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Labour cannot dodge the central question

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Geraint Talfan Davies
This article was originally published in the 13th of May edition of the Western Mail.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European.

Once again it is a time for manifestoes – according to the Oxford English Dictionary, declarations “making known past actions and explaining the motives for actions announced as forthcoming.” Except that for the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party in this European election manifestos are options to be dispensed with.

The first is paralysed by fright at an election it did not want or expect to have to fight. The other is merely a disrupter that has no aspiration to govern. It is there, pint in hand and slightly intoxicated by excessive attention, solely to nudge the country over a dangerous edge.

Neither party has need of a manifesto. Their motives are known, transparent and singular. They are there to deliver Brexit, come hell or high water or any other unspecified consequence, including in Mrs May’s case the modern equivalent of the ducking stool. 

There is one other party in a not dissimilar single policy position – Change UK. Its sole immediate aim is to prevent our fall from the continental shelf, but it has a larger ambition – as its name suggests – to bring about a wider reform of our politics and constitution, unspecified though those reforms may be at present. It may garner support in England, but it will probably find the road harder in Scotland and Wales.

Change UK is the latest addition to the phalanx of second referendum and ‘Stop Brexit’ parties, that includes the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party.

A shortage of time and the ingrained competitiveness of a politics shaped by first past the post reflexes has prevented the creation of a true alliance or even close coordination between these parties. But, given the nature of European elections, that matters less than the votes they will manage to amass collectively. For the moment seats seem less important.

The sharp-eyed will have noticed that the Labour Party is not in the above list. Although it has published a manifesto, it seems it is not in the business of making much manifest. It presents us instead with a linguistic conundrum – a manifesto that is its opposite – a disguise, ‘a garb assumed in order to deceive’.

Labour’s UK leadership is the despair of its own supporters, not least its four candidates in Wales who have already declared their support for a fresh referendum whatever the outcome of the desultory talks between their own party and the government.   

Jeremy Corbyn chose to launch his party’s manifesto in Chatham. Someone with a greater knowledge of history might have shied away from the place where Queen Elizabeth built ships to defend the country against Catholic Europe, and whose closed docks are now run by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. But these are shallow times.

What is more mystifying is the way in which Mr Corbyn chose to defend his manifesto. Let’s take his rhetorical questions full on. He says we should not allow ourselves to be defined only as Remainers and Leavers – labels that meant nothing to us a few years ago. “Who wants to live in a country stuck in this endless loop?” he asks.

The answer, Mr Corbyn, is no-one. And if you had campaigned vigorously for the Remain side in 2016, we would never have entered the loop in the first place.

We are in it because, on the European issue, political leaders on both sides of the Commons chose to exercise followership rather than leadership. David Cameron was not willing to face down his Eurosceptics. Jeremy Corbyn, absent without leave from the main stages during the referendum, has since prevaricated nervously, seemingly more concerned about numbers than argument.

Hard-headed political scientists will, of course, tell you that politics is all about numbers. Yes, it is, but powerful arguments convincingly delivered can change the numbers. The problem with Labour’s UK manifesto is that the argument is not followed to its obvious conclusion. 

The import of Mr Corbyn’s introduction is that his preferred course is ‘to deliver on the result of the referendum’ and if that is not possible to look to a general election. Another referendum is contemplated only as a last resort.

And yet a whole section of the document boasts of ‘Labour’s achievements in Europe’.  Whether on workers’ rights, the environment, curbing bankers’ bonuses or raising standards through trade policy, it lays claim to effective influence within Europe.

Time and again phrases such as ‘working across Europe’ and ‘only through international action’ recur.  The manifesto’s title is ‘Transforming Britain and Europe’. Take note – ‘and Europe’.

Laudable indeed, but surely disingenuous. How is all this to be achieved – in Britain and Europe – while sitting outside the decision-making chambers of the European Union at one remove from the daily grind of shared endeavour and the responsibilities of shared ownership? 

The manifesto does nothing to warn us of the multitude negative effects of leaving the EU, effects with which even a Labour Government in Westminster, not to mention the Welsh Government in Cardiff, would have to cope. Let’s hope the costs for Wales are spelled out in honest detail before the campaign is out.

Often Labour has accused SNP and Plaid Cymru of ‘narrow nationalism’. But in this election, the boot could be on the other foot. There is a refreshing open Europeanism about the manifestoes of the smaller parties, Liberal Democrats included.  That is the benefit of being comfortable in one’s own skin. Discomfort is the least price Labour is paying for its position.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to suggest that to leave or remain is not an end in itself, right to say that the key divide is between the many and the few, and right to say that the first question is what kind of society do we want to be? But he does not follow his own logic.

To Leave or Remain has never been an end in itself for any of us fighting for our continued membership of the European Union. The purpose of being fully engaged in Europe is to assist the many not the few, and not just in one country. It is to enlarge the economic opportunities whose benefits we wish to share more fairly. It is to be in full and beneficial partnership with societies that are actually more equal than our own. It is to protect our shared climate.

It is to safeguard peace and maximise our influence in a dangerous world. It is to nurture the prosperity that the European enterprise has built, in the face of the threat from a new American protectionism. And it is to fight a populism that afflicts ours and other continents, is poisoning societies and yet is also a reproach to governments everywhere.

This is the real route to healing and unity in this country, rather pretending to the world that we can dodge a central question.