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Expert Comment: Labour, 'One Nation' and Europe

Houses of Parliament Wednesday 10 October 2012

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Hope, looks at Labour's claim to be the 'One Nation' party.

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester staked Labour’s claim to be the One Nation party, unifying the country and working for all its constituent groups. This has already been interpreted from many different standpoints, but one aspect has not so far received much attention. That is, how does the Miliband - Labour idea of One Nation sit with Britain’s membership of the European Union? I was in Manchester, and it was really interesting to hear the different responses to Miliband’s speech in this context.

The first point to make is that the speech was unusual not just for the fact that Miliband spoke without notes and ran fifteen minutes over time, not just for the way he laid claim to the mantle of One Nation. He also dared to use a word that very rarely gets heard in leader’s speeches at any party conferences Britain – certainly not in a positive context! He mentioned ‘Europe’.

In fact, he mentioned Europe directly in connection with his idea of Labour being the One Nation party. Miliband said “my vision of One Nation is an outward looking country: a country which engages with Europe and the rest of the world.”

How should we interpret this? For pro-Europeans in the Labour Party, this was seen as a bold and courageous step. The usual judgement call is that Europe does not win votes, whether that is because British people are critical of the EU or because the right-wing press is so rabidly anti-European. It is therefore safer not to talk about Europe at all, so Miliband deserves praise for daring to mention it – particularly in the midst of the euro-zone crisis which is making the EU look less attractive.

However, for the many Europeans in the audience, they were astonished that a major party in a major European country would give such scant attention to Europe. Achim Post, former deputy secretary of the German SPD and now general secretary of the Party of European Socialists, commented that it would be virtually unthinkable for the leader of any other European party to give so little time and attention to Europe.

This goes to the heart of the dilemma of Britain’s relations with the EU. The parties and the public in most other EU member states feel themselves to be European (even if they don’t necessarily agree with every decision emanating from Brussels). But in Britain that sense of ‘Europeanness’ is lacking. The general attitude can be summed up as being at best for Europe, but not of Europe.

This will be a big test for Labour over the next few years. The success of the UK Independence Party, the growing hostility to integration among large swathes of the Conservative Party and the current EU difficulties over the euro are causing a strengthening of euro-scepticism.

And the government has now committed to holding a referendum on any major development of the EU. That commitment still allows a certain degree of wriggle room about how to define a ‘major’ development, but nonetheless it is an indication of an increasingly hostile stance towards Europe.

Once again, Britain’s European partners find this astonishing. It is not that the EU is seen to be perfect – far from it. But for most European states, there is a strong commitment to cooperate, to work together to solve mutual problems. And the British isolationism seems at best inexplicable to them, if not actually downright insulting.

This creates a real dilemma for Miliband and the Labour Party. While they are generally supportive of the EU, it is never a good idea to be seen to be against a democratic choice, as Peter Hain noted in Manchester. So Labour might well be left with no option but to agree to a referendum.

And that would be a real challenge. How does the idea of ‘One Nation’ fit in with the need to work with 26 other countries? They all have their own national preferences, national interests, national pride. It is hard not to look at British Euro-scepticism without thinking it is based on the view that ‘everyone else is out of step except us’ – a country marching entirely to the tune in its own head, not to what the band is playing.

But there is still hope for Labour. When Britain held a referendum on membership back in 1975, an initial strong lead for the ‘No’ side in opinion polls evaporated and resulted in a ‘Yes’ vote of over two-thirds – a convincing vote in favour. So while the polls might be against Europe at the moment, they are by no means a guarantee of the outcome of any referendum.

And perhaps the idea of One Nation might be a strength after all, if there is a strong argument that it is in the collective national interest to be part of the international European Union.

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