October 30, 2012 6:23 pm

Fog in the Channel

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Before banging on about the EU, Labour needs a policy

Britain’s Labour party has become quite expert at carving out positions explicitly designed to cause David Cameron political discomfort, whether pressing for the resignation of his chief whip over his foul-mouthed remarks directed at a police officer or demanding an official investigation into the conduct of the late BBC presenter, Jimmy Savile. The objective is always the same: to make the prime minister look weak or out of touch.

That may be the nature of opposition but at times politics must be more than blood sport. Ahead of a parliamentary debate on the EU budget deal, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, are seeking to trump the prime minister’s call for a real-terms freeze in European Commission expenditure. This is not tough enough for Labour’s front bench duo: they want a cut in real terms.

Whatever the substantive merit of this idea – and it is clearly right for the commission to curb its spending at a time of austerity – as a practical policy it is null. Not only would Britain fail to get support for such a demand; its very pursuit would harm the national interest. The British veto that would inevitably result would automatically lead to the existing budget settlement rolling forward. Far from cutting the UK’s contributions or even freezing them, Labour’s approach would see those contributions rise.

Labour’s motives are transparent. By calling for an even harder line on the EU, it hopes to put Mr Cameron on a collision course with those of his backbenchers who would like him to take a bigger stick to Brussels.

However, Labour’s neat tactic conceals a budget demand that is vacuous as well as a larger strategic malaise. While it rails at Tory euroscepticism, Labour has no convincing answer to the question of how Britain should deal with a union that is itself changing, or what the country’s role should be – as a euro-out – in a more tightly integrated eurozone.

Instead, Labour offers its own brand of opportunistic scepticism: “British jobs for British workers”. Then it makes pious demands that the UK “stay in the room” diplomatically, even as it calls for policies that would inevitably leave Britain isolated.

Before banging on about Brussels, the Labour party should first have something useful to say on the subject. Otherwise its leader, Ed Miliband, and his colleagues may find that it is they, rather than the prime minister, who end up looking out of touch.

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