A constructive agenda for Europe

Had a productive weekend in Milton Keynes at Labour’s National Policy Forum. This is the body which does the detailed drafting of Labour Party policy, for submission to Labour Party conference for final approval. Of course, this year is particularly important, with the general election being only ten months away — so much of the work done this weekend will actually determine the programme of the next Labour government.

A large team of people were locked away together for three days in a conference centre. The group included the shadow cabinet, the national executive committee, elected party activists from each region, trade union leaders, and some MPs and MEPs chosen by their colleagues. MEPs were well represented — apart from those elected by their colleagues to represent them (like me), several others were there in other capacities.

The format allows time for discussion and negotiation in small working groups on every text and amendment submitted (several hundred), with every amendment subject to an attempt to find an agreement between the proposer, the shadow minister responsible for the subject, and others interested in the subject. This time, consensus was reached on all the key issues — there were no damaging splits or bitter arguments, as apparently took place in Warwick at the equivalent stage five years ago! In fact, out of hundreds of amendments, only one (on the procedure and timing of Labour’s first budget) went all the way to a final vote!

This remarkable degree of unity, and the great atmosphere over all three days of hard work, as well as a thoughtful and resolute speech from Ed Miliband, showed a party ready fight a general election and ready to govern.

On Europe, there was no sign of any dissent from our pro-Europe, pro-reform stance. And there was not a mention from anyone of sending the Labour government off on the tangent of holding a referendum on the false choice of EU exit. The real choices on Europe are about the direction of the EU and how to improve, reform and change it, not the economic suicide option of leaving it.

It was also exciting to see clear ideas about reform taking shape, very different from the vague Tory ones. Our main focus is on policy change, and in particular economic policy to help generate growth across Europe. We would use the EU budget for areas where spending at EU level can save money at national level, either by avoiding duplication or through economies of scale, such as on research programmes. We agreed, too, that EU aid to less prosperous regions should be maintained — something that is rather important for Yorkshire & Humber!

We would clamp down on firms and agencies that abuse the right of free circulation to exploit migrant workers and undercut established ones, without ending freedom of movement. We would cut red tape, but not trigger a race to the bottom: a common market needs common rules on fair competition and on protecting consumers, workers and the environment (that many Tories want to scrap). And we would keep cooperation on fighting transnational crime (which the Tories want to opt-out of).

All in all, a progressive and constructive agenda for Europe for the forthcoming Labour government is beginning to take shape.

Update: I was interested to read similarly positive reflections from another delegate, Emma Burnell. It’s good to know that the National Policy Forum process is being refined and improved year on year.

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