Most people in the Labour Party may want to stay in the EU, but few think there is no scope to improve the way the EU operates or our terms of membership. Why, then, does Labour appear to have no policy towards the renegotiation that is taking place?
What would Labour like to change – given the opportunity to do so? Actually, there is quite a long agenda. Are we happy with net annual payments to the EU now running at about £15bn a year? Is it sensible to turn away Indian programmers and Chinese students while we acquiesce in having over 40,000 extra Bulgarians and Romanians moving to the UK each year? Are we happy with the way the EU is run? Are there adequate safeguards to protect our position if the Eurozone countries all move towards monetary, fiscal and political union while we stay outside the Single Currency?
There is also an important electoral dimension. Some Labour Party people appear to think that it’s not worth trying to change our terms of membership, but this is not a view shared by the vast majority of the electorate. It is not held, for example, by the millions of voters who have decamped to UKIP, whom Labour badly needs to get back.
Those most keen on our staying in the EU might also ponder whether campaigning to stay in on whatever terms is most likely to achieve the ‘Yes’ result they want. The less David Cameron and George Osborne bring back from their current round of negotiations, the more probable it is that there will be an anti-establishment revolt when the referendum comes, resulting in a ‘No’ vote.
Further, the less pressure there is for change from the Labour Party, the more likely it is that Brussels will offer minimum concessions. Why should EU politicians go through all the hassle of agreeing to revise the UK’s terms of membership if the perception is that we are going to stay in whatever happens?
None of this is an argument against voting to stay in when the vote takes place. Instead, it is an argument for Labour – and the new leader, whoever that may be – to campaign vigorously for changes that most people, inside and outside the Party, would like to see made. In my view, this is what is best for the country and the Labour Party.
We may not get everything we want, but those who don’t ask, don’t get – and mishandling the whole renegotiation process, to which Labour seems to be in danger of contributing, could lead to us leaving the EU altogether, and that’s the last thing that most Labour members and MPs say they want.
John Mills is a Labour donor and founder of the business JML.