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“We’re standing up for Britain” or “We’re all in this together” – ways to explain the EU budget

A tweet by Emma Burnell pointed me towards this blog post by Tracy Hill about UKIP, and the threat they pose to Labour. You can read the whole blog post to look at the stuff about UKIP, but there is one paragraph I will highlight, for it shows the problems the EU poses Labour, let alone UKIP posing a problem to Labour. This is the paragraph – emphasis in bold is mine:

Labour MEPs work hard in Europe, engaging with the system and negotiating for a better deal for Britain. By promoting British interests actively in Europe, Labour can secure better terms for British businesses and push for reform where it’s needed. Labour MEP Derek Vaughan recently secured a real-terms cut for the 2013 budget of the European Parliament and other EU institutions, by restricting administrative expenses. The public will respond to evidence that their representatives can change things positively in Europe, and we need to find ways of communicating this evidence.

This is rather standard fare when it comes to explaining the EU in the UK. It’s about going off to Brussels and getting our way! Standing up for the country!

Only actually it doesn’t work this way.

First of all, what are Labour’s values? They are the values of compassion and social democracy, that we’re all better if we work together. That means that we should be emphasising a centre-left vision for the budget, not the notion that there is a British interest in the budget and that Labour is working for this. Less CAP money for rich landowners, and more for investment in the EU’s poor regions is more of a Labour line than “restricting administrative expenses”.

Second, Labour has been playing a tricky game on the budget for years anyway, where MEPs vote along S&D Group lines in the EP on all amendments, and then vote down the budget as a whole to make a symbolic point to the UK media that they were ‘tough’. Take a look at the 2013 budget vote that Tracy mentions – here is the vote on Votematch. Filter this for S&D Group and UK, and you will see that only Derek Vaughan, the Labour MEP, voted in favour (because he was rapporteur), while all his UK Labour colleagues voted against. But there was still led this press release from the EPLP about Derek’s work, welcoming the decision. If you can work out what Labour is actually trying to do in the EP on this then you’re more clever than I am.

Third, the idea that you can in any way communicate this sort of weigh-up-the-pros-and-cons approach to the EU is rather fanciful anyway. This is the way pro-Europeans have been trying to do it for decades in the UK already, and look at where it has left us. People vote according to their values, not according to a raw analysis of the facts or policies, and Labour has no values-based approach to the EU. Even if Labour thinks it needs a tough approach, no-one is going to believe that Labour can out-tough UKIP or the Tories anyway. And then there’s the deep distrust of UK and EU politics that Labour has to contend with.

So it’s time for Labour to ditch the “standing up for Britain” line, because it can’t work for the party. “We’re all in this together” might be a better way forward.


6 Comments

  • Tracey Hill |

    Hi John, thanks for commenting on my post. Out of the Daily Express’ “Sixty Reasons to Loathe the EU” I’d estimate that at least 45 have something to do with the administrative costs of the European Commission in particular, and more broadly. The Europe debate in this country is very much taken up with the costs of government – out of touch Brussels bureaucrats lining their own pockets, etc etc. So if we can show that we want to see these expenses and allowances curtailed, that speaks very directly to public concerns. I don’t know the ins and outs of how Labour MEPs vote, but the Derek Vaughan press release, featured on the EPLP website, seemed to be a good example of us campaigning for administrative cost reductions and achieving them.

    Certainly amongst some Labour supporters there will be support for the idea of Europe contributing to poorer countries. But there is a feeling amongst this group against Britain contributing elsewhere, because struggling people are wondering why we are giving our money away overseas when they are being told they can’t have a pay rise, their jobs are at risk, disabled people have to go out to work, there are cuts to services for the elderly and children, etc etc. So I’m unconvinced that that will bring Eurosceptics back to Labour. It’s more to do with how well we can demonstrate what the EU can do for Britain.

    As for out-toughing UKIP and the Conservatives, Ashcroft’s research showed that UKIP are not in fact seen as the party which can best promote British interests in Europe. Amongst all UKIP considerers, the Tories got the highest score there. I’d like to think that amongst those UKIP considerers who have previously voted Labour, they might see Labour in this light. In any case there’s a recognition that voting UKIP is about sending a message, not about getting a party that can actually intervene in British interests. That’s something only parties which are engaged with Europe can do. The Tories are so extremely divided on Europe that their effectiveness is limited, whereas Labour MEPs can be much more committed.

  • Jon |

    Tracey – thanks for the further comments. But the problem here, like most matters to do with the EU and the UK, is a difference between facts and reality. The European Commission, with about 25000 staff, is much, much smaller than national administrations. Yes, it could be smaller still, but by focusing on that the real problem – spending on the wrong things (i.e. CAP) is missed. Also the fact that the EU accounts for 1/40 of UK public spending gross, before any money comes back to UK farmers, poor regions etc., is also lost. The EU is not some massive loss of cash to the UK exchequer, and the way Labour presents it just loses the argument before we have even got to the heart of it. Labour essentially says “Oh, it is a waste of money, so let’s make it less of a waste of money”, rather than saying “This is what the EU is good at. Let’s get us there”.

    For years and years people who notionally call themselves pro-Europeans have been arguing this way, conceding most of the ground to the EU-sceptic side before they even begin to formulate an argument. That has to stop, or else the referendum that’s all but inevitable on the UK’s EU membership is doomed to result in an ‘OUT’ result.

  • Martin Holterman |

    “Third, the idea that you can in any way communicate this sort of weigh-up-the-pros-and-cons approach to the EU is rather fanciful anyway. This is the way pro-Europeans have been trying to do it for decades in the UK already, and look at where it has left us. People vote according to their values, not according to a raw analysis of the facts or policies,”

    Yes! Thank you! This is the point I tried to make in my own modest way talking about the Cohn-Bendit & Verhofstadt book recently.

  • Tracey Hill |

    I absolutely think we should talk about the benefits of the EU. Purely in economic terms we earn much more from being in it than we pay out, and there are social benefits too. But we can’t just ignore the issue of its image as a “gravy train”. It comes up all the time and we need an answer.

  • D Mcdonald |

    Sir,
    I regard you as nothing more than a marxist apologist for the politburo in Brussels (as evidenced by your other ventures). You have written articles about the UKIP danger to both the tories and labour as though you are concerned about the direction of either party (so long as it’s pro EU). I don’t believe there is any political leader in our country who is prepared to stand up for the British people against this marxist abomination despite what they say. Stop pretending that you are somehow neutral, all of your articles are skewed to support this creation which should never have seen the light of day but for the treasonous (and blackmailed)Edward Heath and the lackeys that followed. My ever lasting hope is that this marxist creation collapses under the weight of its own folly and greed. Sorry to rain on your parade. If you are lonely as you stated in a previous blog, get over it I am sure you are consoled by the money Brussels pays you.
    I could give you chapter and verse on the financial abuses of the EU which is nothing but a club for rent seekers on the make but the EU will let them get away with it provided they vote “correctly”
    D Mcdonald

So, what do you think ?