The genie of nationalism has been truly unleashed by Alex Salmond, and Labour now finds itself buffeted by unprecedented forces on either side of the border. Douglas Carswell has ripped apart the delicate Tory truce on Europe and the obscure back – bencher Bob Neill will make the European issue a key political cleavage when he introduces an EU referendum bill later this autumn.
As Labour prepares to be squeezed in Clacton and outvoted in the House of Commons, there is a push by some in the party to re-open the question of whether to commit to an in/out referendum before 2017. The logic seems clear: to get out of a position where Labour seems to be in favour of the status quo and against giving people a voice.
But that is precisely the wrong way to achieve these two goals. By changing his policy now, Miliband will simply look like a weak opportunist rather than a principled leader with a vision for the country.
What is needed is a bold and concerted campaign to change the contours of this issue. There is much for Labour to learn from the Scottish referendum: that self- government will often trump arguments about economic benefits; that you need a positive story about the future as well as a catalogue of risks; and that the public is not as willing as it once was to trust elites.
In order to show that he does not support the status quo, Miliband must now offer a radical reform agenda for the European Union. First, we need a new approach to migration that goes beyond the current approach of focusing on labour markets and benefit access. Labour could push EU governments to issue European social insurance cards to citizens moving to other member states. It should push for the creation of a European migration adjustment fund in the EU budget, so that local authorities could obtain assistance in upgrading the provision of schools, hospitals and public services in areas of high intra-EU migration.
The second plank is showing how Europe can be a platform for Britain’s economic growth in an era of China-led globalisation. Miliband must show how the EU budget can be reformed to support innovation and industrial policies; how the single market can be grown through high-quality trade deals with the United States and Japan; as well as laying out a European dimension to the ‘cost of living’ agenda by breaking price-fixing cartels in the UK energy and transport markets.
Finally Miliband needs to reclaim the mantle of self-government. He should begin with the example of Norway – a country that had a one-off referendum and decided not to join the European Union. However, as a 900-page study by the Norwegian parliament shows, this has not allowed Oslo to control of their affairs. In fact they now find themselves accepting vast swathes of European regulations and paying into the European budget without having any say over what laws get made. The former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg described his country as a “fax democracy” because the majority because so many of its laws simply faxed to them from Brussels.
The reality is that at the time when China’s market is becoming the largest in the world, the heft of the European Union gives British people a much greater control of their affairs. As well as supporting some of David Cameron’s measures to give national parliaments and non-eurozone members more of a say, Miliband can push for a root and branch change in the way that decision-making is done in Brussels. For example, Labour could explore whether some European legislation should have an automatic sunset clause so that it returns to national parliaments after 15 years if governments don’t want to renew it. It could also look at how the European Commission could manage funding more transparently and democratically.
In short, rather than defending Europe as it is, Miliband should define what he wants Europe to be. To show he means business, he could spend a week trying to reframe the European debate in Britain – a European version of Tony Blair’s ‘masochism strategy’. In particular, he could embark on a ‘four ports tour’ – Thurrock docks, Dover, Southampton and Grimsby – and address the plight of blue collar workers who have been at the sharp end of globalisation and migration but whose future is linked to trade.
Most importantly, Labour needs to build a new kind of pro-European organisation that goes beyond elites. For much of the last two generations, Europe was an abstract issue where voters were willing to defer to experts. But in an era defined by the death of deference, the search for narrative and policy must also be linked with a revolution in campaigning. This involves not just the shadow cabinet and Labour candidates but building a retail offer on Europe and migration that local Labour parties can implement themselves.