Are we missing out on the wider bigger picture with the constant in-out-shake-it-all-about debate on EU membership?
Nick Clegg made a sharp tactical move in challenging Nigel Farage to a live TV debate on the EU – one that puts Labour and the Conservatives in a hard place. The Conservatives understandably don’t want extra publicity going to UKIP, while Clegg’s unlikely to lose votes as a result of going head-to-head with Farage. Labour’s relative silence on the EU in comparison to the media shouting on membership means that Clegg has an open field for a pro-EU stance. Lib Dem President Tim Farron’s comments here indicate the party’s thinking – the Lib Dems have little to lose with the extra publicity gained. Perhaps they hope those that do not follow politics closely, have little affinity to political parties but whose lives may be affected by an EU exit may vote Lib Dem and stop a complete MEP-wipeout.
“Will Ed and Dave be taking part?”
Not at the moment. Cameron’s got the most to lose as the increased media profile for UKIP inevitably chips away at those otherwise Conservative Euro-sceptic members and voters. But Labour’s heartlands are also at risk from a seemingly ‘anti-establishment protest vote’. At the same time, Labour have been focusing much more on domestic issues around austerity and its impact. But what is Labour’s message for the European elections this May and how well will they be able to communicate it?
A single party identity for a single continent?
This is what the European Greens have gone for – and note the language of their campaign website. A single syllable word, a colour and a message all at the same time – irrespective of whether you agree with the last point. The Liberal Democrats are part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, and looking at their branding the words of the European alliance match the UK party – see here. But for Labour? Well…it’s a bit more complicated.
Not being allowed to use the ‘S’ word
Labour are part of the Party of European Socialists – or PES as they are now branding themselves – see here. But the ‘S’ word – ‘socialist’ – is one that still causes problems for the Labour leadership. The ‘Progress’ wing of the party (see here) – traditionally pro-Blair has tried to move away from policies and rhetoric of the 1980s. On the other hand, the traditional large trade union side of the party (think Unite the Union) has activists that use the ‘S’ word as a badge of honour. Irrespective of the merits and drawbacks of either side, the point is that there’s no common European brand. (I explore why this is an issue later on).
Friends of the UK Conservatives in Europe?
David Cameron took the Conservatives out of their traditional grouping of European centre-right parties, the European People’s Party, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists. As you can see from the list halfway down this page, the UK Conservatives are the major party in the group. But this means that the European People’s Party (whose website is in English despite having no English MEPs in its grouping) as one of the two largest EU groupings in the European Parliament has no UK party political representation in it. (Click here to see the UK having no pop-up link)
“Common branding means common policies, doesn’t it?”
Not at all. But that reflects the diversity of the continent. Remember there are still people alive old enough to remember the Second World War. While much of Continental Europe experienced occupation, mainland UK did not. There’s also the history of the Cold War and German reunification too. The UK’s experience was very different to that of Continental Europe. It’s something that every so often comes up in ‘mainstream activism scenes’ where some people use the hammer and sickle insignia only to be confronted by people that actually lived in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
So the above-paragraph touches on historical contexts. But just as importantly for me is having consistent policies across countries and parties in the same political groups to solve common problems. This is something that the Greens seem to have been slightly more effective on than the other groups – helped perhaps by being smaller in size. But given the rapid changes in society over the past couple of decades, have UK and EU political parties been somewhat left behind? Conservative Mark Field MP summarised the problem clearly in a recent post.
“Any Briton under the age of 40, particularly those who grew up or now live in our hyper-diverse capital city, have come of age in an era of rapid globalisation, expansion of the European Union and loose immigration control. As a result, many travel widely, are more global in their outlook, and inhabit social circles that comprise of different ethnicities and nationalities.
Not only is there commonly less fear of difference but friends’ and colleagues’ cultural, linguistic and visual variety is more often warmly embraced, fostering a far greater degree of understanding. It should also come as no surprise that this age demographic is, to date at least, the least susceptible to voting UKIP.“
I often write about the impact the internet and social media is having on society. But other developments changed things as well in terms of making things nominally more affordable to more people. The first was the rise of the budget airline. Holidays that in the early 1990s I could not hoped to have gone on were, a decade later the norm for me. (Although since leaving the civil service I’ve not actually gone on holiday anywhere because I’ve not been able to afford it). The rise in the number of people going to university, the rise of the ‘gap year’ meant that during the boom years from the late-1990s to the 2008 crash, more people had the opportunity for wider cultural exchanges.
But at the same time, party politics has become increasingly irrelevant to younger generations. As I stated in this blogpost, that’s not the fault of younger generations, that’s the fault of the older generations – the ones in positions of power – that brought them up. Which then brings me on to think whether those at the top of UK and EU political parties share the same outlooks as an ever-changing society? Is society becoming more polarised? If so, how do mainstream political parties cope with younger generations perhaps more at ease with the changes in society vs older generations perhaps struggling to come to terms with the pace of change and the overturning of pre-existing social norms?
Will it be Clegg on the side of youth versus Farage on the side of the old?
I don’t think the proposed TV debate will be as clear cut as that, though I’m sure a temptation will be there. Clegg will have his heart cut out trying to appeal to a younger audience given his record on tuition fees and his role in the Coalition. Can he persuade those less-Euro-sceptic-minded (as opposed to pro-EU) to turn out and cast a one-off vote for him to keep out UKIP? Alternatively, will it be Labour or the Greens that prosper from the pro-Europe vote?
The other thing to note is that Clegg is a former MEP, so will be familiar with the EU just as Farage is – perhaps more so given the different nature of the two parties and how they work within the European institutions. The Conservatives on social media that interact with Puffles have been campaigning on the competency of UKIP MEPs, citing where them not turning up to important debates and votes is against the interests the country. Vicky Ford MEP for the Conservatives in East Anglia has been campaigning on this in what is traditionally a battlefield region between the two parties.
What about Miliband’s European vision?
This for me is one of the big policy and campaigning areas that Miliband needs to really develop. The reason being that the problems society is facing are not just local and national, but global. Therefore it makes sense to have some international allies not just in the policy silos, but also on the campaign trail. That for me is one of the political unknowns. What would the impact be on voting if Labour invited campaigners from their sister PES group parties to campaign on the streets with them? Ditto with the Lib Dems and the Greens? What would the impact be if activists from UK political parties went abroad to campaign? (Assuming they could get over the language barriers).
The point I’m trying to get at with Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens is whether they will campaign with some clear pan-European policies and themes that show them working with, and campaigning side-by-side with their sister parties in their European Parliament groups. What impact would that have on the UK public? This was the point I touched upon when the European Greens came to London (see here). Would the presence of people from continental Europe campaigning in the UK antagonise sections of the British public, or would such a public otherwise fed on a diet of negative press about the EU take to the likes of Ska Keller MEP from Germany and change their views? (I’m almost picturing middle-aged Mail/Express readers with offspring in higher education deciding that Ska is ‘the sort of European that they’d like their sons/daughters to meet and mix with while at university’, Keeping Up Appearances style!) On a serious note, my point is that the UK public tend not to see the human beings inside the European Parliament or EU institutions. Hence it then becomes easier to portray them as inflexible dehumanised monoliths. While transparency of institutions, along with MEPs’ and officials’ use of social media have roles to play, can European parties go further in their face-to-face campaigning?
Furthermore – and coming back to Mark Field’s points, there are thousands of EU citizens from continental Europe that live and work in the UK – that also have the right to vote in these elections. To what extent are UK parties reaching out to the communities where they live? After all, in some areas the concentration of potential voters could be enough certainly to swing some council wards, but also council control and Euro parliament seats. Remember that for large parts of England, there are local government elections on the same day too.
Food for thought?