You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.

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Labour and the EU: From realpolitik to principle?

Since David Cameron called for a referendum on Europe, it would appear that the issue of Europe has subsided somewhat. And yet, there is a distinct danger that the approach taken by the Prime Minister’s opposite number, Ed Miliband, is beginning to create antagonism within Labour. Cameron’s referendum pledge means that the position of the Labour Party towards Europe has been questioned – to such an extent that it is possible that the issue could damage the Party’s electoral chances. This is because Labour’s position is based on realpolitik, not principle. At a time of intense debate about the very nature of the European Union, it is more important than ever that a Labour policy based on principle, as opposed to pragmatism, comes to the fore. First, however, it is worth teasing out why a tension could emerge within the Party.

Let’s rewind time back to the 1960s. The UK was not part of the then European Economic Community, having been snubbed by a veto courtesy of the French. The Labour leadership was not unhappy about this because it saw the EEC as nothing more than a ‘capitalist club’. In 1962, the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, exclaimed that a federal Europe would mean: ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!’. [1] For Labour, what was at stake here was more than just national sovereignty. Rather, the Party argued that the EEC would further the interests of capitalists alone. For those reasons two reasons, Labour fought for a ‘no’ vote on Europe in 1976, and opposed Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU in the early 1980s. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party switched position. The European project turned emphasis away from a common market, which would be fully implemented by the early 1990s, and instead emphasised pan-European welfare, including employment rights and a commitment to a better standard of living. The Labour Party looked across the Channel and saw that in mainland Europe broadly left-of-centre policies flourished. At this point, Labour opted to support the EU because it has economic and social benefits for the UK. [2]

Back to 2013, and the orthodox Labour support for Europe has come under significant pressure. The pledge by David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU has caused an EU-induced schizophrenia: first, Ed Miliband rules out a referendum on Europe; second, Ed Balls makes the opposite claim. This confusion suggests that Labour needs to rebuild its strategy on Europe. Most importantly, and probably uncomfortable for some, Labour must call for a referendum on Europe. Once it has done this, Labour will be able to shape the agenda on the future of Europe by asking two questions:

1. What should Europe stand for? There are three principles:

  • Democracy. European democracy should rest with the European Parliament, on the one hand, and a European President, on the other hand. This would ensure national representation through two input-based mechanisms. The EU must do more than preach democracy, it must begin to practise it too.
  • Economic and Social Prosperity. One of the overriding positive impacts of the EU is that it will help to stimulate national economies. This is the major output-based mechanism that needs attention. The EU must be able to do less on a European-wide level, and support national economies instead. For this reason, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were right to call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget. The EU should become an association of national economies that supports employment rights and better living standards.
  • Subsidiarity. Power must be devolved to the most local institution possible. This goes to the heart of democratic power and also remains a prerequisite for economic prosperity. This is because it will give European peoples a sense of ownership. All of this means that the EU become multi-level and multi-sectoral – a dynamic system that sees clusters of shared policy-making.

2. How can these principles be implemented? Here are some specific policies:

  • Democratic powers must be based on a directly elected president for the whole of the EU; but the European Parliament should become the sole initiator of European legislation (exceptions would be inter-governmental treaties to be scrutinised by national parliaments).
  • The overall size of the EU needs to be slimmed down through a smaller Commission; the removal of the European Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP respectively); no more moving back-and-forth from Strasbourg and Brussels; and a salary freeze for MEPs and bureaucrats. This will allow for a real-terms budget cut.
  • Resources should support national economies and protect employment rights – this could include a guarantee of apprenticeships, placement schemes and more. This is hugely important to develop cultural and economic ties throughout Europe.
  • To safeguard subsidiarity, we need a more powerful Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which would meet more often to hold EU decision-makers to account. The UK Parliament should establish a Parliamentary Committee on Europe that brings together MPs, peers and UK MEPs to debate EU issues of major importance. It would be accountable to the UK Parliament, but also send representation to the EU.

This is what Labour must stand for. It must ensure that the principles given above remain at the heart of the European project in order to pave the way for a new European settlement that calls for a slim, dynamic association of national economies and not for a corpulent, bureaucratic union.

mg

Notes

[1] M. Charlton (1983) The Price of Victory, London: BBC, p.274.

[2] I’ve drawn this analysis from a BBC podcast by Analysis, called ‘Labour, the left and Europe’ (29 October 2012).

Should Labour call a referendum on the EU?

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as a ‘political blog for progressives’. The article was published on 07 January 2013, and is available here.

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of our membership to the European Union. Forty years on, and the UK has come to a crossroads with its relationship towards Europe. As the Conservatives are becoming increasingly outspoken about their distaste with the European project, it is time for Labour to confront the challenge of the EU. But, in addition to driving positive, constructive change at the heart of Europe, Labour must acknowledge that a referendum on the EU has become inevitable – even if this is many years away.

There is, of course, considerable contention of this point, and some argue that a referendum should not be called. The most cited argument is that a referendum could lead to a British exit of the European Union. This is not an argument against a referendum; it is an argument against democratic choice. It is true that referendums, in general, should be called sparingly and cautiously because they are not an effective resource in a diverse representative democracy such as the UK. However, to say that a referendum could lead to a result that you do not like is not valid. It’s called democracy.

So, why is a referendum needed? The most obvious point is that it will give the British public a choice in its support of Europe. The British want a referendum, so it is only fair and democratic to give them one. The European Economic Community (EEC) has been fundamentally transformed since the 1970s. It is now a European Union of 27 countries, with a wide range of institutions and decision-making powers. Moreover, over the coming four to five years, we will begin to see a new European settlement of powers. The unprecedented changes since the 1970s imply that the British public need to be given a choice in a reformed relationship with the European Union. The fundamental point is that a referendum on Europe will allow the British public to have a frank and open discussion about Europe; it will settle our membership for a generation. This point is particularly important because it underpins what politics is all about: debate, contestation, argument and persuasion. Europe remains a hotly contested issue, and it needs to be confronted directly. The spectre of Europe will haunt British politics until a referendum is called. [1]

This raises the issue about timing. There is an argument that, if a newly elected Labour government calls for a referendum, and loses, it would destroy a left-of-centre government, and plunge the entire party into a crisis. The government would probably fall. This argument, raised by David Clark, is indeed very powerful. This is a plausible scenario, but it rests on the assumption that a referendum would occur in 2016, which is not likely. It is many years away because a reform of the European Union will take as many years. We cannot vote on Europe before it has settled itself; it would give us more questions than answers. In order to give the British people a genuine choice in Europe, we must wait (i) until the Eurozone crisis is well and truly over and (ii) until a range of reforms of the EU have been implemented (reforms that would make the EU more democratic, economically rigorous and so on). Once both of these have been consolidated, it will be possible to call for a referendum. The new European settlement will not crystallise until some point in the next parliament, i.e., between 2015 and 2020, and more importantly, it will be more likely to occur in 2018 or later.

In the next five years, the Labour Party must make the case, first, for a reformed European Union, and second, for British membership of that Union. As described previously, Labour should use the growing momentum to call for a Convention on Europe’s Future, in partnership with other European political parties and leaders. A set of pan-European reforms is desirable across the continent. Once these have been agreed, it will be time for an in/out referendum.

A reform agenda for Europe, with a referendum attached at the end, is the strongest case that a pro-European government should make, and one where a ‘yes’ campaign can win. YouGov analysis has shown that, whilst the public currently seem to favour withdrawal, this is not very clear if the EU is reformed. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Europe. A frank and open discussion will re-focus debate away from the often superficial eurosceptic – or perhaps ‘eurocoward’? – arguments in favour of the more considered pro-European arguments. Pro-EU sentiments will not appear by magic: they must make a case for Europe that has been crowded out by a vehemently Eurosceptic media. Is it possible to make such a case? There is precisely such an opportunity, and pro-Europeans should not be afraid to make it.

Let’s take the case of the eurocowards: They believe that the British cannot cope with political engagement; that we do not have the strength to carry the European ship. They believe that we have nothing to offer to Europe and that we are better off hiding alone. Here is the vision of the eurocowards: an offshore, de-regulated tax haven which would be a pole for free enterprise in a global race. Could anything sound more preposterous? Pro-Europeans must argue that we can (and, more importantly, should) have a constructive relationship with our neighbours, and that we can lead the European project. Pro-Europeans must make the case that Britain has something to offer Europe just as much as Europe has something to offer the UK. Whereas eurocowards want us to play no part in the world, we believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. Of course, there are choices to be made. The British public must learn that it cannot free-ride on the economic benefits of Europe without any commitment to Europe. That is not to say that pooling our resources cannot play to our benefit, as analyses do show.

So, should Labour call for a referendum on the EU? Yes, it should. But this referendum cannot take place immediately. Ed Miliband should take leadership of the debate by accepting a referendum for the end of the next parliament, which will (i) settle the question of a referendum and (ii) allow the EU to be given a chance to reform itself. Until then, the British political elite must play a constructive part in shaping its European future.

mg

Notes

[1] There is, of course, the added tactical reason that is often touted: it will split the Conservative Party and marginalise the influence of UKIP. I’m not sure these tactical reasons are particularly valuable: former UKIP voters are likely to return to the Conservatives; and the Conservative Party could just as much unite as divide over Europe.