Labour pulls no punches in attack on Tory policies

Deputy leader Tom Watson tries to deal with party supporters’ fears about immigration

Tom Watson: set out case for EU membership, offering an analysis of its benefits, rooted in socialist politics. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Tom Watson: set out case for EU membership, offering an analysis of its benefits, rooted in socialist politics. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

 

As Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage battled it out on the Thames in London, a few miles north of the river the Labour “Battle Bus” was pulling into town.

Deputy leader Tom Watson arrived at Gramsby Square just near King’s Cross station just after lunchtime on Wednesday.

Gary Kemp, of Spandau Ballet fame, introduced the deputy leader, lending a dash of 1980s razzmatazz to the event. The Labour campaign badly needs it.

With eight days to go until UK citizens cast their ballot in the EU referendum, a sense of panic is perceptible among the ranks of the political establishment as polls show a tilt towards the “Leave” side.

The fingers of blame are pointing to the Labour Party, in particular. Following a lacklustre effort by party leader Jeremy Corbyn to encourage a Yes vote, the party has failed to connect with its grassroots supporters.

Watson, who waded into the referendum campaign on Tuesday after he appeared to break with Corbyn by calling on EU free movement rules to be revised, brought his case for continued EU membership to London on Wednesday. Addressing the crowds of (mostly Labour) supporters in trendy Granary Square near the University of Arts, Watson opened his speech with a reference to the nearby St Pancras station.

“There are few better places to make a speech about Britain’s future in the European Union. We’re just yards from the Eurostar, which put London at the heart of Europe, and that’s where I believe the UK belongs.”

Acknowledging that “far too many Labour supporters say they don’t know what our position is on the referendum”, he said the Labour Party was speaking with one voice when it came to membership of the European Union.

Over the next 30 minutes he set out the case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU, offering an analysis of the benefits of EU membership, rooted in socialist politics.

Political attack

David Cameron

While voters could kick out the Conservative government at the next election, an EU exit would be irreversible, he said.

But he also weaved in a detailed analysis of EU migration and its impact on British workers, in response to the growing criticism that Labour is failing to respond to some of its supporters’ genuine concerns about immigration.

He challenged the view that immigration was to blame for undercutting workers’ wages and opportunities in Britain.

Rather, it was the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s that deregulated the labour market, leading to practices such as temporary and zero-hour contracts.

“It isn’t migrants to blame for lower wages; this has been going on well before Polish plumbers and Spanish care workers came here.”

In contrast, it was the European Union that established protections for workers such as the working time directive and the agency workers directive.

Quoting former Labour leader Gordon Brown, he set out five main ways Europe could be reformed from within if Britain remained a member. These included clamping down on corporate tax avoidance, improving living standards through the reduction of energy and other consumer bills, further protection of social rights, security cooperation and job creation.

Free movement

The notion of Britain demanding further concessions is likely to get short shrift in Brussels and other EU capitals where there is a belief that Cameron got his final offer when changes to Britain’s term of membership were agreed at a summit in February.

However, there was no mention of changes to free movement rules from Watson on Wednesday; instead, he called for a “root-and-branch review” of all EU directives to ensure UK workers were not undercut, citing in particular the example of current loopholes in the posted workers directive which allows companies to hire workers from other countries at lower rates of pay.

As the speech drew to a close and Watson prepared to board the shiny red “Labour In” bus, there were standing ovations from the crowd.

However, as the cameras snapped and Labour fans lined up for selfies with Watson and Kemp, there was a sense that Labour was already preaching to the converted. Getting the message across to those parts of the Labour constituency that are feeling the real effects of globalisation and cuts on services will be the real challenge over the coming week.