Should Miliband try to change the agenda or campaign on European issues?

Summary

The tough call on whether to ignore the ‘in or out’ debate around the EU & focus on domestic policies, or join in the political mud-wrestling

I say this because it’s a genuinely tough call. Remember that Labour too has Euro-sceptics in its ranks. Not surprising given the party’s more distant history – the late Tony Benn being one of its most Euro-sceptic politicians.

The strategy as it looks from the outside

There’s no point in me trying to analyse things pretending to be an insider; I’m not. At a national level, there seems to be little around European issues that is coming from party HQ. The only discussion from Labour I’ve heard on European issues has come from their lead candidate in East Anglia, Richard Howitt MEP. As MEPs go, Richard works his socks off and does a decent job using social media (as well as the mainstream media) of keeping his constituents up to date on what he is doing. Hence why whenever I’ve seen him talk about European issues, he’s clearly very knowledgeable and not easy to catch out. This is why I find it puzzling that when you have someone who is knowledgeable and at ease in the media they don’t give him a higher profile.

Given that the other four main parties (Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP) are debating Britain’s role in the EU, from a ‘democratic pluralism’ perspective I think it’s sad that Labour don’t seem to be part of that wider debate. That in part stems from a decision taken in February 2014 – see here. Was it just bad luck that Labour’s preferred candidate was not elected by their European party grouping, the Party of European Socialists (PES)? What’s even more striking is that if you look at the PES website, the two language options are English and French.

Ed Miliband launches a new health policy

Now as policy commitments go, this is a major one. (See the writeup here on Labourlist). It’s also one that will chime with many people on the centre-left of politics. Both on keynote policies (the GP guarantee) and the ‘three pillars’ work well with each other. The GP guarantee is one that will resonate with anyone that has had problems booking appointments with their GP (though the challenge will inevitably be in delivery), and the ‘three pillars’ work well with politics watchers such as myself. Those three pillars are:

“Make the NHS a service for mental health, physical health and care for the elderly

Make the NHS a preventive service not just a reactive service, by investing in care where people live.

Put the principles of cooperation and integration, not competition and privatisation, back at the heart of the health service.”

But…

Has the noise of the European elections reduced the impact of this announcement? 

The reason I ask this is because the broadcast media has to give equal neutral coverage to the parties contesting the European and local government elections. This also means lots of smaller parties getting airtime. As a result, discussion on this important keynote policy announcement is somewhat distracted by one or two laughable party political broadcasts from some of the very minor parties with very tight budgets.

“Puffles! Labour activists are out on the street every night, talking to people – unlike you who are stuck behind a computer screen watching the telly!”

That for me is one of the big unknowns – and one that I think caught the media out in 2010. I remember from the coverage that despite Peter Snows swingometer telling us throughout the night that Cameron had got enough seats to form a majority government, there were more than enough seats that remained stubbornly Labour or Lib Dem. While this may not play out at a European level, I expect to see the door-to-door work in a number of areas paying dividends both in terms of number of votes and on turnout too. (And not just for Labour, but for all parties where their street activism has been strong). Interestingly, on social media it appears that Labour grassroots activists are more than happy to take the fight to UKIP. As I saw someone remarking earlier, given the opinion polls isn’t it better for Labour to focus their attention on UKIP rather than the Liberal Democrats given the percentage points difference?

Miliband blocks the media riverflow of Europe-talk

The reason why Ed Miliband is taking a huge risk (the outcome at the time of writing remaining to be seen) is that rather than going with the flow of the political news, he is effectively chucking a massive boulder into the river. The announcement has disrupted the flow of the media coverage on the European election. Ed Miliband in this instance is a ‘news maker’. The nature of the policy announcement along with the person who is making it (a possible future prime minister) means that the media cannot simply ignore it. They have to give it some sort of coverage. But will it be enough for people to sit up and take notice?

 

This by @CartoonRalph explains UKIP media coverage
This by @CartoonRalph explains UKIP media coverage

For those of you interested in Cartoon Ralph, he’s on Facebook here.

To what extent will The Green Party fill in the European void left by Labour?

Locally (in Cambridge) I don’t think they’ll be a huge threat to Labour. What I’ll be watching out for is the difference between their 2013 county council election campaign where they polled 2,000 or so votes across Cambridge with a slate of paper candidates, vs the 2014 local (city) council elections where they’ll have benefited from a raised national profile along with street campaigning in Cambridge by Dr Rupert Read and a more active Cambridge young green party.

Will David Cameron give The Greens a higher profile to destabilise Labour in 2015?

This is what The Independent has been talking about in this article. Again, from a democratic pluralism/variety perspective, I think it would make the leadership debates far more interesting, with Nigel Farage on one side and Natalie Bennett on the other biting at the heels of the three main party leaders.

Given the current disposition of the Conservatives, chances are they have few votes to lose to The Greens. It’s Labour and the Liberal Democrats that are more at risk. My hunch is that Cameron will go ahead with the leaders debate – if he doesn’t he risks being plagued by The Mirror sending a bloke dressed as a headless chicken to harangue him on the campaign trail as it did in 1997 with John Major. That and lots of UKIP activists – potentially boosted by likely gains in the 2014 elections will be asking him continually why he’s not debating with Farage. Just by having Natalie Bennett of The Greens on the platform means that both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will have to watch their green/left flanks.

“Is Ed Miliband doing the right thing by keeping out of all things EU and focussing on domestic issues?”

Very difficult question.

My instinct says ‘No- but…it’s too late to change things now’

“What does that mean?”

It means we have to understand more deeply why his approach is as it is. The longer term polling data (such as Ipsos Mori’s archive) is repeatedly telling Labour to focus on things like the economy and the NHS. Europe in the grand scheme of things is a bit of a side show as far as this data is concerned. The announcement on health policy is a very deliberate attempt to shape the political-media news agenda rather than being driven by the high winds of the Euro seas. It’s also something that will delight activists on the front line because it gives them far more policy clarity. When you think about it, housing and health are two major domestic policy areas. Now that Labour has clear policies for activists to work with, their job pounding the streets has been made a damn sight easier.

Why it’s too late to change course to start talking about Europe

At the time of writing, the elections are in just over a weeks time. Changing their strategy now is the equivalent of trying to turn around an oil tanker on a sixpence in sixty seconds. You just can’t do it. (Or rather, you can’t if you want the turning of the oil tanker to be successful!)

“Why is it too late?”

Because that involves Labour setting out a clear European vision that synchronises with what its sister European parties are doing. This in itself requires a huge amount of forward planning. Changing things now will be interpreted (rightly) as panicking. It’s too late to change course now given that the schedules & media appearances of the most senior party officials will have been decided a long time in advance. As I mentioned earlier, Labour are unwilling to have the lead candidate of their grouping in the European Parliament being seen on the campaign trail with them in the UK.

This approach contrasts with The Greens. They had their lead European candidate, Ska Keller in Bristol earlier – joining The Greens in taking on UKIP (see here). Out of all the parties, theirs is the most integrated with their European sister parties. Interestingly, a new grouping has sprung up in the UK to fill the void left by the Conservatives in the European People’s Party grouping – The Four Freedoms Party. They’ve just started following Puffles on Twitter too. Influential dragon fairy? (The party tweets at @UK_EPP).

Basically Ed Miliband’s alternative was to do what the Greens are doing: Go for a campaign where he is seen to be shoulder-to-shoulder with politicians in Labour’s sister parties. Given the number of anti-EU parties standing candidates for the European elections, the EU establishment really needs to wake up. It takes a hell of a lot of anger/courage/passion/bloody-mindedness to put yourself forward for election irrespective of your politics. In the grand scheme of things, I want to know what Ed Miliband’s vision is for the EU, and what his plan is for achieving it. At the moment, I don’t know what either one is.

“Either way, it’s a bold decision by Ed Miliband on campaign strategy”

Now ****this**** is the difference between someone like me who is an analyst and a scrutiniser, versus someone who is a decision-maker. You need both in politics & public policy. A decision-maker must ask the right questions of their advisers and then make decisions on the basis of the information that is there, through the prism of their political principles and values. At the same time, you need people who can analyse the decisions such people take, and question the merits of decisions taken – holding power to account. Being a decision-maker in a large organisation takes a hell of a lot of courage to do well – irrespective of the field. Time will tell if Ed Miliband has made the right judgement call.

 

 

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