European elections: The recipe for success of the British progressives

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Ahead of the European elections, the UK Left has a story to tell. And it has the chance to express public anger and to garner support for an alternative, writes Julian Priestley.

Sir Julian Priestley, as the former secretary general of the European Parliament, is the author of several books about the  European institution. He also a commentator, writer and speaker on European politics.

The book 'Our Europe, Not theirs,' edited by Julian Priestley and Glyn Ford has just been published. Contributors include David Martin MEP, Linda McAvan MEP, Patrick Costello, Derek Reed and Nick Costello.

The Labour Party faces three choices for the 2014 EP elections: minimal service; keep the powder dry and let the Tories and UKIP slug it out; fight a campaign on national issues- the coalition record, the health service, creeping privatisation in the public sector and depressed living standards. Or the left could fight on a radical programme, align itself with progressives throughout Europe, and seek to bring an end to the conservative domination of Europe’s institutions.

Sitting out the elections with just a token campaign and husbanding scarce resources may appeal to some at party headquarters. If UKIP regains traction by picking up extra seats in May 2014 they could well syphon off enough votes a year later to deprive David Cameron of his majority a second time.

The problem is that Labour quietism then turns the election into a straight competition between different strands of euroscepticism and europhobia. The progressive case for Europe would go unheard. And Labour desperately needs a successful outcome in 2014 to act a springboard for success at the general election.

Fighting the elections as just a ‘referendum on Cameronism’ is another temptation to be resisted. Of course the party should lay into the government’s record, but there is serious evidence that electors have seen through this kind of manoeuvre. They know that it’s not European elections which force out national governments. If the elections are seen to be merely a larger than average opinion poll, they may conclude that there is nothing decisive at stake in the, and sit tight on the living room sofa.

The third course- fighting a campaign on European issues, with a European programme drawn up by socialist and social democratic parties, and promoting a socialist candidate for the presidency of the Commission is not some kind of soft option.

No-one should underestimate the challenge of drawing up a meaningful platform agreed by progressive parties in 28 member states and saying something of relevance to voters as they live through the worst economic and social crisis of their lifetimes. The conduct of the first pan European campaign will take us into new territory.

But there are certain factors which make such a campaign possible. This is the first election where the battle lines between incumbents and challengers are clear. The right has been in a majority in the EU institutions for the last ten years. And this reflects its hegemony in national capitals. So it has a record to defend.

And some record! The right’s recipe for dealing with an international debt crisis has the advantage of simplicity – undiluted austerity and a blinkered assault on public services. British Labour criticises the Cameron record – cutbacks which delay growth, rising inequalities, the unfairness of the burdens people are expected to bear,  the return of widespread poverty, long-term youth unemployment, low wages for ever more precarious jobs, failure to invest adequately in infrastructure and the green economy, timidity when confronting the excesses of corporate power.

Yet this ample charge sheet applies equally to incumbents in London, Berlin and Brussels. The reactionary radical ideology is present in the Bundeskanzleramt, in the Berlaymont and in Number 11 Downing Street. ‘We’re all in this together’ unless we are top executives, senior bankers, hedge fund managers or corporations which flit from one jurisdiction to another escape their fiscal responsibilities.

So the Left has a story to tell. And it has the chance to express public anger and to garner support for an alternative. In our book (Our Europe, Not theirs, published this month by Lawrence & Wishart) a group of Labour MEPs and officials highlight some two dozen proposals which we believe should be at the core of Labour’s campaign and constitute our contribution to a socialist programme for Europe. To summarise; a new progressive majority in Europe should stop coercing member states in difficulties, forcing them to cut public services and welfare, and setting unrealistic targets for deficit reduction which actually aggravate the fiscal problems. It should give incentives for growth through harnessing all instruments available, and taking job-creating investment out of budget deficit calculations; it should support a Europe-wide transactions tax and make combatting tax evasion by the multinational corporations a centrepiece of its programme; ensure that the measures to stimulate youth unemployment have top priority and receive adequate funding; use Europe’s muscle in international trade negotiations to shore up ILO standards, and take a much tougher line on potential trading partners who systematically abuse human rights. And of course when it comes to press freedom and the independence of the judiciary in our own member states, we should be intransigent.

A joint programme which differentiates us from the conservatives will help shift the debate away from the sterile distraction of Mr Cameron’s referendum. Rather than create half a decade of uncertainty and confusion which would merely alarm our trading partners and discourage inward investment we should be supporting a new priority for Europe’s competitiveness beneficial to all 28 member states. In other words the Left in Britain and the rest of Europe should play the relevance card; what we propose should be a practical response to people’s concerns and a real alternative to the domination in Europe of a conservative monolith still wedded to long since discredited 1930s economic ideologies.

These elections will be the first fought on some European themes because people can now see that what is decided in the European institutions affects them directly. At the moment the welfare, health and education budgets of member states are subject to huge cut backs because the Brussels Commission, sometimes exceeding the IMF in its retrenchment zeal, imposes them. And the Commission is able to do that because it still has majority support in the EP. Change the majority in the EP, elect progressive MEPs committed to change in Europe, and you can get a new Commission with new ideas and using to the full its capacity to propose change for the better for all Europeans.

Now that’s an election which could be seen to matter. It can happen if the Left has the courage to change the terms of the political debate at home and Europe-wide.

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