Tribune leader, 22 May 1992
As Tribune went to press, it seemed that, despite the frantic efforts of the Labour Whips, there would be a substantial backbench rebellion on Thursday night against the Labour leadership’s decision to abstain in the vote on the Maastricht treaty, with some diehard pro-European MPs voting with the Government in favour and a rather larger group voting against.
The rebellion is a welcome sign that, for a little while anyway, Labour MPs are not going to swallow everything the leadership gives them. More importantly, it also shows that Labour’s fragile pre-election consensus on Europe is wholly inadequate as a basis for approaching the next five years.
Labour’s policy on the EC in the past couple of years has been a fudge designed to keep everyone in the Parliamentary Labour Party happy. On economic and monetary union, Labour agreed in principle to the creation of a single European currency and a European central bank.
That pleased the Euro-enthusiasts. But to keep the Euro-sceptics on board, these commitments were hedged around with qualifications. The central bank would have to be supervised by Ecofin, the Council of Economic and Finance Ministers of the EC countries, and monetary union would be backed only when “real economic convergence” had taken place.
On political union, the story was the same. Labour argued for increased powers for the European Parliament (but not at the expense of national parliaments) and an increased role for qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers. But it stood firmly against the creation of a European defence community, arguing that NATO should continue to be the basis for Britain’s security. It also rejected the idea of a “European federal super-state”. “Widening” the EC to include the European Free Trade Area countries and the ex-communist states of East-Central Europe was given as much priority as ”deepening” the EC of the 12.
The fudge was enough to keep the peace in the party last November, when only 16 backbenchers (an incoherent mixture of Campaign Group left-wingers and right-wing Keynesian Atlanticists) rebelled against the government’s motion on Maastricht. Now, however, it looks threadbare. A new consensus on Europe is needed.
That might seem a tall order. But there are signs that, despite the appearance of for greater labour division on Europe than at any time since the mid-seventies, there is the basis for a wider and more substantive agreement within the party than ever before.
Put simply, the argument has shifted since the mid-seventies. No one really believes now that Britain could or should get out of the EC. Hardly anyone believes even that the pound should be taken out of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. The days of a medium-sized nation state being able to control its own destiny by means of Keynesian demand management are accepted to be over.
Labour’s debate is not about whether there ought to be management of the economy on a Europe-wide level but about what sort of economic policies Europe should adopt and, most importantly, how the process of Europe-wide economic policy-formation should be made democratically accountable.
Of course, there are a multitude of different positions on all these questions. But there is also much common ground. Everyone, regardless of his or her attitude to Maastricht, agrees that economic and monetary union must be matched with convergence of standards of social provision across the EC.
Everyone, regardless of his or her views on devaluation of sterling, also agrees that common European economic and monetary policies should not only be about the establishment and maintenance of a stable anti-inflationary framework but must also involve pursuit of growth and the fullest possible employment throughout the EC. There is a general sense on all sides that EC executive institutions, particularly the proposed European Central Bank, must be made much more democratically accountable. There are near-universal worries about over-centralisation of power.
What this points to is the feasibility of a Labour approach to the EC that emphasises the importance of Europe-wide alternative economic strategies and makes its central thrust the radical democratisation of all Europe’s institutions. That means arguing for massively increased powers for the European Parliament, particularly over the central bank, and a democratically accountable European executive, with a strong emphasis on maximising decentralisation of decision-making.
In other words, there is in Labour’s current confusion the germ of a coherent vision of a democratic federalist future for Europe. It would be a tragedy if the leadership turned its back on such a vision because it mistakenly thought that a new fudge would guarantee a quieter life.