A Labour vote: against this Tory Brexit and for a different Europe

Europe is at a crossroads. The certainties of the post-Cold War era were shaken by 9/11 and its aftermath and blown away by the 2008 financial crash and the decade of depression that followed. The roots of Brexit and the rise of new right populism are inherently linked to these events. The response of European social democracy has been well intentioned but slow and overly traditional, frequently relying on institutions that themselves have failed to adapt to circumstance.

Europe’s progressive forces have led the political development of the continent at important points and must learn to do so again. This does not require simply numbers in the European Parliament - though they help - it requires leading ideas that can command consensus, building movements that embody European ideals in today’s context and have the capacity not just to win arguments but to achieve consensus and pull the centre back toward the left. The creation of a new settlement of inclusion for the many.

While in some respects it may seem that progressive forces in Europe are historically weak, everything is relative. The centre right is also struggling. The lack of nuance in the response to the financial crash and Eurozone crisis, while ticking fiscal boxes and delivering the confidence of markets, trashed confidence in the social market model and left behind far too many people. Now the centre right struggles with the consequences and, while they might reject conservative nationalism and alt-right populism in theory their lack of answers too often leads to acquiescence. So the task, as ever, is shifting the consensus - not just back to where it was, but to a new post-populist settlement.

Owning the agenda and enabling solutions informed by progressive and socialist ideas requires the ability to address the great challenges of climate, freedom, technological transformation, the nature of work and education, fair taxation and sustaining peace and development in a destabilised international order. Europe frequently finds itself at crossroads - it’s a big continent with a lot of crossroads, but the breadth of challenges and the dark political backdrop should convince us of the critical importance of this juncture. In each of these areas there are seeds of hope in new thinking and the open-minded approach that recognises that neither the economic nor political dogmas of the twentieth century are fit for the age in which we live.

Socialist and progressive thinking brings a lot to the mix, but central and essential is a recognition that left to their own devices markets, as well as producing great innovations, produce great inequalities. The European Union remains the only real and partially successful attempt to address the inadequacies of the nation state and enhance its successes. Far from being the enemy of the nation state the EU, reformed and revitalised, can be the protector of national identity, the enhancer of national and regional culture and the guarantor of both the power of governance and of individual liberty. The potential role of the EU in calling to account transnational commercial interests and charting courses for progress on supra-national challenges remains self-evident. If it didn’t exist it would have to be invented.

Nonetheless, radical reform - institutional, political and budgetary is essential if the EU is to survive, prosper and regain the confidence of public and polity. While perceptions of democratic deficit are dated to some degree, the EU has much further to go. To overcome those perceptions the Union needs both to establish effective dialogue with its citizenry and further empower its elected politicians. Leaders fitted with tin ears fail to understand that pragmatism in a crisis is the best protector of progress while flexibility, scrutiny and responsiveness are not words that lend themselves to the governance of the Union - they need to be. Ensuring the accountability of the Commission through effective democratic scrutiny an essential first step both to regaining public confidence and delivering better evidence-based policy making.

One set of elections will not bring about the solution to these issues but they should be part of that road. The electoral programme of the Socialists and Democrats provides a vision of economic progress in which communities can see the prospect of ‘just transition’ - assistance and investment in moving to a post-carbon society rather than market abandonment. It offers a route where the priority for climate action and responsible environmental stewardship is based not merely on pious appeals to changing individual behaviour but on pragmatic but concerted governmental and social intervention to create the flow with which people can go. The new social democratic politics seeks to lead a reality that leaves behind the notion of leaving people behind. That will require an economic justice built on the understanding that inclusive digital societies must abandon old notions of an education that ‘ends’ and embrace a notion of education that ‘is’ and in turn, hard as it may be, rebuilds a value system where knowledge is ‘good’, is encouraged and is, yes, rewarded. Alongside this sits that old but ever more relevant adage best ironically summed up in the language of the time by that ultimate pragmatist, Harold Wilson - “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. Socialists have struggled through their history with the balance of the individual and collective, most frequently in the balance between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual. It has tarnished the brand and ruined the perceptions of the left for generations. A decisive break from that past is crucial to the relevance of progressive ideas in the future for the notion of the individual subsuming their interests to that of the collective will never again fly - any progressive vision has to encompass the enhancement and protection of freedom. Continuing progress on the long road to gender equality, to the liberation of personal identity, the celebration of diversity and cultural freedoms all contribute to a world where the individual can be what they want to be, where discrimination and racism is once again unacceptable and where a set of modern values of citizenship and responsibility can be fostered.

So, assuming these elections to the European Parliament go ahead, a Labour vote is a vote not just against the incompetence and failure of this damaging Tory Brexit, but is also a vote for a different Europe. A Europe that uses its power to ensure that multinational corporations can no longer within impunity duck and dive to avoid paying fair taxes when ordinary people have no choice. A Europe where the tech giants are not allowed to exploit their monopoly power to manipulate data, violate the privacy of citizens, rip-off consumers online and exploit creative workers for mega-profits. A Europe where we can mobilise resources to combat climate change, where we can continue down the long road toward genuine gender equality and a Europe where the long battle to defend peace and democracy can be won.

A Labour vote is also a vote for a Europe that is a powerful, progressive voice on the world stage, a counter weight to Trump and Putin, using our collective strength to aid development, promote environmental responsibility and to stand with those who defend democracy and human rights.

It’s a new battle in an old fight - the good fight for peace, jobs and freedom - let’s go out and win it.

John Howarth MEP
12 April 2019.