The labeling today by Ken Clarke of a large number of his erstwhile colleagues as ‘extreme’ Europhobes is not something the public will be that surprised about as the Prime Minister enters the budget negotiations over the next week.
Once again (and its now true to form) the Tory right are trying to claim – incorrectly – that Labour is being inconsistent on Europe. That somehow you cant be pro-European unless you are calling for a massive budget increase with more powers devolved to Brussels plutocrats; or anti-European without wanting to undermine the very Economic union which has led to decades of peace and economic growth across the continent. It is a sad parody on our media that these two extremist and absolutist positions are totally false arguments devoid of political reality.
It is a fallacy to state that you cant wish to remain in the European Union as a full trading partner, with the benefits of an open market, but also wish for a budget cut to the European Union in light of fiscal tightening, which is happening in all national budgets across all of Europe. The two are entirely consistent and actually present a rational argument in stating we want a European Union which works at a time of cuts. Why are the right lampooning this argument which I suspect most reasonable people would subscribe? Indeed, one which the Conservative leader himself can subscribe, were it not for his weakness on the negotiation table.
I suspect today Ed Miliband will rightly emphasize the One Nation willingness to engage in some of the more positive aspects of Europe because in a global world you can retain a national identity whilst working with partners to create economic growth; the notion of peace across the continent; the leverage it allows us to manage trading relationships in an increasingly economically regionalised world and one which allows resources to be pooled and standards maintained.
This does not mean that Labour is slavishly devoted to joining the Euro and selling our rights down the river, or that people on the left are happy with the bureaucratic meddling of Brussels, or the increasingly opaque nature of budgetary management. We are not. I am, like the next person, very unhappy with the current state of Europe and its management but I also know that by leaving we would lose out on trading relationships. Europe does have a democratic deficit problem; its budgets and its processes are opaque and there is a serious argument for major reform of CAP and political process within the structure. I also believe that at some point the British public will need to be consulted on our relationship to settle the issue once and for all; I don’t agree that the best time to consult was during the biggest economic crisis in 80 years.
Once upon a time people with views like mine would have been welcomed in the Conservative movement as being pragmatic and reasoned. We would have been respectfully listened and engaged, but such is now those with moderate voices are lynched by the right in quite literal modern day witch-burnings on ConHome or beyond. The centrists in the Tory party are quite literally purged and cast adrift before our eyes.
It is true that there is populism in being anti-European but then there is populism in lots of issues where government has a wider responsibility; it is always easier to win an audience of sorts, but as we saw last week a lot of the support for UKIP does not switch to mainstream political parties were UKIP not to exist. UKIP support at the PCC ballot on second preference went to extremist parties. The problem with courting this type of absolutist vote is that you will never be able to appease it; it will simply continue to bite and nibble away because its only outcome is self-interest. UKIPs self-interest is to ensure that wherever a mainstream party positions it ensures it does just enough to ensure it lies outside and hoovers up this vote at European elections.
How does the Tory machine placate a single-issue, rabidly-populist and well resourced UKIP; well stop giving them legitimacy in debates in Westminster and by talking and hacking over Europe is one such answer. The problem is that UKIP know that some Tories are very happy to engage and in my mind partner on the issue; it allows them to move the party to the right.
I suggested in 2008 that Cameron could have shown a ‘clause four’ moment by ridding himself of this anti-European caucus by setting a centrist position and challenging the critics openly. Instead he took one look at his ageing membership and decided to go for a cast-iron guarantee on a referendum and shift to the right at a time of leadership weakness. His mistake, and lack of leadership, is the reason why the Conservative Party lost the general election – because people didn’t believe a leopard had changed its spots and the same mistake for them is happening again. Picking Lynton Crosby today; who played a right wing card and lost in 2005 (and badly) and who barely scrapped a victory against a long-toothed lefty in London is straw clutching. They have quite literally given their campaign to the Wizard of Oz such is the fairy-tale of his reputation.
The Tory obsession with Europe is what is leading to the UKIP vote increase because Tory MPs keep putting the issue back into the public eye. On all polls about which the public care; they care little for the cause of constant European debates. When turnouts for European elections are just above PCC levels you know in reality the cause is one which little outside a small minority have a passion about. It is also of note that over the last 12 months the Tories have been moaning about this topic that the polls have not budged above 33% (or the core vote).
Conservative absolutists however are not interested in reasoned argument or positioning; you are either with us or against us and for all intents and purposes a strong UKIP allows leverage on the party. The problem is with this convulsion is that not only do you lose voters as a result but it pushes the party further from the centre.
Labour has an opportunity to articulate a reasoned One Nation ‘conservative’ message on Europe. I also believe that most sensible and reasoned people are open to that message, which is why as we come to the close of 2012, it will be Labour leading the polls after a European meeting and not, like last year, a bulldog Cameron.