Labour is now exactly where a modern, progressive centre-left party should be on Europe: unequivocally in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, while building alliances for reform and guaranteeing an in-out referendum in the unlikely event of a future government proposing to cede more sovereignty.
In contrast, David Cameron has lashed himself to a non-credible commitment to a time-fixed referendum following a fantasy ‘renegotiation’ which will not happen. Cameron’s policy is nothing to do with the national interest and everything to do with appeasing his Europhobes and the United Kingdom Independence party in the hope that will see him through the next election. Sooner or later, to be successful, a Tory leader is going to have to face down their anti-Europeans. Cameron is too weak to do that.
Imagine if Ed had bowed to demands from some in the Labour party to mimic the Tories’ fantasy position. The next Labour government, instead of being able to focus on the public’s priorities, would have been immediately plunged into an unnecessary and damaging campaign over Europe that would have dominated the next parliament.
Europe obsesses a very small number of people a great deal, but for the overwhelming majority of voters and, crucially, those who will decide the outcome of the next election, it is low on their list of priorities. In Exeter, the type of seat we have to win to form a government, we have one of the highest and most up-to-date voter contact rates in the country and Europe is almost never mentioned. And as the euro crisis fades and the UK and other EU economies grow, Europe is likely to become less salient as the election approaches. The impact of events in Ukraine has also gone almost unremarked upon by British political commentators who see Europe solely through the narrow prism of domestic politics. The daily images of Ukrainians waving Ukrainian and EU flags and, ultimately, being prepared to die for a European future, may have been lost on most UK commentators, but I suspect they have not been on the British people. Vladimir Putin’s aggression and dangerous nationalism is serving as a vivid reminder of the fundamental importance of the EU and Nato to our collective security, freedom and prosperity. That is why Nigel Farage and Tory anti-Europeans have been so quiet about it. But the British people are not stupid and polls taken since the Ukraine crisis have shown growing support here for continued EU membership.
Labour’s policy has the important additional benefit: it appeals to business and overseas investors in Britain who have been spooked by the uncertainty caused by Cameron’s approach. It is a big, strategic policy on which Labour and most of business are on the same side and should help us garner much-needed business support between now and the election.
Recently, on party funding reform, now on Europe, Ed Miliband has chosen principle and national interest over short-term tactics and expediency. That is courage and leadership. It shows he is serious about winning and more than fit to be our next prime minister.
Ben Bradshaw MP is a former minister in the Foreign Office. He tweets @BenPBradshaw