John McDonnell: it’s time for the left to save the Europe debate from the Tories

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell puts forward the left wing case for voting to stay in Europe and transform it, speaking to the Another Europe is Possible conference. Thanks to Ed Dingwall for transcription.

mcdonnell-aeip.jpgNothing could be starker than the contrast between the debate on the referendum with regards to the progressives on the left and the debate on the right. I think the debate on the right is disfiguring political discourse, in this country. To be frank, it's turning people off.

The Tories seem to be transposing the gang warfare of the Eton playground and the battles over the Tory leadership succession on to our national political scene. It's rancorous, personal and bitter and has degenerated into name-calling and the hyperbole of Project Fear, with ludicrously exaggerated claims and counter-claims from both sides of the Conservative Party. Johnson's comparison of the EU with the Third Reich, and Cameron's claims of impending World War Three – they just beggar belief. The economic argument has degenerated into, on one hand, a description of economic paradise post-Brexit and outside the single market; and, on the other hand, a near Pompeii-like condition of the City of London and the economy if we leave the EU.

We just cannot go on like this. We cannot let the Conservatives and the rest of the right drag this debate into the intellectual gutter. Our country and our people deserve better than this. We must not allow the decision over the future role of Britain in Europe to become embroiled any further in the in-fighting over who is to be the next leader of the Tory Party; or the exploitation of people's insecurities by the far right.

Time to step in

So it's time now for those on the left and on the progressive spectrum to step in, and it's our job to retrieve this debate and save it from the right. The nature of the debate on the left should be in dramatic contrast to that on the right, and I think it already is. It has to be collegiate and, in Labour Party terms, comradely – a discussion among friends and allies who seek the same goal but offer a different route and a mechanism to achieve that goal. So let's appreciate that there are those on the left who have a principled, rational and coherent argument why we should vote to leave. But we just believe they're wrong.

Let's look at where we agree. First, on the left and on the progressive spectrum we all accept that many of the immensely critical issues we face are transnational and they require transnational political solutions. Second, our consciences don't end at the Channel, or at the North Sea.

I want to look at some of the examples of some of the transnational challenges we face. On energy, and creating the energy to light and warm our homes and power our industries: to be frank, I don't want to poison the air breathed by families in Paris, Madrid or Athens; or put their very existence, or their descendants’ existence, at risk of cataclysmic consequences of climate change. We know the EU is, and could be, an even more critical part of that much needed transnational architecture to respond to climate change. That's one of the reasons why we want to remain in.

On resources, to rise to the challenge of poverty and inequality both in Britain and across Europe, we need to harvest the resources of this rich continent effectively and fairly and wisely. How, in all conscience, can we turn a blind eye any more to the City of London effectively operating like a funnel to offshore tax havens for the taxes of transnational corporations and the super-rich. The taxes that should be paid to fund healthcare for the sick, the care for the elderly, the education of our young and tackling poverty – public funding that's desperately needed, not just in this country but right the way across Europe. We know that if we clamp down here, the tax evaders and avoiders will move elsewhere. That's why European agreements are necessary, and which form the basis of global agreements to track down and confront tax evasion and avoidance. That's why we need to stay in.

Humanitarian challenges

We shouldn't be able to sleep at night when we see refugee children's bodies washed upon the beaches of the Mediterranean. Memories are often sadly short. Europe learned the harsh truth, after the second world war, of the consequences of the barbarity of war and conflict. It faced then a refugee crisis on a scale never witnessed before. But by coordinated transnational cooperation across Europe, refugees in their millions were supported and resettled. It took time and concerted action across the whole of Europe. Vital lessons were learned about how to prevent, resolve and respond to conflicts. Setting up the Europe-wide institutions to bring people together was one of those lessons. If the European Union was eventually established for anything, to be frank, it was to ensure that we could come together effectively to rise to those humanitarian challenges on our shores. We should do nothing that puts at risk the institutions that enable us to take this coordinated response, to be organised to tackle the refugee crisis. That's another reason for staying in.

And it's important that on the left we don't avoid the issue of free movement and immigration, which is inevitably coming to the fore in this debate. None of us underestimate people's anxieties and emotions on this issue. We know that if we ignore it, we do so at our peril. So it has to be confronted head on.

The British have been and, almost certainly, will continue to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the free movement of people across Europe. Whether it's the Brits retiring to the warmth of the sun, or the quiet countryside of rural France, or the beaches of Greece, or our young people increasingly opting to study and work across Europe, or British workers taking work elsewhere when our own economy is slowed, it's the British who are reaping the rewards of travel and settlement that free movement brings us. Inward migration often keeps our own economy afloat, filling the skills gaps and supporting an ageing population to pay its way. I speak as the grandson of an Irish immigrant and, I have to tell you, it's been the case for almost a century and a half that migrants have supported this economy and kept it afloat. I'm proud that it was often Irish men who built most of the infrastructure on which you travelled to get here today, many of the buildings we work in and hold these meetings in; and it was Irish women nurses who populated the NHS, cared for the elderly, taught in our schools, and worked in the factories that rebuilt the economy after the second world war and beyond. I'm proud of being the grandson of a migrant worker.

But we have to be straight with people as well. Of course migration, on any scale, presents its problems of integration and pressure on public services. But all of these problems can be readily overcome. The vast bulk of the evidence demonstrates that migrants pay more into the economy than they take out. And, despite general concerns about migration, all the evidence shows that on a one-to-one basis and within communities, the nature of British people is to be extremely welcoming to incomers. People generally just want to get on with each other and live in peace and harmony.

Austerity is to blame

We mustn't let the Tories use immigration as a smokescreen for the cuts in public expenditure that they've introduced as austerity. Our public services – the NHS in particular – and our housebuilding and infrastructure programmes would be in real difficulties but for the staff coming from across Europe. Where there are pressures in a particular area, the simple and obvious solution is specific programmes of government support to deal with them. It's not rocket science.

We have a duty also to address the issue of migration in a way that's positive in its view that a community can respond to receive the benefits of migration at the same time as overcoming some of the short-term issues.

The question for the left then, is whether we can transform the operation of the European Union. It's the same question asked by the left about any state institutions – whether it's the local council, the national government, or any transnational institutions. The strategy we pursued on the left, in the past and now, has been described traditionally as 'in and against the state'.

The state isn't just a set of institutions, it's a relationship. Usually one of dominance of the institution over the individual. Socialists and progressives have gone within these institutions to try to transform that relationship. That is, to transform it into a democratic relationship, where it is the democratic people's wishes that dominate, not the bureaucracy or the powerful economic interests that the bureaucracy often represents.

So, finally, that's the challenging question posed to the modern left. Can we, and how can we, democratically transform our European institutions? The optimism is based upon this: for the first time in over a generation there are movements and political forces mobilised and mobilising across Europe to respond to that challenge, but responding to it increasingly together. We have the opportunity now, from today, to re-route the referendum debate away from Tory Brexit; and into a debate about the democratic future of Europe, about 'another Europe': a Europe that is not just possible, but urgently and vitally needed.

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  • commented 2016-06-15 20:59:09 +0100
    Here is another way of saying it, since given the thoughts above, why isn’t the Labour party really mobilising nationwide behind the opportunity and the threat that this referendum creates.

    An open letter to the Labour leadership and others.

    Dear Leaders and party Members,

    The EU debate – Common Sense observations – an ordinary person’s viewpoint.

    1) Background – Management of the conservative party and fear of UKIP

    Britain is on the verge of the most momentous decision of a generation because the Conservative party leadership, having won coalition power in 2010 did a deal with it’s right wing to hold a referendum. They set the date for the current parliament and thus were able to make mention of it in their 2015 manifesto. Why did they do this? The most compelling explanation is for reasons of party management, to gain solidarity within the coalition, in the face of a growing perceived threat from the more ultra right wing amongst the party and the single policy UKIP – the Little Englanders (now the Brexit leaders).

    There is no evidence that there was much public call for either the proposed referendum change or the current debate and therefore it is understandable that there is general mystification at what now appears to be the ritual disembowelment of the Conservative party with UKIP on the side lines vulture-like hoping to pick over the best pieces.

    Add to this the general public’s disillusionment with politics and politicians and the unproven, often ridiculous, assertions of campaign leaders (on both sides) then not only do we face a major national decision but also a hammer blow into the reputation of the UK’s failing leadership more generally.

    2) A vision for Europe with Britain at its heart

    Why are we so scared to sketch out a vision for what Europe could really be like if Britain played a full role at its centre? As the fifth largest economy in the world we can be at least as influential as Germany or France. It is the policy of successive UK governments that has kept us on the side lines, not the actions of the central axis.

    The EU is seriously in need of both reform and further development but it has already achieved very many great things for its Members. It is the EU that has pushed us on environmental clean up, is facing down China on global steel dumping and has done so much to promote equality, diversity and workers security.

    Working closely within Europe does not mean we are any the less British. Both Britain and the United States take pride in the way that national, regional and local identities flourish within our even closer UK unions and the EU completely recognise that we are stronger within by retaining our identities than by merging them.

    Worldwide, nations want Britain to remain in the EU and clearly it could be more beneficial to be using the EU to magnify our global position rather than the Little Englander solution of pulling up the drawbridge.

    The sovereignty we have given up has been by agreement and compromise. This is more than counterbalanced by gains in influence and the ability to finally say no when we absolutely cannot agree!

    What we have not done for many years is to seek to be an influential leader within the EU yet if we are prepared to put the work and investment into starting again outside, then surely we could get even greater prosperity, global, scientific and environmental leadership from within. There is no aspect of EU membership that precludes us from doing business with any of the great emerging markets around the world but there are many aspects of our membership that make us a desirable partner to these same new markets.

    3) Economy

    Because of the unproven assertions of the Little Englander campaign leaders a general feeling of disbelief exists around much of the economic argument. It is noteworthy that the clear majority of UK and international experts and institutions have cautioned against us leaving the EU but unfortunately their views are not carrying amongst the general public.

    What is not being made clear by either side is the continuing need for Britain to improve its national productivity. At present we get by as well as we do because we have an easy entry marketplace in Europe. This gives us some headroom to build the measures, sometimes uncomfortable, that we need to improve productivity.

    Outside of the EU we will need to dramatically improve our national skill bases, entrepreneurism and productivity but there has been no explanation given as to how Little Englanders would go about this. Typically actions to improve productivity involve reducing labour, wages and debt. This could also be read as more austerity which is why Little Englanders don’t want to talk about it – and Brexit leaders have a proven track record in this type of economics!

    What is also remaining unsaid is that all of the increased civil service administration and border control that we would need if we take Borders and laws under our own (presumably strengthened) control costs money – we share it in our contributions to EU central budgets at present

    4) Security

    EU co-operation has been a major factor in keeping us secure and away from major conflict for 70 years. The nature of global security threats have changed over that time and require States to be working together more closely rather than further apart.

    EU members have slowly been building co-operation with each other. There is much further to go but Britain at the heart of Europe bringing with it its strong cross Atlantic relations offers the public far greater security than any alternative.

    Increasing security at borders does not ultimately protect us from many of the current threats we face – it is costly and generally not welcomed by travellers and visitors alike. Sharing intelligence is far more likely to offer greater protection.
    Recently people smugglers are bringing migrants to our shores and this pressure is likely to increase in the short term regardless of whether we are in the EU or not. Similarly any action we take to reinforce boundaries are home can happen whether we are in Europe or not. It is of course much more likely that we can take action to reduce the flow across Europe if we do it collectively rather than by isolating ourselves on the outside.

    5) Migration

    Migrants are flowing into Europe from all sides driven by two main, but sometimes intertwined, reasons. Firstly to escape from conflict and secondly to escape from poverty. Drawn by a vision of opportunities and freedoms in the wealthier Northern and /or Western economies, migrants risk life to gain access to it.

    In the longer term this can only be addressed by reducing the gap between rich and poor, preferably by improving circumstances in the home regions of the migrants. Britain leads the world in its investment into developing countries but this can only become meaningful if others join with us at the same levels. British leadership should encourage Europe to a fuller long term development response.

    In the short term there is a crisis at the Borders of Europe which will not be resolved any more easily by Britain putting its head in the sand. It is a disgraceful idea that we should contemplate looking the other way while our neighbours face the consequences of the significant impact that the current levels of migration will cause. This dog in the manger attitude of stronger borders actually makes us less safe with instability closer to home than if we were to work together for pan continental solutions.

    It should also be kept in mind that migrants from the EU are more likely to be in work and paying taxes. There are many studies that show there is currently a net benefit to the UK. If infrastructure is creaking as a result of extreme pressure then that is a matter of national economic mis-management and not the fault of the migrant.

    There has been comment that our welfare system is a draw for European migrants although there is little evidence for this. If it were true then the obvious answer would be to reform our welfare system so that it were less of a pull. This is something that is being done in any event but could be achieved relatively straightforwardly and in a manner that protects the most vulnerable.

    6) UK – The state of the union

    Most agree that if Britain leaves the EU then Scotland will force another independence referendum and on this occasion would leave the UK’s union, probably closely followed by Northern Ireland.

    7) Ineffective opposition

    The Labour Party’s abject failure to capitalise on the opportunities created by this right wing power struggle is a sadness. The leadership’s response has been so lacklustre as to be almost un-noticeable.

    While Tories tear themselves apart over the most important decision faced by the UK this century, the Labour party which has always had an international mindset you might have thought would be leading and developing social democratic thinking, the benefits to workers, the challenges of migration, welfare and environment hainstead of running for the cover of its own internal navel gazing.

    This is not to say that anti Semitism and diversity in the Party are not important but they are hardly the matters that are setting the electorate on fire at present.

    8) Who are they

    Look at the leadership of the Brexit campaign. They could be characterised as the man who messed up education, the man who failed to deliver welfare reform and the UK’s answer to Donald Trump.

    Undoubtedly they have passionately held belief’s but they could also be seen as opportunists who would all hope for greater political standing should the Brexit campaign succeed.

    The main point in this article is to show Britains opportunity if we acted as a leading European nation to bring British ability, skill and leadership to the centre of the EU. Across Europe the right wing are again emerging as a political threat in all countries, while here campaigners on both sides accuse each other of using scare tactics. The most scary aspect in all of this would be the likely scenario of the Brexit leaders, if successful, forming the nucleus of a future government and moving Britain politically to the far right.

    9) The facts

    The reason that everyone has difficulty discerning what the “facts” are is because they are lost in conflagratory rhetoric on both sides. This happens because the decision is really one of the heart as much as the head and it is my view that if we created a vision for what the UK could be at the heart of a successful Europe, then there are few that could fail to support it.

    What can be said is that the EU, with all its faults, is a known quantity while everything said about Britains future outside of it is conjecture.

    There are some and most importantly it is a fact that almost every reputable commentator, economic expert and global partner thinks that Britain is better in Europe.

    There is no doubt that Britain has always been and still is Great but if it put as much effort into making itself a significant central force in Europe, as would be necessary to make its way outside, then it could be significantly greater and stronger than now.

    Simon Knighton
    15th June 2016

    Simon is a senior chairman of a leading health and social care provider in the South West, a chairman of school governors and the chairman of a national charity.