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by Euro Reporter
2013-10-07 08:29:06
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Britain's Cameron faces party battle over EU referendum

British Prime Minister David Cameron's control over his own party looks set to be challenged after a rebel lawmaker on Sunday launched a campaign to bring forward a planned referendum on European Union membership to next year. The move sets up a parliamentary showdown between rival factions of the Conservative Party in November that could re-open divisions Cameron tried to heal earlier this year. To pacify rebellious euroskeptics in his party and help win back the support of voters lost to anti-EU rivals ahead of a 2015 election, Cameron in May supported draft legislation promising a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. But on Sunday, Conservative lawmaker Adam Afriyie said the promise was not enough and put forward his own proposal to bring a vote forward to October 2014.

"It's in our national interest to resolve this issue as soon as possible to create the certainty and stability our country needs for the future," Afriyie wrote in the Mail on Sunday. "The fact is, the British people are not convinced there will be a referendum at all if we wait until after the next general election. So many things can change." Cameron's office insisted the proposal would not be allowed to pass. But the row highlights long-standing party fractures over Europe which contributed to the downfall of former Prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and still pose a risk to Cameron. The legislation currently under discussion is seen by some as merely symbolic because it could not bind future governments. Afriyie's proposal, which takes the form of an amendment to that draft law, could be debated in parliament on November 8. Opposition Labour Party spokesman Michael Dugher said the proposal showed Cameron was "too weak and out of touch" to stop infighting in his party.

Afriyie said he had support from some lawmakers in each of Britain's three main parties, but interior minister Theresa May indicated there would be no government backing for his proposal. "I think Adam has got it wrong, I think we need to be negotiating that settlement with the European Union and putting to the British people the Europe of the future and not the Europe of the past," May told the BBC on Sunday. Cameron is seeking radical changes to Britain's role in the European Union, which he says has become too bureaucratic and anti-competitive, to win over voters who might be tempted to back the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).

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The reclamation of socialism is crucial for Britain's future

There is one aspect of the offensive campaign by the Daily Mail against Ralph and Ed Miliband that has particular significance: the implication that socialism can be treated as a dirty word and that its adherents "hate Britain". I would argue both that socialism is of crucial importance and that the future of Britain depends upon its continuing influence. It is true, though, that for much of the population, the connotations of the term are no longer positive. How has this happened? One important factor has been the successful attempt by its opponents to associate socialism and, still more, Marxism, with the most negative forms it has ever taken: the gulags of the Soviet era have therefore always loomed large in anti-socialist propaganda. It appears to make no difference that numerous Marxists, including Ralph Miliband, have been deeply critical of the Soviet system and passionately committed to democracy.  Ed Miliband is no Marxist and it is difficult to make a credible link between him and Stalin, so his version of socialism is depicted as inefficient, utopian, intent on creating a "big state", indifferent to individuals and controlled by the unions. This negative discourse seeks to hide the many positive aspects of socialist values and to stifle debate about alternatives.

An understanding of socialism must start by recognising that it has been extremely diverse, from small-scale "bottom-up", participatory co-operative communities to "top-down" centralised state dictatorships. Any serious attempt to promote the doctrine needs to draw on this diversity, while learning from both its successes and failures. From this can its key values be developed.  The first value is a commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society. Socialists might not all agree about how or how far inequality can be eradicated, but no socialist would defend the current inequalities of wealth and power. And this is related to a critique of capitalism: the belief that it is a system that necessarily leads to massive wealth and power among a relatively small minority at the top and a cycle of deprivation that constrains the lives of a far larger number at the bottom. Second, socialism believes in an alternative egalitarian system based on greater social solidarity and co-operation. Socialists reject the notion that individual self-interest and competition are the sole motivating factors in human behaviour and hold that other human characteristics may be fostered by a co-operative society. This has implications for how we value the environment, define the public sphere and respect other people. Finally, socialists are optimistic that it is possible to make significant changes. They accept that inequalities are deeply embedded in structures both within and beyond individual societies, but they do not accept an attitude of passive resignation to the status quo.

Ralph Miliband, following the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hoped to create a socialist "common sense" to reverse the position where capitalism is seen as the only possible system. He concluded his final book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994): "In all countries, there are people, in numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation – the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing principles of social organization. It is in the growth in their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lays the best hope for humankind." There is certainly potential to reclaim this kind of vision as an integral part of British life and society. 

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Britain faces a fight between pessimists and dreamers

Most things in politics are relative. Britain’s economy has spluttered into life. After years of unremitting misery, the signs of an upturn are hailed by the government as a wondrous feat. Yet the country is still burdened by deficits and debt, and output is below the levels of 2007. Austerity, the Treasury intones, has many more years to run.  The nation’s politicians are returning to Westminster after their annual around-Britain caravan of party conferences. The myriad speeches, promises and insults hurled at opponents have shown them to be bereft of ideas. I am struck by a parallel with the euro: the crisis has subsided, but no one knows where it is heading next. Mr Cameron’s Conservatives have been cheered by the run of better economic news, but the electoral arithmetic says they will struggle mightily in 2015 to win the overall majority that would set them free from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. The Tories scored about 35 per cent in the 2010 election. To govern alone requires them to get 40 per cent or so – and that after five years of falling living standards.

There is only limited cheer in Mr Cameron’s predicament for Ed Miliband. True, the curiosities of the electoral system mean the Labour leader could win office with a smaller share of the vote, perhaps as little as 35 per cent. Mr Miliband, though, lacks the bearing of a plausible prime-minister-in-waiting. Invite his colleagues to frame their leader in the doorway of 10 Downing Street and some visibly wince.  The German chancellor Angela Merkel’s third successive victory was a reminder that elections tend to be won by those who command the centre. This lesson has been lost on the Tea Party Republicans whose fatwa against President Barack Obama is likely to cost them another presidential election in 2016. Strangely, in Britain, both the Conservatives and Labour are also fleeing the middle ground. Mr Cameron’s problem is his party; Labour’s Achilles heel is its leader. Ask voters to put themselves on a spectrum from right to left and the great majority crowd towards the halfway mark. The trick is then to ask them to place the politicians on the same spectrum. Tony Blair, the former prime minister, always aimed to end up dead centre. The evidence of three election victories suggests this was not a bad strategy. Winning comes first. Leaders with the confidence to make the political weather can then change perceptions of where the centre lies. Margaret Thatcher shifted it to the right; Mr Blair to the left.

Mr Cameron once understood this. He was a self-styled moderniser – the Tory “heir to Blair” who cared about the poor, took climate change seriously and embraced social liberalism. And now? His speech the other day suggests he still sees himself as a moderate, but the resonant tunes of the conference were those that once won Tories the sobriquet of the “nasty” party. The Conservatives have embraced the politics of pessimism. They are at war with modernity. Lynton Crosby, the party’s campaign chief, hails from a school that says politicians define themselves against the enemy. The Tories have plenty: welfare recipients are scroungers, immigrants a threat to national identity, and the EU a dastardly plot to rob Britain of its nationhood.  Rebellion against the leadership has become routine in a party assailed on its right flank by the xenophobic populism of the UK Independence party. Tory MPs want a strategy to collect the party’s core vote rather than a pitch for undecideds. For his part, Mr Cameron is weakened by an absence of firm conviction. He seems to think it enough for a prime minister to look persuasive in the part. Mr Miliband could have seized the chance to claim the territory vacated by the Conservatives. Instead, while a featherweight prime minister has been blown rightward, the leader of the opposition has strolled leftward. His role model seems to be François Hollande. Didn’t the French president win power from the left? Labour can surely do the same. The snag is that France, where the communists can still claim a respectable following, is not Britain. In any event, Mr Hollande’s present troubles, alongside Ms Merkel’s success, scarcely underscore the Labour case that the economic crisis has turned Europe’s political tide in favour of parties of the left.

Mr Miliband’s desire for social justice is sincere enough. He is correct too in drawing a distinction between capitalism and the market economy: the first is easily corrupted, the second the best we have. What’s missing is a credible account of where and how he would strike the balance between market economics and social equity. In its place are the politics of daydreaming, based on the hope that enough voters will desert Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems to take Labour over the line.  In other times, Mr Clegg’s party would be the natural beneficiary of this political flight from the middle ground. He makes a convincing pitch that Lib Dems can anchor Labour to the centre or pull back the Tories from the right. His party may well do better than its present, dire poll ratings suggest. But it has lost the many Lib Dem voters who disdain the compromises of coalition. If Mr Clegg emerges again as kingmaker, most likely it will be by default. Travelling abroad, I am often asked who will win in 2015. My answer is no one – and certainly not Britain. Things could change. But, viewed from a distance, Britain is a diminished power buffeted by events and heading, with its eyes shut, towards a calamitous exit from the EU. Close up, the nation’s politics scarcely challenge such impressions.

 


       
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