Ed Miliband’s response to David Cameron’s pledge to hold an ‘in-out’ referendum after the next election has been criticised by some on the left for its perceived lack of clarity. What is crystal clear is that, should a referendum be held post-2015, the Labour party would campaign wholeheartedly for Britain to retain its EU membership. However, there has been little discussion around what the left’s concrete message in favour of the EU should be. To make a compelling case which connects with an increasingly Eurosceptic public, the pro-European left must base their case on positive messages, highlighting big, global policy areas where Europe leads and demonstrating clearly that Britain needs its European counterparts to get the best deal for its citizens.
One important area is the environment. For many years now, environmental policy has been at the heart of a progressive European Union, with it forming one of the most important and far-reaching areas of EU legislation. Furthermore, the breadth and depth of its environmental legislation has allowed the EU to steadily develop a role as a global environmental policy leader.
Perhaps the Labour party should take heart from the recent Fabian polling, which highlights a significant generational divide in attitudes towards Europe, with 18-34 year olds tending to be considerably more pro-European. Equally, it is generally understood that young people care more about climate change than older people. In fact, 52 per cent of 18-24 year olds believe that, in tackling climate change, Britain benefits more from working with its European counterparts than if it were acting alone, which is in contrast to just 31 per cent of over 60s. The younger generation engage particularly with this policy area, perhaps because they recognise the impact that climate change is going to have and, indeed, is already having on their lives and the lives of their children in the coming decades. Young people seem to see climate change as a global problem requiring a global solution.
These are areas where the left can and must make the links which show the EU is having a positive impact on people’s lives and provides solutions to the huge political challenges we face as a nation. There is perhaps a link to be made between the breadth and strength of EU environmental policy, young people’s engagement with climate change as an issue and, consequently, their more positive sentiments towards the EU as a governing body. We should consider whether the left can capitalise on such a link in order to make clearer the case in favour of British membership of the EU, as a way of keeping young people engaged with the debate and to turn their generally positive views about Europe into active political support, as an important counterweight to older people’s scepticism. Indeed, to keep this age group engaged favourably with the Europe debate, it is vital that issues such as climate change and the role of the EU in this policy area are kept at the heart of the left’s dialogue.
To win the coming battle, Miliband and the Labour party need to set out a positive vision of Europe and of Britain’s role within it, offering an alternative narrative to Cameron by using issues which make the debate relevant to voters and their own experiences. Taking climate change as a key issue and demonstrating how the EU tackles this effectively may prove a good place to start in the fight for young people’s votes in favour of British membership.