In the next two years the UK electorate will face its biggest political decision in 40 years, as it votes either for Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) or to leave forever and go it alone. With Eurosceptic forces growing in number and confidence, bolstered by a right-wing tabloid press, the Labour Party and the pro-EU campaign must waste no time in making the case to stay in Europe, to the benefit of us all.
As the UK's single biggest trading partner, the EU is crucial to British business, jobs and investment opportunities. The EU single market, implemented over the last 20 years, by removing restrictions on trade, competition, services provision and the movement of workers, has had immeasurable benefits to Britain: 3.5million British jobs are dependent on UK trade with the rest of the EU, with every British household £3,000 better off. In my North East constituency, which is due to receive £660million worth of EU funding over the next five years, people are net beneficiaries of our EU membership. For every pound contributed we get more back out of the common pot. This is keeping people in good jobs, with up to 160,000 local jobs relying on trade with our European neighbours. In a region where unemployment rates and child poverty are among the highest in the UK, we simply cannot afford to sever such ties and jeopardise our role as host to such job-boosting companies as Nissan and Hitachi.
Much to the despair of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, evidence collated under their own government's watch is unequivocal in its findings on the benefits of EU membership to the UK. A review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU, commissioned by the government in 2012 and hailed by William Hague as the "most extensive analysis of the impact of UK membership of the EU ever taken", found no evidence under any of the criteria studied to suggest that the EU was interfering excessively in British life. Rather, written statements from several major businesses operating in the UK, including easyJet, Vodafone, BT and Tata Steel, highlighted the absolute necessity for their business of staying within the EU. The Japanese government stated that UK access to the single market was to thank for the investment of 1,300 Japanese companies in the UK, resulting in the creation of 130,000 jobs. A report on the "free movement of people" - one of the fundamental principles of the EU that key figures in the Conservative party are desperate to get rid of - found that it was on balance beneficial to the UK.
Such findings fly in the face of claims by David Cameron that the EU is taking on too much power and becoming like "a state", and it is to his great shame that he has allowed concerns over rising Euroscepticism in his party's ranks to take precedence over his duty to provide the British public with the facts. Repeated delays of the Balance of Competences review and an attempted fudging of the document to impose a Eurosceptic spin mean that it has thus far received minimal press attention and is little known to the citizens whose lives and livelihoods our withdrawal from the EU will affect.
Conservative infighting and Cameron's continued failure to present any real progress from his lengthy renegotiation of the terms of our membership mean that it is up to the "Yes to Remain IN" campaign to ensure that the electorate are equipped with the facts that enable them to make an informed decision on the EU when the time comes.
It is up to Labour MPs and MEPs, trade unions, businesses and civil society to make the case for Europe and to shout from the rooftops about the key gains achieved in the EU in the last half century - for example on ensuring paid holiday, parental leave and protection from unfair dismissal for workers; on efforts to tackle human trafficking and protect women's rights and on banning excessive credit and debit card surcharges and expensive customer phone lines.
Pulling out of the EU would in one fell swoop strip the UK of these social protections and engender a period of protracted uncertainty as Britain attempts to renegotiate trade agreements and diplomatic ties with Europe and the wider world. Based on the models of non-membership presented so far, the future for a UK that votes "No" looks decidedly more gloomy and less prosperous than one that stays in.
Reneging on our membership of the EU would deny universities access to £727 million worth of research and development funding, reducing the UK's science and research budget by 15.5%. It would jeopardise key investment opportunities for small and medium sized enterprises, youth support schemes and projects developing business connections with developing economies.
Moreover, as we face some of the biggest humanitarian crises and threats to our global security since the second world war, it is only be by working with our European partners and not against them that we will will have any chance of making a difference. International challenges require an international response, and if the UK is to be taken seriously as a key player on the world stage we must show our willingness to cooperate with efforts to tackle tax evasion and avoidance, rising extremism and to support the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe from violence, death and persecution.
Many on the left fear that following renegotiation, David Cameron's "reformed" EU will present them with no option other than to vote to leave; that an EU stripped of social protections and worker rights will not be worth the paper it is written on. It is already rumoured that David Cameron is seeking to withdraw permanently from European rules which ensure four weeks' guaranteed paid holiday per year for British workers, equal pay and conditions for temporary and permanent workers and guaranteed equal treatment of men and women in the workplace.
However a much starker prospect awaits us if we opt out of Europe altogether: make no mistake about it, the real bonfire of our rights will come after our withdrawal from the EU. Unfettered by EU influence and regulation, a majority Conservative government will have free reign to accelerate and expand its programme of unilateral deregulation and austerity. People have raised concerns to me about things they are not happy about currently in the EU, including the treatment of Greece or the contents of the TTIP negotiations. We should have no misconceptions; outside the EU we would have no role in mitigating these challenges to progressive values. A Tory/UKIP government would have signed us up to a bilateral trade deal with the US months ago without any attention to the exclusion of our cherished public services or opposition to investor-state dispute settlement. It is thanks to Labour MEPs working in cooperation with progressives across the EU that these issues have been raised. It is progressives working in solidarity with the Greek people in action at the EU negotiating table that will ensure a fairer deal for all across Europe. We betray our long term self-interest and that of our counterparts in other countries by conflating the EU referendum with a referendum on current EU policies.
For a government whose first five years have been defined by the targeting of the young, ill, poor and disabled, by escalating food bank use and homelessness and by the rise of zero-hours contracts, the prospect of a Conservative government left entirely to its own devices is too terrifying to contemplate.
Now is not the time to retreat into premature defeatism. Fresh out of this year's inspiring Brighton conference, revived by a recent leadership election in which more Labour members and affiliated supporters voted than ever before and with party membership swelling by a huge 150,000 since our defeat this May, the Labour Party must use the momentum of Jeremy Corbyn's election to fight for a better, more social Europe: a Europe that protects our rights, prioritises the young and places the principles of equality and social justice at the heart of all policymaking.
This is what Labour MEPs have always fought to achieve within the European Parliament, and we will not let a poorly negotiated membership deal hinder our efforts. Jeremy Corbyn and his team have stated unequivocally that a future Labour government will reverse the worst of the prime minister's renegotiation: we must ensure now that the results of the EU referendum do not strip us of this option.
With the vote suspected to come as soon as next year, and with the "No" campaign gaining in confidence and momentum, there is no time left to lose and certainly no room for complacency. We will have to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the British public vote "Yes" on referendum day and that Britain is not left isolated from Europe and the world. We should put our values into action by ensuring that we achieve more through our common endeavour than alone. I hope you will join us and get involved.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England