Andy Burnham’s wrong. Not only must Labour take part in the cross-party pro-EU campaign, it has to lead it

by Dan Cooke

The first real public test for Labour’s new leader is likely to be fighting a battle they didn’t want to fight at all, at a time and in circumstances dictated by their main opponent, and within the straight-jacket that they must support the basic position of that opponent.

This conundrum is, of course, the EU referendum, to be called by David Cameron to endorse his renegotiation based on principles he has still not fully revealed.

Cameron’s ideal scenario for this campaign is obvious: to achieve a settlement that will redeem the EU for all but its most zealous detractors and credit him as the PM who settled Britain’s relationship with Europe.

And his game plan for referendum victory is equally obvious: to assert that a good deal for Britain has been secured, regardless of what his renegotiation actually does, or does not, achieve.

Apart from campaigning to leave as a result of admitted negotiating failure (inconceivable), or declaring that the relationship was fine all along and serious renegotiation was actually unnecessary (even more inconceivable), there is no other option. The Conservative “Yes” campaign could just as well start printing their posters right now.

For Labour the approach to the campaign is far less straightforward.

For a party that declared until recently that there was no need for a referendum, it would be illogical to link support for a “Yes” vote to the outcome of this renegotiation. Labour cannot go along with the inevitable Cameron spin that he has fixed a fundamentally broken relationship.  Labour is committed to “Yes” regardless and must make a case for the EU that goes above and beyond the expected Tory tinkering.

Indeed, alongside this commitment to staying in the EU, Labour will naturally reserve the right to call Cameron out if his renegotiation does not match up to the hype, and make hay from the divisions within the Tory tribe that are already starting and only likely to become more chronic as the negotiation progresses.

Labour would fundamentally fail in its duty as an opposition if it did not engage independently in a public debate on the nature and scope of EU reform required. A confident Labour leader should be able to challenge Cameron on whether he has actually set the right goals, rather than just marking him on homework he has set for himself when he returns with a deal.

The potential trap with balancing these two positions is that if Labour rains on Cameron’s parade by highlighting the failings in what his negotiation has achieved, it could only undercut or confuse the party’s support for a “Yes” vote. At worst, this risks weakening the argument for staying in the EU, which the majority of the party sees as a vital national interest.  Apart from this, it could make the party’s position appear incoherent in supporting “Yes”. This may mean that an eventual vote to stay in becomes a personal success for Cameron but only a pyrrhic victory for Labour.

Arguably the leadership contender who has engaged most with these issues so far is Andy Burnham but, regrettably, the way he has done so only highlights the risks of getting it wrong. Burnham has made the case for a separate Labour pro-EU referendum campaign, to retain distance from the Tory argument that will be focused on Cameron’s renegotiation.

And Burnham has proposed his own “distinctive pro-European reform package” for which he believes Labour should argue, to include preventing unfair undercutting of wages. While further details will no doubt emerge in due course, this sounds very much like the emphasis will be on incremental reforms reflecting public concerns on immigration and welfare, in a similar space to Cameron’s own likely renegotiation.

The problem with these kinds of alternative negotiation goals is that they mean entering into the very debate – about what changes can and should be achieved before a near-term referendum – that Labour was set against at the election.  Unless Labour wishes to mount some kind of parallel negotiation with allies in Europe willing to say they support the “distinctive pro-European reform package” it also means Labour will have no way of proving they could have been delivered when Cameron returns from the negotiation asserting he has achieved the best possible deal.

In making this argument for alternative limited reforms on the same timetable as Cameron’s negotiation, Labour will only become bogged down in the detail of what is now “wrong” with the EU, before eventually climbing down and explaining that, while all these proposals were desirable and achievable, we should nonetheless vote “Yes” even though they were not delivered. With a message like this, any separate Labour pro-EU campaign risks being a marginal and confusing player in the referendum debate.

Instead, Labour indeed needs to make a case for European reform, but it should make that case as a rounded contribution to the referendum debate about the real advantages and disadvantages of the EU. The fallacy of Cameron’s re-negotiation dance is that when the music stops, the referendum will inevitably still be fought on the fundamental arguments for or against Britain’s participation in the EU, against which the details of his renegotiation will pale into insignificance.

Nothing renegotiation achieves will realistically give the “outs” any pause in asserting that Britain should not share sovereignty with neighbours they will argue are in terminal stagnation, or that the architecture of the union is inefficient and undemocratic . The “ins” will need to respond with arguments of commensurate scale to justify the advantage of pooled governance in a globalised world, and why the EU is the right way for Britain to achieve this.

Such arguments will need to acknowledge that, while beneficial, the EU is not perfect – and will remain imperfect after Cameron’s renegotiation.

If the government will be inhibited from recognising the case for further reform as a result of the limits of his own efforts, the broader “Yes” campaign and Labour contribution cannot be so constrained and must acknowledge that a journey of further reform lies ahead, responding to big questions like: how we resolve the EU’s democratic deficit; what the balance should become between the Eurozone and the rest of the Union; and how does the EU continue to influence and improve its wider neighbourhood as expansion stalls.

Rather than denying the need for further change after Cameron’s quick fix, to be credible the “Yes” campaign will need to acknowledge and own these challenges as the growing pains of a successful project, to which a confident Britain can contribute in future years while continuing to enjoy the benefits of access to the world’s largest market and a more powerful voice in the world.

The centre of gravity of the referendum debate will lie in these arguments and whoever makes them will de facto lead the campaign. Despite the weight of the government machine, the Conservative party will not be able to do so, as it will be side-tracked into advocacy of Cameron’s renegotiation, which will start to appear beside the point, and preoccupied with damage limitation of party disunity.

By default, Labour and its new leader will have the opportunity to assume that leadership role and “win” the referendum. But for this, Labour must be ready to step into centre stage, embracing the main cross-party campaign.

In the meantime, we should not be diverted by running commentary on Cameron’s re-negotiation. Let him and his party critics bicker over that while Labour sets its sights higher and prepares to make the case to the public for Britain in the EU, based on economic opportunity, internationalism and social justice.

The EU referendum does indeed presents a conundrum to Labour, but approached correctly it can be a crucial first step to restoring credibility as a party of government.

Dan Cooke is a Labour member and business lawyer

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10 Responses to “Andy Burnham’s wrong. Not only must Labour take part in the cross-party pro-EU campaign, it has to lead it”

  1. TrT says:

    Zbigniew Huminski
    Yep, Europe is fantastic as is.

  2. Frederick James says:

    If I understand this rather dense article correctly, the author wants Labour to argue for its own set of EU reforms, from the powerless position of recently renewed (indeed diminished) opposition, all the while promising to stay in the EU even if no reform is ever achieved, then to traipse through the Yes lobby with Cameron no matter how meaningless his package of reforms turns out to be, then claim this as a victory for Labour?

    Surely I must have got that wrong or the level of confusion within the demoralised and intellectually-impoverished Labour Party must be even worse than everyone says.

  3. swatantra says:

    I agree. We want to win this Referendum, don’t we? That means working with others in a common cause.

  4. Noel says:

    Burnham is 100% correct on this. The Tories want EEC to enable extension of corporate control and influence, else they see no purpose for it but will tell the elctorate ‘they are fighting on its behalf’.

    Labour naivety at times is frightening but at least Burnham has done the right thing here, although I wonder if it was driven as a plan to aid his the leadership campaign by showing a lesson learned from the Scottish Referendum.

    Right decision though, and we must stop feeling that we can’t set our own agenda because the only people who really like that are committed Tories laughing at our impotency.

  5. john P reid says:

    frederick James, well i can’t knock your interpritation,therare many pro EU centre right members of the Labour party John Mann, frank Field, Somon Danczuk. as well as centre right Wuro sceptics, Kate Hoey

    and there are some needed reforms,such as workers for the EU,so where i respec those who will argue the case ,to stay in no matter what and they may join the stage with Ken clarke, i can’t really see, much differnce if any between the argue for change and then stay in, from the Tories to us, But Burnham presumably is wrorried that appearing to let the tories take the credit for the change on immigration would be politically disasterous,

  6. Mike Stallard says:

    “Labour is committed to “Yes” regardless and must make a case for the EU that goes above and beyond the expected Tory tinkering.”

    Dan I know you are a lawyer. But why?
    What is driving the Labour movement to stay in the EU?

    I thought you valued democracy.
    I thought the Labour movement stood by parliament which is elected, accountable and transparent.
    I thought you were against big business which controls the EU through its vast lobbies.
    I thought you cared about workers in industry and business and fair trade with the world including Africa and India?

    Have you not heard? We can join the EFTA bloc and remain in the EEA while we negotiate for a better deal. That at least will give our foreign office something to get their teeth into. Meanwhile we can leave the EU juggernaut by applying Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

    I know that links are never taken up on principle. But here is one that you really ought to read:

    Please will you do that? It gives a comprehensive plan for how we can leave without hurting the business which you represent. Labour needs a plan – go for it!

  7. Mike Stallard says:

    Why does Mr Burnham have to make the case for our staying in the EU?
    Can someone please tell me why the Labour movement insists on staying in an organisation like the EU?
    Only asking…

  8. Rallan says:

    Would someone please explain why Labour will “win” if the EU referendum gets an IN vote?

  9. John Jones says:

    Burnham, the man who’s learned nothing from Labour’s recent defeats, appears to have learned nothing either from the two previous national referenda.

    The referendum on AV was lost because Labour and the Lib Dems foolishly allowed the case for a new voting system to appear the preserve of middle-class left-wing intellectuals densely congregated in Islington. In retrospect cutting out UKIP, whose close involvement would have strongly emphasised that populist right-wing politicians were also supportive, was a serious error. Farage’s populism and appeal to working-class people increasingly suspicious of the likes of Miliband and Clegg could have worked wonders.

    In Scotland the party has also made a stupid mistake in accepting the SNP’s self-serving analysis of Labour’s problems which asserts that they originate in sharing the No platform with the Conservatives (as though having multiple separate No campaigns would have been more effective). That’s nonsense. Labour’s problems clearly stretch back to the disastrous 2011 Scottish elections and indeed to the party’s loss of power in Scotland back in 2007. What led to the No campaign struggling in 2014 was not working with other parties but rather Labour’s congenital inability to sound convincing as an advocate of Britain and Britishness: put under the spotlight and expected to make the Unionist case, a party whose councillors are happier banning the Union Jack for fear of offending minorities and whose senior figures often appear to think British history is a litany of exploitation and imperialism for which they need to apologise was hardly going to be persuasive when telling other people to vote to stay British.

    It sounds like Burnham is making a similar error in relation to the EU referendum. Trying to run a separate pro-EU campaign would merely make Labour look like an isolated sect of left-wing purists only interested in talking to each other while materially weakening the argument for the UK staying in the EU.

  10. Tafia says:

    But what case will Burnham make? Supporting Camerons and the tories reforms or pushing it’s own?

    Labour has already acknowledged the reforms are needed – what will it do if Cameron fails to get them? Because the people are not going to support the EU remaining as it is.

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