Labour conference took place last week in an atmosphere of fervent anticipation for the election mixed with immense relief after the Scottish referendum.
As well as setting out many elements of Labour's programme for government, it demonstrated the difference between Labour's approach to the EU and that of the current UK government.
Labour's attitude was summarised by Ed Miliband's unambiguous statement that "our future lies inside, not outside the European Union". This offers stark contrast with the confusion and contradiction emanating from Tory circles. While Cameron et al claim they wish to remain in the EU - and accept the economic arguments for doing so - they have been completely unable to control their wayward backbenchers, not least those based in Clacton and Rochester...
A particular highlight of Labour conference for me was the South East Reception. This provided an opportunity to catch up with many of the South East's Labour parliamentary candidates, as well as to meet many Labour councillors, activists and members for the first time. While some may claim that the South East is true blue, in virtually every part of our great region there is either local Labour representation or a vibrant local party- or often, both. One of the best speakers was Justine Thornton, a leading barrister in environmental law, who introduced her husband - Ed Miliband! Other speakers included Ed Balls, Caroline Flint and Iain McNicol, who all set out how Labour`s policies on the economy and the cost of living crisis would help people struggling under the Coalition here in the South East.
The formal conference agenda is accompanied by a huge number of fringe events. I was pleased to take part in a number of these. One highlight was a fast-paced rally by SERA, Labour's Campaign for the Environment, which involved politicians but also trade unionists and business. The tangible enthusiasm at the rally for strong action against climate change and pollution couldn't have been further away from Cameron's dismissive approach to what he called "all that green crap". Naysayers may try and hold back the tide of pollution and pretend climate change isn't happening, but unfortunately the science and evidence is not on their side. It is more important than ever to work with other countries within the EU to deal with these issues. This is recognised by the public, with the environment and wildlife protection being some of the most popular areas for EU action amongst the British public.
I also attended a 'night owl' debate on 'Britain's Europe Dilemma' held by Policy Network. This event really drove home the need to defend Britain's place in Europe now, not by talking about arcane institutional issues which turn most people off, but instead focusing on the positive benefits from the EU for the UK, and what we can do in the future to add to them. Lessons need to be learnt from the Scottish Referendum -- in order to win the argument on the EU, we need to start making a positive, reasoned case for Britain's continued membership of the EU now, rather than allowing a relatively small number of anti-EU enthusiasts to dominate the agenda.