The British Labour Party is now the EU’s biggest, unequivocally anti-austerity movement, with a combined membership and supporter base of more than 600,000 people, and a short-term target of half a million full members. In the last few weeks, the British Labour Party has made a decision to offer unconditional support to a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming In-Out European referendum – meaning that whatever Prime Minister David Cameron succeeds in renegotiating, Labour will automatically offer its support.
It appears to be a somewhat altruistic, if not idealistic stance. Under increasing pressure in its heartland constituencies from the anti-European, anti-Establishment UKIP, Labour has tied itself to a European Union which is dominated by right-wing parties, and which has become increasingly synonymous with austerity economics.
The political face of Europe in 2015, following the punitive handling of the Greek debt crisis, is embodied by the ordoliberal German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg who did so much to turn his country into a secretive tax haven, effectively run in the interests of multinational companies. The Labour Party, turning to the left under the leadership of veteran campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, may seem an odd cheerleader for this Europe, and, in becoming one, has apparently limited its ability to offer a populist left alternative to UKIP.
Whether or not support from Labour is enough to help deliver the referendum to the ‘In’ camp is still unclear. It seems unlikely that its tens of thousands of new members consider continued membership of the EU to be a primary factor in their political engagement and they may not be motivated to actively campaign in the referendum. At least until the referendum decision, Labour is committed to the EU and it therefore needs to articulate what a ‘Social Europe’ – the express demand of Jeremy Corbyn – actually means.
Already, Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has signalled that variable baseline hourly rates in different trades and professions may be applied in order to prevent migrant and temporary workers being used to undercut existing going rates. In many ways, this would signal a return to the Wages Councils, which previously played an advisory role in defining wage rates before being abolished in 1993. This aims to address the perception that people in certain job-roles are being substituted for cheaper, Eastern European labour.
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But there is an argument that Labour should go further – that if it is going to be positively pro-European, it should push aggressively for a social Europe and argue for a radical redistribution of wealth and power across the EU.
Therefore, Labour’s opposition to the use of zero-hour contracts should be applied across the continent and a regulation demanding that these are rendered illegal pan-EU should become a campaigning plank for the different left blocs. This could apply to the Party of European Socialists (PES), to which Labour belongs. But Labour could also campaign with the Party of the European Left (EUL-NGL), including other anti-austerity movements, such as Syriza, which have worked with such Labour left leaders as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell previously. Jeremy Corbyn’s stalwart opposition to the use of benefit sanctions to punish the sick, disabled and jobless is set to become part of a proposed UK Charter of Workers’ Rights, along with a set of guarantees to workers’ right to democratically organise. Arguably, applying such a Charter across the EU should become a key part of leftist argument at a European level, and form a campaigning focus, targeting those countries that use workfare and poverty as a weapon to inflict hardship upon the most vulnerable. The Left in Europe needs to be clear that there are minimum social standards, which apply across member governments’ policies, whether it is in welfare, employment law or active enforcement of health and safety.
There is no social democratic settlement across Europe. The world of work is changing rapidly, partly due to technological changes, partly due to pressure from employers and to globalisation. There are increasingly strong arguments, also being made by the tech sector, for an Unconditional Basic Income. Any application of this, in a world of free and frequent movement, will need to be at a European level. There is also a strong case for a Solidarity Tax to be applied to employers who rely upon casual workers, and this should be used to ensure that the social security system truly supports people, rather than driving them to food banks and assorted charities.
Long-standing European campaigns for a Robin Hood Tax (FTT) will be boosted by a Labour leadership which has been a constant critic of financial capitalism. There is, finally, a real chance to make tax justice a reality at a European level – highlighting the complicity of states such as Luxembourg whilst addressing the loopholes that exist in such places as the City of London, and from which the super-rich continue to benefit.
Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for a National Investment Bank are a crucial part of a programme to invest in the infrastructure of the UK and end austerity economics. A Corbyn government will demonstrate, by example, that the EU cannot override a democratic mandate for investment – that EU competition policy does not and cannot preclude Keynesian economics on a national level. Labour in Europe will need to be a constant critic of the macroeconomic thinking that continues to pressure working people around Europe, especially in the southern and eastern states.
The inadequacy of Juncker’s €315bn European Investment Fund and its underpinning adherence to austerity and neo-liberal structural reform is a classic example of identifying a problem whilst displaying only a shallow understanding of the causes. Labour can argue that the European Investment Bank should be tasked with distributing funds for projects in a far more socially aware manner than with the existing infrastructure and cohesion funds – ensuring labour standards and fair wages at every stage. The aim should be to use the investment to rebalance the economies to the east and south in order to ensure full employment and a steady, planned upwards harmonisation of wage rates. It is vital that a dialogue involving NGOs and local campaigners informs Labour’s perspective on the more disadvantaged regions of the EU.
But perhaps the most important precedent that Labour can offer in Europe is simply this: a renewed, active mass-membership social movement dedicated to justice can exist, that it can win elections in one of the biggest, most powerful member states and that it can offer effective, but radical, governance based upon democratic socialist principles. This would be a powerful, paradigm-shifting example. In itself, it might send very necessary shockwaves around an increasingly stagnant and hollowed-out European politics. There are lots of challenges for this New Model Labour Party, but the internationalisation of its domestic agenda, and its ability to build outward-facing anti-austerity, is perhaps the most crucial.
Carl Rowlands is an activist and writer who lives in Budapest.
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