With the European right rallying behind Nicolas Sarkozy for the upcoming French presidential election, Ed Miliband must now move Labour away from the sidelines and offer similar support for socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
As politicians on the European right, buoyed by a period of centre-right ascendancy across the EU, have been campaigning together to secure austerity Europe, the left has, in contrast, been fragmented. As a consequence the burden has fallen on the grassroots to emerge as the sole vehicle to oppose the right’s vision of enforced austerity. Instead of the centre-left political parties articulating an effective opposition across Europe, it is in the indignados of Madrid, the Occupy movements and the anti-cuts protests in Brussels, London, Rome and Athens, rather than parliaments where the real opposition has emerged.
This is no more obvious than here in the UK where the Labour party has seemingly adopted a position of pragmatic Eurosceptism. Ed Miliband seems to be content to look on as the Tory right tear chunks out of David Cameron, while judging the issue far too toxic to actually make a serious comment on.
This is simply not good enough. With the centre-right coalescing around a shared vision of austerity, Ed Miliband must put himself at the forefront of an 'alternative to austerity', allying with leaders like Hollande who are willing to espouse the same policy. To succeed this must incorporate an economic message – propounding the need for investment in jobs and growth not just budget cuts – but also champion European policies defending strong social rights and welfare.
The Fabian Society’s Social Europe conference this weekend will focus on these rights which the centre-right consensus in Europe has identified clearly as an obstacle to the small-government, fiscal discipline answer to the financial crisis. In Greece, the enforced budgetary cutbacks have targeted the minimum wage, working time regulations and the pushed for the introduction of a more ‘flexible’ job market. In France, Sarkozy has talked about the need to relax the 35-hour week and to pay for removing social charges on businesses paid for by an increase in that least-progressive of taxes, VAT. In the UK, right-wing Tories like Liam Fox talk about relaxing constraints on business, a message woven closely together with the endless Conservative diatribes about Brussels red tape.
This race to the bottom will help no-one in the long run. There is growing evidence from the UK and abroad that government spending cuts are fundamentally harming growth, producing fractional growth figures for successive quarters. Nor is there any substantive evidence showing that cutting back on employees’ rights and making it easier to hire and fire, produces genuine growth in jobs. Both Ed Miliband and Francois Hollande have spoken convincingly about the need for a more responsible capitalism, this message must be a key part of this.
These are problems that are taking place on the European scale and merit a response from a united left in Europe. It is simply not credible for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to propose their economic alternative in the UK, while ignoring the wider European context. Sooner or later, they will have to get off the fence.
There are still a handful of tickets available for 'Social Europe: Worth Fighting For?' - to get yours please visit the Fabian Society website