This is, on the face of it, what the journalist and commentator for the Independent, John Rentoul, would describe as a classic “Question to which the answer is no“, but bear with me.
It is certainly true that in the past 20 or so years, the Labour Party has been largely very strongly pro-EU. However, it is often forgotten that for much of the preceeding 40 years it was very strongly against the UK being a member. Right at the start, Clement Attlee was reported as breezily dismissing over the phone while on holiday in the South of France the idea of joining on the basis that “the Unions will never buy it”. At the beginning of the end of that period, Labour campaigned at the 1983 General Election on the basis of immediately commencing negotiations to leave (without mention of a referendum) were it to win. In between, it is notable that the UK joined the Common Market under Heath and that the campaign to remain in ahead of the 1975 referendum was led more enthusiastically by Margaret Thatcher, complete with wooly jumper knitted with the flags of the then current Member States, than the Labour government of the day.
The move from that position to one of barely giving thought to having another referendum let alone contemplating campaigning for exit in one is an interesting one. My theory of this is that it was probably a mix of a desire to become more pro-business, to benefit from EU social policies which would be unlikely to be enacted by any Tory government and which might be easily reversed by one if only in domestic legislation and a hearty dose of schadenfreude at the way in which eurosceptics undermined John Major’s time in Number 10. So, why might Ed Miliband move his Party back from this?
Miliband’s journey 2010-2013
Well, the first thing to consider is the task which Miliband has set for himself. This is to move the “centre ground” of British politics away from the broad consensus over economic liberalism that has dominated since Jim Callaghan became Prime Minister. I’m occasionally (!) guilty of giving politicians perhaps too much credit for their long-term strategic thinking. However, this transformational project is something which can be seen across Miliband’s speeches to the Labour Party Conference as Leader over the past three years. Since starting the thought experiment I set out here I’ve also seen how seriously the overall Miliband project is being taken by thoughtful right wing commentators – most notably Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator. His first speech as Leader of the Opposition repeated the idea of a “new generation”. He summarised his task thus:
“I stand before you, clear in my task: to once again make Labour a force that takes on established thinking, doesn’t succumb to it, speaks for the majority and shapes the centre ground of politics.”
In his second speech (which l looked at in detail in this blog post), he moved on to develop some of the intellectual underpinning of his approach by drawing a distinction between predatory and productive business. This showed a distinct scepticism about the value of competition and markets as mechanisms for delivering good outcomes and a belief that government could and should make big interventions in business on the basis of moral judgements. This wasn’t a one-off for the Conference. Earlier in 2011 it was interesting that in attacking the then Health and Social Care Bill in the high-profile, fast moving environment of Prime Minister’s Questions, he didn’t focus just on the usual Labour line of “the Tories can’t be trusted with the NHS”/”they want to privatise it and turn us into having a system like in the USA”. Instead, he attacked the policy on the basis that it made EU Competition Law apply to the NHS (see my blog at the time for more detail). This seemed a slightly peculiar line of attack given the technical nature of the charge – as a specialist in EU Competition Law I’m all too aware of how low the general knowledge of sophisticated commercial lawyers is about it, let alone to assume much if any knowledge about it for the general public.
The theme of Miliband wanting to take an active role in forcing business to bend to the moral judgements of his values continued in last year’s speech with its use of “One Nation” as its slogan. Not only were these values his, but that they were the values he considered to be British values, the values of the unified One Nation he wanted to promote. Still, however, there was precious little policy to hang on these developing and related themes. Until this week, when he unleashed yet another slogan – “Britain can do better” – and a slew of populist policies from freezing energy prices to compulsorily purchasing land which developers had failed to develop quickly enough. These policies could be criticised for being unrealistic or for having the potential for seriously bad unintended consequences. They’ve also been critiqued very carefully from a legal perspective – for example in this blog by Carl Gardner, a former senior government lawyer who has very clearly set out a range of formidable issues in EU law which would make implementing the price freeze legally fraught. While trying to be fair in my comment on that speech I suggested that Miliband was perhaps not being bold enough having crossed the rubicon to bring back price controls and heavy intervention by government to make businesses do what he wanted. If he was going to do that, why not get the energy companies to cut their prices rather than merely freeze them?
However, seen in the context of the developing themes for his leadership, perhaps the detail of the policies is not the most important thing right now. The real signal is about the sorts of things Prime Minister Miliband would do and how far he is willing to carry through with taking on “established thinking” as he said he would in his first leader’s speech.
Where could Miliband go 2013-2015?
Having travelled such a long way from the general consensus of the leaderships of the governing parties since 1976, the question is whether Miliband will stop there, or carry on moving in that direction. I think it is clear that he’ll have to say something even more eye-catching and popular this time next year in the last party conference before the campaign for the 2015 General Election starts in earnest. There is also the small matter of the 2014 elections for the European Parliament which are likely to end up with UKIP making further gains and further embarrassing the Conservatives.
Given the journey Miliband has taken to revive the governmental rhetoric and tools of the 1945-76 period I think it is not entirely fanciful that the coup de grace intended to be delivered in September 2014 is for Miliband to come out strongly in favour of leaving the EU. I accept that it is still pretty fanciful, but it could happen.
Why could it happen? Well, note the curious disregard for whether policies like the energy freeze might fall foul of EU law. Note also how becoming subject to EU Competition law was early on pinpointed as one of the very bad things about the Conservatives’ changes to the NHS. Remember also the distrust of the EU which held sway in much of “Old Labour” up to 1983 and which has a clear level of popular support in the country at the moment. While UKIP is still largely a threat to the centre right relatively socially liberal form of conservatism of David Cameron, it is also proving to have some appeal amongst former Labour voters, particularly those who liked Gordon Brown’s championing of British Jobs for British Workers and blamed the EU for making it as hollow a promise as it turned out to be.
In Miliband’s speech this week, he took great pains to both raise the questions these sorts of people were asking and to not characterise them as racist (a charge which UKIP finds increasingly hard to resist as long as it has spokesmen who can happily talk of bongo bongo land). On the theme of British Jobs for British Workers, Miliband made a pledge to require major government contractors to create apprenticeships for British workers for each foreign worker they used. Again, this is something which is of dubious deliverability on the basis of EU law.
As someone who has intended all along to be very radical it would be odd for Miliband to set himself up to be capable of delivering little. There would be barely any point in him seeking to win in 2015 if what he’d be able to do would be just to put a slightly nicer presentation around the continuation of Osborne’s austerity. However, if Miliband continues to be able to come up with eye-catching and popular policies which are only realistically capable of being implemented at pace and without compromises outside of the EU, why would he not take that further step?
As with Labour’s 1983 manifesto, there is no reason why it would have to be done in an adversarial manner. Or any reason to have any more of a referendum than the 2015 election. Both “Britain can do better” and “One Nation” are consistent with focusing on national interests. Would there be any point in voting for UKIP? Would the prospect of just getting out and doing all the exciting things Miliband was promising be worse than a drawn out renegotiation by Cameron with no clear indication of what he wanted to change and the knowledge that there was no prospect of a Treaty change which ended free movement of workers or disapplied the Competition and State Aid rules. As Miliband is ruthless enough to have beaten his brother to the leadership of his party, why would you discount the possibility that he could make a move to turn UK politics upside down. If Labour’s 2014 Euro Campaign looks a little quiet and a little too pleased with letting UKIP bash the Tories in, with only the LibDems trying to make a strong case for further union, who knows?
If it does happen, I’d put money on Miliband getting a majority approaching 200. And that really would be terrifying.