Europe, Labour and the next general election: Labour International Paris debates

Cross-posted from LIP’s website (original blog post here)

Our latest general meeting (5 February 2014) saw our first ever formal debate, which will take place bi-monthly. The purpose of the debates is to explore key issues to the movement while encouraging members to explore alternative perspectives and ideas. Two volunteers spoke on alternative sides, tasked not necessarily to express their own opinion but rather to present a coherent argument for or against the motion. This then facilitated the debate amongst the group so that all members (including the original speakers) could discuss their own perspectives and as a group we could decide how this would guide our future policy.   Writing for the first time for Labour International Paris, Evan O’Connell sums up the debate and gives his thoughts on the conclusions drawn.

The ability to live, work and travel without constraints anywhere in Europe is a freedom that most Britons are only technically aware of, but that ex-pats live with every day. It is not a surprise, therefore, that being mostly ex-pats or friends and colleagues of ex-pats, most members of Labour International Paris (LIP) are reasonably pro-European.

Yet Parisian Labourites are but a small fraction of the Party and the movement as a whole – and not necessarily representative of where the country is on European integration. With that in mind, LIP recently organised its latest debate on how Labour should position itself on the EU in the upcoming European elections in 2014 and the subsequent general election in 2015.

Arguing for the motion “The Labour Party should promote greater engagement with Europe”, Ben Rickey focused on changing the narrative around Europe. He described a successful experiment that brought a peace and prosperity continent once divided by war and that continues to provide benefits to its citizens even today, whether in terms of environmental legislation, harmonised rules on telecoms or workers’ rights.

At the same time, in acknowledging that Europe faces significant challenges today, Rickey pleaded for a strong Britain in a strong Europe, underlining that “Europe needs reform, and reform can only be achieved by effective engagement.” Economic reforms that would bring growth and dynamism back to the EU’s economy could only come to pass if the UK fully participated in the decisions that would shape Europe’s future.

Furthermore, Rickey argued that Labour’s often timid line on Europe has allowed eurosceptics to define the terms of the debate and allow misconceptions and falsehoods to become commonly accepted by the British population. It was Labour’s duty to counter these lies and mistruths. In so doing, and in turning the tables on Europe, Labour could usher in a new era of pro-European politics in the UK.

Dave Parry, meanwhile, shifted the focus of the question from what was right for Britain in the long term to what Labour should do in 2015. Citing Gaitskell and Callaghan, Parry underlined that there was a long-standing Labour Eurosceptic movement and that expressing doubts about the benefits of European integration was certainly not new territory for Labour.

Underlining that “the debate this evening is not about the merits of the EU: it’s about how Labour wins the next election”, Parry pointed out that the Conservatives would undoubtedly focus on Europe and the referendum pledge: “If Ed wants to show how he is different by promoting his own judgment, he should not promote greater engagement with Europe. He needs to stand up to the perceived view that a Labour leader is a ‘blind follower of the EU gravy train’.”

Reminding attendees of Tony Blair’s ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech, Parry pleaded for a ‘tough love’ discourse acknowledging the criticisms by many that “[T]he EU is too expensive, bureaucratic, and not fit for purpose in its present state” and arguing that Britain needs to have greater control on access to its labour market. Suggesting openness to a referendum on EU membership, he argued, would help win support with non-Labour voters and help Ed into no. 10.

While attendees generally agreed more with the sentiments expressed by Ben Rickey in favour of a pro-EU line, there was sympathy for Dave Parry’s argument that an EU-critical position might be more electorally sound. While some suggested that Labour would in any case be perceived as pro-EU and should be proud of its position, others felt that there was little upside in being perceived as out of touch with the views of a majority of Britons who seem to support loosening ties with the continent.

A hope for a change in UK political discourse in the long term was generally shared by most, however – and as suggested by both Ben Rickey and Flora Bolter, LIP activists and sympathisers committed themselves to knocking on doors as part of the PES grassroots “#KnockTheVote” initiative. All agreed that LIP should continue building ties with the PES Paris CityGroup (FacebookTwitter) and with the local Paris “Fédération” of the French Socialist Party.

Evan O’Connell