ed Miliband is right that the key questions on Europe are whether it creates more and better jobs, and are people better off? He’s right that the protections Europe offers to part-time workers, agency workers and people working long hours need to be better. And he’s right to say that the key test on immigration is fairness: we welcome people who do their job, pay their taxes, and join in.
But the Prime Minister is absolutely wrong to jeopardise jobs and investment, wrong to threaten rights at work, and wrong to sow divisions among working people. Promoting insecurity, austerity and the free market is wrong for Europe just as it is wrong for Britain.