Snobs to the left of us, shysters to the right – here we are stuck in the middle with EU

23 01 2013

I suppose I should be happy.

For the first time in 40 years, the British public will get a say in our membership of the European Union. When we last voted, the EU was an entirely different beast, with far fewer federal powers and considerably less rot. It isn’t too much to require a new democratic mandate for our continued commitment to this loveless marriage.

So, having been a member of that rare breed – a left-wing Eurosceptic – for well over a decade, I suppose I should be happy. But I have the ugly feeling this is going to be a mess.

Let us ignore the usual sneering of left-wing pro-Europeans, who dismiss all Euroscepticism as naïve, flag-waving jingoism. It’s odd how a political movement that is supposedly committed to human welfare is so utterly blasé about an organisation that is driving entire countries into destitution to defend neoliberalism.

Brainwashing Britain. Allegedly.

Brainwashing Britain. Allegedly.

Let us also ignore the Europhiles’ inability to recognise that this is a referendum.  People will have a vote. Of course, the British left, for all its supposed belief in ‘power to the people’ and what not, actually regards most people as pig thick. They’re opposed to a referendum because they don’t trust people to make up their own minds on a crucial vote. They think everyone will read a Daily Mail editorial and vote to leave Europe. This sneering arrogance is precisely why people ignore the left.

The real problem is how it’s going to be done – and why it’s going to be done. Obviously it’s a desperate attempt to win back Tory deserters to UKIP – now boundary changes are dead, the Tories’ last shot is to get back the Eurosceptic vote. It won’t help them as this will mostly be in safe Tory seats, not in the northern and Midlands marginals they need to cling on to. But that’s neither here nor there.

The real problem here is the backstory – which, as ever, is the City of London. This is about protecting private profits. Again.

Shifting the centre

David Cameron’s famous ‘veto’ in 2011 hindered the passage of a truly awful treaty – but it was deployed purely to protect London’s ravaged financial sector. With Brussels (and Washington) increasingly exasperated by the spate of scandals emerging from lawless London, the EU wanted to bring the Square Mile under the yoke of Brussels regulation, seeing as the British government had utterly failed to defuse this timebomb. Cameron threw a fit and stormed out.

Ever since, it’s been about ‘repatriating’ powers from Europe. What powers? No-one really knows, but it’s quite clear that EU employment law and work protections are top of the Tory list. In his speech, Cameron singled out the working time directive, which limits working hours. It’s just another attack on workers.

Of course, nobody would ever vote for a national pay cut and longer hours, so the Tories have had to reframe it. An EU referendum – lower pay dressed up as democracy. Cameron’s plan is this:

1)      ‘Renegotiate’ powers with the EU (fat chance they’ll let him) by opting out of European employment law and financial sector regulation

2)      Offer this as the ‘in’ option in a referendum, with the ‘out’ option bringing full withdrawal

3)      Campaign to stay in the EU, presenting this as the ‘moderate’ approach, and thereby dressing up a full-frontal assault on workers’ incomes as the ‘centrist’ position

4)      Repeal the minimum wage, the maximum working week, maintain financial sector deregulation etc etc

Doing so gets rid of the main good thing the EU has done in the last 20 years, and keeps us tied in to all the poison. But instead, Cameron may find people simply vote to walk out.

The dream that died

The real problem with the EU is that over the last two decades it has shifted from an intergovernmental to a federal body. This is a fundamental point, completely missed by the know-it-alls of the left. They look at the employment legislation and think of the EU as some fuzzy social democratic idyll. It is not.

Europe’s former left-wing bent was simply the product of the politics of the continent. As an intergovernmental body – where nation states met to agree new measures on a consensus basis – the European Community, as it was then, reflected the political make-up of European national governments. These were often social democrat – think Francois Mitterand. National polities made European policy.

That was then. Since the Maastricht Treaty, Europe has seen an ever-growing transfer of power and direction to the unelected, federal European Commission. The Commission has become outright neoliberal in its agenda – Bolkestein was the canary in the mine – and its current president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was a warmongering, pro-cuts prime minister of Portugal before he took his Brussels seat.

'Fractured Europe'. Oh Google Images, you never let me down.

‘Fractured Europe’. Oh Google Images, you never let me down.

The elephant in the room is what the EU is actually doing in Europe. Whole swathes of this continent are being frogmarched into the gutter to save the European private banking system, all at the behest of the Commission and the European Central Bank. Neo-Nazis roam Greece’s streets, youth unemployment is soaring in Italy and Spain, and Ireland is losing a generation. This is not an aberration or a hijacking – this is the EU functioning exactly as its masters intend, as a shock doctrinaire for neoliberalism’s continental recalcitrants. The poverty and joblessness sweeping Europe is not because of the EU – it is the EU. It is neoliberalism, and the EU is neoliberalism. Whatever it once was, that is what it now is.

Not that you’d know it from listening to the British left. They fret over Britain’s lost ‘influence’ with its main trading partners, apparently not realising that the EU is taking these trading partners – the nation states of Europe – down the toilet.

A more urgent call

The EU is now a broken, bankrupt kleptocracy, stamping a banking jackboot onto the people of Europe. It will spend every last devaluing cent trying to keep its federal, neoliberal dream alive – embodied most strongly by the Euro – but its banks are bust, its nations are going under, and its remaining democratic legitimacy has long since bled away. Anti-EU sentiment will skyrocket across Europe in the next two years. It’s not impossible that in four years time – by when our referendum will supposedly have been held – there won’t be an EU to leave, at least not in its current form.

Inside or outside the EU, it is this task – defeating austerity – that is the most urgent. The rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn shows the potential consequences of the status quo. Whether we have any influence within the EU right now is hard to ascertain – our own government is austerity’s biggest fan – but even a more enlightened leadership would struggle to make itself heard above the masochistic din of Brussels and Berlin.

Anti-austerity protests - a real European movement.

Anti-austerity protests – a real European movement.

The only way forward is for workers across Europe to build on what they have already begun – a cross-continental movement against austerity. As the UK is outside the Eurozone, it’s only natural that our protest movements will feel more distant from what is happening on the continent, but our role ought to be to give European workers the courage to refuse the blackmail visited upon the Greeks last year – namely, that any resistance to austerity means leaving the Euro, leaving the EU, and economic oblivion. Our role should be to help lay a path whereby countries can reject austerity – and if that means they leave the EU, that this shouldn’t be their economic downfall, but instead must be a source of revival. To build the foundations of a democratic Europe to replace the sclerotic bankocracy we have today.

But that is not what our so-called ‘progressives’ are doing. Instead we are getting sneers driven by fear. For behind every casual dismissal of the Eurosceptic case lies a dread terror that without the EU, there can be no clipping of the City’s wings, no maximum working week, no minimum wage. That the British left does not believe it can persuade the public to support such basic measures via the ballot box, and cannot detach itself from political parties that might refuse to do so, simply embodies the three decades of failure that have reduced the left to this wretched, whining state.

The British people are fully entitled to a vote on their membership of the EU. It’s a simple point of democracy, of which the left seems bafflingly terrified. There are arguments for staying in Europe – mostly scaremongering, in my view – and there are arguments for leaving. It is a debate there is no harm in having. But the bigger fight will have been won and lost by the time Cameron rolls his loaded dice in 2017.

P.S – We can now see the political stupidity of Labour trying to corner the Tories on Europe without going all the way themselves. Cameron has scratched his party’s Eurosceptic itch, possibly resolving this long-running sore, and improved his standing with deserting grassroots supporters. Meanwhile Labour still have no actual policy on Europe at all. If they hold out against a referendum, they risk the next election being fought on Britain’s EU membership – and that cannot end well for them.


Dartford doesn’t matter – and that spells trouble for Dave

7 01 2013

Dartford is a nothing sort of place. It has nothing much of note in it – a tunnel, a bridge, and a shopping centre. That’s about the sum of it. The Rough Guide to Dartford would consist of the way out.

Dartford. This is what 'nothing' looks like.

Dartford town centre. This is what ‘nothing’ looks like.

But in politics (and like so many politicians) this nobody becomes a somebody. Dartford is one of Britain’s most reliable ‘bellwether’ seats. At every single general election since 1964, the people of Dartford have elected an MP from the party that goes on to form the government. Win Dartford, and you win the country.

No wonder Dan Hodges is worried. The permanently embittered Blairite recently took to his Telegraph column to claim that Labour is headed for disaster for not pitching further to the right. Most the article is abject nonsense, but one line did ring true:

“Labour’s southern discomfort is as much of a problem today as it ever was”

He’s right that Labour is not making up ground in southern England. Recent local elections have not seen the party seize control of the kind of councils they swept up in the mid-90s. The experts will tell you Labour are doomed unless they reverse this trend.

The experts know nothing.

Labour’s 69 position

A glance at the BBC’s 2010 election results map for the south east (excluding London) makes grim viewing for Labour. Election night left them with just four out of 84 MPs in the region. Half the regional vote went to Cameron.

But take another look at those figures. Yes, Labour had a terrible night in the south east, losing more than three quarters of their seats. But they only had 17 MPs there to begin with – and that was with an outright majority at Westminster.

Meanwhile Labour lost two-thirds of their south western seats. But again, this was always solid Tory and Lib Dem territory.

Now, assuming the government’s boundary changes fall through, and putting to one side the fate of the Lib Dems, if Labour take 25 seats from the Tories at the next election, they’ll be the largest party. 69 seats will give them an overall majority.

Now have a look at this – It’s a list of Labour’s target seats at the next general election, plus the swing they’d need in order to take each one. Check out the sea of blue.

Much more of this and I'll turn into Jeremy Vine

Much more of this and I’ll turn into Jeremy Vine

Count off the first 69 Tory seats (ignoring Corby, which turned red in a 2012 by-election) and you reach Aberconwy. Labour need a 5.67% swing to take this seat – pretty makeable in rural Wales. All other 68 seats need smaller swings – a uniform 5% swing will give them almost 60 Tory seats, while a piddling 2% swing will win them 26 seats, enough to become the largest party and first in line to form a coalition. In many of those seats, they can get a 2% swing just by showing up.

But look closely again at that target seat list, and another thing becomes apparent – these seats are not in the south. In fact, just five of the 69 are in the south east region of England (which excludes Essex and Greater London), and six more are in the south west. Eleven seats across the whole south of England, out of 69 targets – and half of those have tiny majorities to overturn. By comparison, ten of the 69 target seats are in the north west alone.

Rather than being duked out in the southern counties, the next election will be won and lost in the Midlands, the North West, and the East of England.

A cliché that became a canard

So why do the hacks place so much weight on the south?

The south east has always been the big focus. Perhaps it goes back to 1997, when Labour gained a smattering of south eastern seats amidst their national landslide, including a cluster in Kent – Dartford among them.

Many of these seats had been won by the Conservatives in 1979. They had become archetypal ‘swing seats’. Michael Howard sized them up in 2005, but seized only one of them. Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews famously predicted he had lost Medway on election night before ultimately hanging on by a hair’s breadth.

I have turned into Jeremy Vine.

I have turned into Jeremy Vine.

But that night in 2005 is why the south east matters so little now. Labour clung on to its treasured south eastern seats by often tiny majorities. Five years later, those majorities were obliterated by hefty swings – Crawley, Portsmouth North, Milton Keynes North, and Medway’s successor seat all went from ‘ultra-marginal’ to well over 10% Tory majorities.

And then there’s Dartford. Labour’s vote cratered in this trusty old bellwether, leaving the Tories with a plump 21% majority. Look again at that list of Labour targets in 2015. Dartford’s way down at number 130, barely even on the radar.

Cameron’s northern problem means Labour don’t need the south east to win. Dartford may have voted for the winning party at every election since 1964 – but rules are there to be broken.

But does it matter?

In one sense, no. Sure, it makes it likelier that Labour will be the largest party after the next election – even if the economy magically picks up – but since Labour has committed to permanent austerity, and is on the verge of matching Tory post-2015 spending plans, it makes very little difference who wins the next election. We’re in for more of the same.

But there are two ways in which this is more than mere psephological magniloquence.

David Cameron gives his poll ratings the death stare.

David Cameron gives his poll ratings the death stare.

First, it spells huge trouble for David Cameron. The devastating impact of austerity across northern England is guaranteed to lose him much of the turf the Tories conquered in 2010. Many of the marginals they hold look untenable – Pendle, number 58 on Labour’s target list, has been battered by cuts and youth unemployment has risen sharply. Holding the southern forts is no use when Labour are marauding towards their rear.

Labour MPs were ultimately loyal to Gordon Brown in the run-up to 2010. Many of them had decided they would step down in 2010, rather than defend seats they knew they would lose – and there was no point ditching the leader to save their seats when they were quitting anyway.

This time it’s different. Many of Cameron’s MPs are newly elected and ambitious for high office. They have little loyalty to their leader; around half the rebels who killed off House of Lords reform were from the 2010 intake. And they are defending marginal seats that the polls say they are going to lose. They will get very twitchy as the election draws near.

The party will probably have a decent time of it at this year’s shire county elections, but Universal Credit is a disaster in the making and the signs are grim for Britain’s retail sector. The 2010 intake is going to become very restless by the end of the year, worried about losing their seats. But 2014 will see the real fireworks.

David Cameron will, I think, face a leadership challenge in the first six months of 2014. It could be a ‘stalking horse’ challenge from a right-wing maverick like Peter Bone or Douglas Carswell, just to test the water. But David Davis could wade in and possibly win. A Davis win would bring down the coalition in a heartbeat, however – so if a mortally wounded Cameron did a Thatcher and shuffled off, Michael Gove would sweep in and win as the ‘unity’ candidate.

They’d still lose the national vote, mind.

But ultimately that’s just political chess. The second reason why this shift from the south matters is more significant: it gives the lie to the idea that a party must win the Home Counties to win power. For 30 years, political strategists have scoured the editorials of the Sun and the Mail to tell them what southern middle class voters supposedly want and think. They are assumed to want low taxes, spending cuts, and above all, welfare cuts – policies are duly concocted, and these policies do real damage to real people, miles from the manifesto cutting room floors. Even now, Labour bigwigs are dreaming up ‘southern strategies’ and focusing their attention on Basingstoke – which has voted Tory at every election since 1924.

But this demographic falsity is now an electoral delusion. ‘Chasing the Mail’ is wasted breath.

Old habits die hard, but south-centric politics is slowly dying – and that’s why it matters that Dartford doesn’t matter.

Update 09/01/2013 – rather neatly demonstrating the point, Dartford does not appear on Labour’s newly-released list of ‘key battleground seats’ – in fact, only two Kent seats make the cut. This must be the first election in a very long time where they are not focusing on Dartford. Hasn’t stopped them refusing to repeal the benefits uprating cap if they get into power, mind.