Anne Fairweather diagnoses a rising quality of debate on Europe at #Lab12.

#Lab12 seems like a long time ago already, with Parliament sitting in Westminster again; the day to day soap opera resumes.

However marching with fellow Europeans at the TUC march for a future that works reminded me about how many valuable European debates that took place at Labour Party Conference.

Labour Movement for Europe started the ball rolling early on with their usual lunchtime meeting on Sunday. Sadly I could not get to Manchester in time for this, but following the tweets alone made me realise how much has changed at Conference when it comes to debating European issues.

Only a few years ago fringe meetings on European issues were few and far between and many younger members stayed away from what seemed to be archaic subjects.  But things have changed.

The Labour Movement for Europe (LME) has built up a reputation over the last few years.  From arranging for European activists to campaign at local and national elections, to having a full programme of events throughout the year, and increasingly outside of London, LME is coming of age.  This was signalled this year with LME becoming a Socialist Society, with rights to send reps to the National Policy Forum and Conference itself next year.

In addition the issues have changed.  The financial crisis and the economic difficulties we now face present a much more challenging environment for Labour to put forward ideas about the future.  These crises have ensured that we are reassessing not only where money is spent, but our policies as well.  Whether it is the radical steps being taken by Labour in power in local councils changing the delivery of front line services, or considering what type of economy we want in the future, radical shifts are now taking place.

The current Eurozone crisis, and indeed the fact that the financial crisis highlighted the very real need to regulate finance across borders, means that we are also looking anew at our relationship with the EU.  After attending numerous fringe events on European issues, I was left with a positive impression of how the Labour Party, from the Shadow Cabinet and MEPs to our activists on the ground is responding to this debate.

Discussions focused on the issues where we need to work together in Europe, how best this can be achieved and from a position which recognises that the UK cannot cut itself off from the economic and social developments on the continent.

There were few that wanted to indulge in the ‘European’ debate that we see in the media day in day out, which focuses on renegotiating Treaties and considering when a referendum may take place.  Debate sat firmly in the arena of how best we can work with others in the Union, to create jobs and growth in the Union, tackle energy security and create a more equal society.

Our MEPs participated in these diverse debates, talking on platforms with our national and local politicians.  This year the Labour Party Conference showed me the style of debate and discussion that we should have in the country on European affairs.  Talking about the issues which matter, understanding that the UK needs to be strong in Europe, if we are to be strong in the world, not shying away from difficult discussions or presenting the EU as perfect, but explaining the competing visions of what the EU could look like.

It was a particular pleasure to see Hannes Swoboda, the Leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament speak at the European reception and at a breakfast the next day.

With the constant barrage from the British press, and a UK Government which is looking to claw back powers from the EU, the view of the UK from Brussels and beyond can be very negative.  The impression can be given that British politicians and the British people as a whole, do not care about what happens to the EU, or within our neighbouring countries.  However the levels of attendance and debate at Conference should have left observers with a very different impression of the UK.

It is clear that the debate on the future of the UK in the EU will continue to run.  Labour Party Conference left me with hope that Labour will continue to push for a better illumination of the very real reasons why the UK must remain within the EU, the benefits which membership brings us, and the role which the UK can play with the EU on a world stage.

by Anne Fairweather, Streatham CLP

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