Jenni Dunsmore says even if we manage to jettison the constructive ambiguity, too much of Labour’s positioning on the EU has been shallow and, especially in Scotland, we cannot afford to waste the short time we now have to construct a coherent and positive policy on Europe.
“Please do not waste this time” Donald Tusk implored the UK, as the Tories skipped off to indulge in a summer leadership contest before recess. But it is also wise advice for the opposition parties, and in particular Labour which is on its own long and winding road to clarity.
Are we wasting this time? Without a doubt. We will be like the dog that caught the rabbit if we get a second referendum or a general election in short order, unless we are prepared to be honest with ourselves and the electorate about why our EU membership matters.
The results of the European elections confirmed what most Labour members and supporters had been shouting for years: the experiment in constructive ambiguity has failed. UK Labour refused to listen to warnings from Scottish Labour over our crushing experience of this strategy after the independence referendum, but we can hardly blame the UK party when we catastrophically failed to heed our own advice.
The electorate is fractured and we have no idea what is coming from the next Tory Prime Minister, from leading us to the brink of no-deal to attempting to prorogue parliament, calling for a second referendum or the government collapsing into a general election. The only way to navigate this political landscape is by going back to what Scottish Labour and the labour movement believes in, and making the case loudly and unapologetically. There isn’t time to waste.
And yet, and yet. Labour continues to insist that our first preference is a general election, in which we would deliver a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, and our second preference is for a second referendum in which we would campaign to Remain. So … which is it? We’re either committed to delivering Brexit, or we’re committed to preventing it?
Leaving the EU is a right-wing project premised on lies, attempting splendid isolationism with a dash of colonial nostalgia. It’s a neoliberal blueprint that will destroy the progressive achievements we have made and remove us from the battleground to regulate the 21st century marketplace on data protection, multinational tax and sustainable development. And it will not be any more palatable simply because Labour delivers it.
Even after the crushing election result and the policy volte-face, the Scottish Labour leadership appears to remain both sceptical and worryingly misinformed. In his post-election interview with the Herald on Sunday, Richard Leonard referred to the
“areas of decision-making that currently rest with a Commission in Brussels, a European Parliament that convenes in plenary session in Strasbourg, that’s subject to, in the end, decision-making by a Council of Ministers…”
Overlooking the laboured point on the location of these institutions (one assumes meeting in other European cities makes things undemocratic?), his grasp of the legislative procedure is shaky. The European Parliament is a co-legislator with the Council; it is not subject to national governments. How is it possible that after 40 years of membership, a referendum campaign and three years of political wrangling since then, the party leadership doesn’t know the basics of the EU institutions? It makes the ‘remain and reform’ strategy look somewhat superficial if we would currently fail a Modern Studies exam.
This ambivalence was most obvious during the European election campaign. Scottish Labour, like many other parties, felt so awkward about the ‘Europe question’ that we campaigned on local and devolved issues. It has always been an insult to voters and the candidates on the list to ignore the issues on the ballot. The 2019 election was a bonus election in which we should have tried to sell popular policies to a newly Europeanised Remain electorate. That’s not to say we could have reversed Scottish Labour’s steady decline, which is a broader and more fundamental problem. But while it was always going to be a struggle to hold onto our second MEP seat, losing both was simply an own-goal.
We had pro-Remain, pro-second referendum, pro-free movement candidates who would have joined the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament to advance policies on tackling the climate emergency, continuing work on minimum working conditions, zero hour contracts and the gig economy to prevent undercutting across the continent, increased measures on tackling tax avoidance at EU level, and pushing for fair trade deals which work for Scotland.
Unlike the SNP or the Tories, our EU alliances with sister parties were stronger and more effective by sitting in the Parliament’s second largest group, which was vying to become the biggest group and finally retake the Commission presidency for the centre-left. And with David Martin we had Parliament’s most experienced MEP – of any political group and any national delegation – heading our party list, with a network of support in Brussels and unrivalled experience of constitutional and trade policy issues. Instead we chose to dazzle the Scottish electorate with a giant photo of Jeremy Corbyn and some unfulfillable pledges on policing, buses and funding for local services. As election campaigns go it can best be described as a waste of time.
So we should have campaigned emphatically on a People’s Vote + Remain ticket, and that has now been accepted. But if we only demand a second referendum as a procedural tool to get out of this parliamentary deadlock, and don’t use the time to rebuild and maintain a genuine case for Remain, we will blunder into a general election or second referendum unable to convince the public, because we cannot convince ourselves, that our EU membership is indispensable. A majority of Scots are pro-EU but a substantial minority is not, and I suspect our support for the European project is shallower than we like to admit. A third of Scots voted leave. The Brexit Party came second last month. We are now re-running the arguments against independence to shore up our own No voters and try to convince others, but are doing no such groundwork on Brexit. On independence we left the lead to the Tories; on Brexit we seem determined to grasp the same fate by leaving the lead to the SNP and Lib Dems.
This groundwork is especially vital in Scotland because as the government swings into indyref2 mode our position on the EU needs to be strong enough to withstand the weaponising it will get over the next year. Sympathetic comments by Spanish politicians will be heralded by the SNP, the Tories will blizzard the north-east with doomsday leaflets about the Common Fisheries Policy, and about the only thing all parties will agree on in the currency debate is that the Euro – the currency of 19 member states and the second most used in the world – terrifies everyone.
Despite a brutal EU referendum campaign and the fallout now Leave’s lies are being stress-tested, it still feels as if we haven’t had an honest conversation in Scotland about our place in Europe. We cannot afford to reach for old tropes in the next independence debate to scare the electorate with horror stories from Brussels, nor avoid difficult questions when they arise. The Yes campaign blithely refer to Scotland’s future as a ‘normal’ member state, but skirt round issues such as accession, Schengen, bailouts and the rebate. These are huge issues on which Scotland’s future hangs, but we cannot challenge the SNP’s empty promises until we are assured in our own position.
The Common Fisheries Policy is extremely unpopular with fishermen. Like all policies it continues to be reformed, but where do we stand on it? How much should be changed, and what is the inconvenient truth about how we manage stocks and access? Freedom of movement does not drive down wages, it boosts economies and reflects our political values that the EU is a union of people, not just goods and services. The EU budget is 1% of EU GDP, it’s reinvested back in the member states, and its irregularities in the accounts are largely the fault of national governments failing to properly account for the use of the money, as we saw with the Scottish Government and the European Social Fund this month.
As progressives we need to be confident enough in our pro-Europeanism to criticise the institutions and policies when needed without crumbling into a constitutional leave/remain argument. But by never taking the EU issue head on we have never given ourselves the space to be critical. We need to be clear about recent failings of the EU: our inhumane treatment of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is a stain on all Europeans, and was an abject failure of national governments to take collective action, despite enormous pressure from the European Parliament and Commission. The brutal austerity inflicted on Greece, and the limited progress we have made on economic and monetary reform were political choices made by democratic institutions in Brussels with conservative majorities. Like our position on Holyrood and Westminster, if you don’t like the policies – and often we don’t – change the politicians. The structure will hold.
We need to be honest with ourselves – and the electorate – that EU rules do not, in fact, prevent Labour’s proposals on state aid, and every member state with a social democratic government not only manages to roll out its domestic agenda but uses tools at EU level to enhance it. We must be a party comfortable with ourselves and our ideological and pragmatic position that the benefits of EU membership vastly outweigh the compromise of pooling sovereignty.
‘Remain and reform’ is fine as a strategy, but let’s not pretend we’re reinventing the wheel. The EU is a dynamic institution, constantly reforming, reassessing and adapting. It’s receptive to new ideas from member states and politicians who roll up their sleeves and get involved. The economic and political fallout of leaving the European Union would be the biggest step backwards our country has ever taken. We are reaping what we have sown for decades of ignoring and maligning the EU for political convenience – but right now there’s time to find our feet. We shouldn’t waste it.