As the Clegg/Farage skirmishes make clear, Labour is content to let others do the talking on Europe. It is hoping that the electorate will be equally put off by the anti and pro-EU positions. As an electoral strategy, this is at best risky; at worse misguided.
Outsiders might be surprised that the two biggest political parties are happy for the European debate to be dominated by the third and fourth parties of British politics. As an election strategy for Labour, relying on dominant voices to cancel each other out in the hope of appearing to hold the centre ground by default won’t be enough.
Labour’s offer must develop beyond a reliance on being the least unpopular choice. It must appeal to the EU-pragmatists by setting out policy priorities whilst being honest about institutional and wider policy changes the EU needs to bring about.
Ahead of the last Clegg/Farage head-to-head, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Ashworth argued that “while the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP obsess about Europe, Labour will continue to prioritise tackling the cost-of-living crisis and getting the economy back on track.” Labour’s election strategy for the May European elections is therefore clear; continue to talk about domestic issues, feed the cost of living narrative and use the vote as a referendum on the coalition.
This strategy has three main weaknesses. Firstly, relying on a poll lead in domestic politics is risky in itself, not to mention that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives appears to be narrowing. Using the Government’s unpopularity to feed victory is risky; if the lead reverses by polling day, what alternative narrative does Labour have to offer?
Secondly, the strategy does not give the electorate a view of what Labour’s vision for Europe is. This is important if Labour wants to build support for its European strategy, and MEPs, beyond May’s election. Labour activists are at a disadvantage in arguing the Labour cause on the doorstep – UKIP and Lib Dem activists have clear viewpoints to debate, but Labour lacks this clarity of purpose. Already, Labour’s grassroots is being stymied.
Thirdly, the policy is an antithesis of Labour’s desire to bring in more community campaigning, advocated by Ed Miliband’s US guru Arnie Graf. Graf’s bottom-up community politics, rooted in his Obama-inspiring Chicago activism, is the opposite of a leadership-inspired political gamble. The power play politics of abstention do nothing for community politics and the empowerment of Labour members.
To address the vacuum, Labour’s offer must develop beyond a reliance on being the least unpopular choice. It must appeal to the EU-pragmatists by setting out policy priorities whilst being honest about institutional and wider policy changes the EU needs to bring about. It must set out the realpolitik of what it would mean to leave the EU, but also what needs to change in a reformed EU.
Labour will seek to brand itself and other parties during the election campaign: UKIP as the anti-EU party, the Liberal Democrats as the pro-EU party, the Conservatives as the risky party, and Labour as the pragmatic party. The question is whether Labour’s voice will be heard above the noise.
At a time when Labour pressure groups and members are calling for either boldness or a shrinking of the offer, one thing is clear: on the EU, any offer would be welcome.