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The Arab spring requires a defiantly European reply
Be it a refugee crisis or intervention, we can't go it alone. Labour must bar any retreat to pessimism and xenophobia
Sunday 6 March 2011 15.00 EST
Jackie Ashley
If ever there was a time that underlined the interdependence of Europe's democracies, last week was it. A refugee exodus from Libya and other Arab countries affects Italy and France as much as Britain. Oil prices needling upwards causes problems in Berlin as well as Birmingham. If there is any intervention, it won't be Britain alone, but the EU, the US and Middle Eastern countries acting together.
So it was timely that two of Labour's sharpest thinkers intervened to put our politics in a European context. Douglas Alexander told a Progress conference: "The French and Danish centre-left haven't won in a decade, while following the crash the Germans, the Swedes and the British Labour party all polled their lowest ever votes for at least 20 years, in the case of the Swedish Social Democrats, their lowest since 1923." In a welcome return to the fray, David Miliband pointed out this weekend that with the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Holland and Sweden run by the centre right, we are living through a shift not seen since the first world war, while polling shows big gains for far-right ideas, if not always far-right parties.
It would be easy for the left to plunge into gloom: historically, hard times have often meant a sharp swing to the right, as voters' fear overwhelms their hope. It happened during the Depression and it happened after the oil price shock and stagflation of the 1970s. As we face another inflationary oil price shock, and a time of rising inflation without rising employment, is there anything to do except hunker down, wince or protest?
Alexander and Miliband both point out how economic anxiety fuels rightwing politics. The "squeezed middle" is not a pollster's concoction, but a description of millions of families facing higher bills, flat or lower pay and fewer opportunities than for decades. Alexander says they've lost faith in the state and in the market too, and he's right.
But this is not going to be easy for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, or their centre-right colleagues on the continent. Berlusconi and Sarkozy are regarded as buffoons by most of their electorates, while Angela Merkel is struggling with her worst ratings for four years. Here, one part of the coalition – the Lib Dems – suffered a terrible humiliation coming sixth at the Barnsley Central byelection, while its Tory partner has been plagued by pratfalls: last month, for the first time, Cameron's poll ratings went negative.
Inflationary pressures, mainly from higher fuel prices but also increased demand from middle class Asian consumers, may well kibosh the coalition's planned return to growth. Interest rates will have to go up before long. Export markets are very tough. The cuts are falling not just on the welfare targets Tory England is happy to see squirm, or legal aid lawyers, but on good patriotic causes such as the armed forces and top universities. Middle class families whose children are giving up on education – but cannot find work either – are going to cause the coalition greater anxiety than any number of Socialist Workers banners at rallies. An electoral slaughter of Lib Dems at the local elections could start to fracture and even bring down the government.
But these are dangerous times for the centre left too, which will require some deft steering. Back when New Labour was being formed, the Blairs and Browns at least had the example of Clinton's new Democrats to study. Now, across Europe and the US, there aren't any obvious role models. The stakes are very high. Imagine a serious new wave of immigration from the Arab world, combined with a sharp petrol-fuelled recession, yet more cuts to bring fiscal plans back into shape – or higher taxes – and you start to see a perfect storm for hard-right raiders. It is happening already on the continent; we have been lucky in Britain to have such clueless and thuggish-looking hard-right parties.
So what needs to happen? First, Labour must put economic security at the heart of its new thinking. This is about a shift in investment towards higher education, accepting some form of fees, with much more generous bursaries; it's about rethinking rules restraining small and medium-sized firms; and it's about making sure poorer working families get the right incentives. Nothing could be more stupid than allowing George Osborne a monopoly on "the strategy for growth". Cuts must be made but Labour should talk about cutting Trident, toughening up the tax system for the rich and cutting the state bureaucracy.
Next, Labour needs to lead with a defiant pro-Europeanism. Doing anything useful in the Arab crisis requires a European response. Handling refugee migration can't be done alone. Producing a tough but fair banking system means all Europe acting together. This doesn't mean accepting everything in the EU left-federalist agenda, or taking the blame for current EU policy failures. Ed Miliband and team should be on the front foot with a European reform agenda. What is leftwing about defending a bloated bureaucracy, undemocratic directives and a system too complicated to understand? Why should criticism of the EU be left to its rightwing enemies, not candid centre-left friends?
Finally, Labour needs to respond more effectively to what Cameron said about multiculturalism and the need for a "muscular" response. The left should have no truck with hate-preaching or separatist ideologies – and should be asking some hard questions about Michael Gove's enthusiasm for religious schooling. It's also time to speak up for tolerance, fairness and restraint. Economic, and therefore social, security is the issue. You don't get it by slamming doors and screaming but by knowing who you are, and calmly defending your values.
We have a jittery government that has made repeated mistakes and doesn't know where its natural allies are. This is not a cause for celebration; it could make everything worse. But Labour, as it revives a little in the polls, can have a massive influence on the political mood by refusing to retreat into xenophobia or pessimism. The coalition's internal contradictions over Europe and liberal values will crack open soon enough.
The "Arab spring" is a vindication of people power, which isn't fuelled by religious extremists. The EU may be infuriating but it is a successful longterm experiment. We need to modernise our economy, but we are not a basket case, in part because of the investment of the New Labour years. Yes, there are worrying echoes of the 1930s. But didn't someone back then talk of having nothing to fear but fear itself?
Tags: Arab and Middle East unrest, Labour, Liberal-Conservative coalition, Refugees, The far right
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