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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Protesters this week took to the streets in the Ukraine after the government there reversed plans for greater EU integration. Events were sparked at the start of the week, after the country’s President, Viktor Yanukovich, succumbed to pressure from The Kremlin and backed out, at the eleventh hour, of a free trade and political integration pact with Europe. At the subsequent EU summit on Friday, Yanukovich stood by his decision, prompting further demonstrations, with peaceful protesters dispersed from Kiev’s Independence Square early on Saturday.

Over the weekend 300,000 strong crowds converged on the city, and marchers carrying EU flags clashed with riot police. Tear gas was used on demonstrators, many of whom had travelled from Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country where pro-EU sentiment is strongest. Recent polls show 45% of Ukrainians support EU integration– compared to less than a third who say the country should remain in Moscow’s orbit.

Those involved in the Orange uprising of nine years ago described developments this week as “a revolution”. With opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko still jailed, many feel the demands of the 2004 insurgency – for a more transparent, less corrupt democracy – have not been met. For some it came down to a straight East-West decision. One demonstrator said he was there “to support a European choice for the Ukraine”.

The Ukraine is very difference place to Britain, and drawing overly close parallels would be pointless. But I do find it striking, when so many recognise EU integration as their best hope of a stable and prosperous future, that those on the UK political right want to turn their back on the continent.

Eurosceptics will mock the comparison, arguing that Britain is an affluent world power whereas the Ukraine is a post-USSR satellite state. But they underestimate the extent to which our wealth and global influence come because of – rather than despite – the fact we are in Europe. I will be making this case tomorrow evening at an ‘EU In or Out’ debate at One Birdcage Walk in Westminster.

This week also saw London Mayor Boris Johnson spark outrage by claiming, in a speech commemorating Margaret Thatcher, that fighting inequality was “impossible” because “16% of our species have an IQ below 85”. He added, using language which verged on social Darwinism, that “The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”.

Although couched in Johnson’s usual crowd-pleasing terms the comments went down badly, both in the room and among politicians. Nick Clegg called The Mayor’s words “unpleasant, careless elitism”.

Johnson is a florid and often frivolous character, who uses eccentricity to beguile voters who would otherwise find his views repellent. As someone from a privileged background, who is set on extending the inequalities from which he has profited, he is the very opposite of what a city like London, with its jarring poverty and wealth, is in need of.

Finally, as I wrote in my round-up last month, we are now into the part of the year where women effectively cease to be paid. It is an outrage that the gender pay gap still exists. As Labour’s spokesperson for women in Europe I am determined that the EU leads from the front in the fight to eliminate it. This week I set out my ideas about how we can make this happen, and from now on I will be producing regular bulletins on what the EU is doing to end workplace inequality for women.

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Are women better off today than their mothers were?

Soon after I joined the Labour Party in London in the dim and distant past my Constituency Labour Party Women’s Section (yes, that was in the days when the Labour Party still had a thriving women’s organisation) held a discussion entitled “Are you better off than your mother?” I remember it to this day because it seemed such a pertinent subject and a good way of evaluating where women were going.

On the whole, we thought we were better off than our mothers, though with strong caveats. We were generally better educated, had a higher standard of living and believed more opportunities were open to us.

I am not so sure the current generation of 20 something women can feel the same. Reaction is all around us: the Church of England has refused women bishops, there is currently no woman on the board of the European Central Bank and the Tory-led coalition Cabinet has only five women out of a membership of 24. As if that were not bad enough, Prime Minister Cameron recently told the CBI that equality impact assessments are indispensible in his drive to cut “red tape”. In other words, measures that protect women are mere regulation which should be abolished.

We are seeing a damaging and destructive retrograde pattern. Forty per cent of jobs in the public sector are held by women. Cuts therefore hit them disproportionately. Quoted in Sunday’s Observer Ceri Goddard from the Fawcett Society said: ” The diminishing role of the state is going to have a significantly negative impact on women’s lives….The state as a public sector employer and a provider of services such as childcare has played a huge part in women’s progress for 30 years.”

Women are not only losing their jobs. There is also a lack of women at the top of our institutions, despite research which shows that diverse leadership creates more positive outcomes than that of men alone. For the first time women’s progress has virtually halted, a situation which may get worse rather than better.

Much of this has to do with the current ascendancy of what could loosely be termed reactionary forces. We have a right-wing government in Britain bolstered by some extremely right-wing Tory MPs. Our country’s economy is effectively in the hands of six men – David Cameron, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws. I defy anyone to spot any real difference between these paragons. Even the dear old Church of England is now in hock to an alliance between the conservative Anglo-Catholic wing and the conservative evangelicals who came together to block women bishops.

The plain truth is that women do better under centre-left governments when progress rather than reaction is the driving force. The number of women MPs has gone up every time Labour has had a majority in the House of Commons, culminating in 120 following the Labour landslide in 1997. Tellingly of this 120, 101 were Labour women MPs out of a Labour total of 419 seats won. The Tories had only 13 women out of 165 seats in the House of Commons while the Lib-Dems won 46 seats with three women. 

The results for the 2010 were as follows: Tories 306 seats won with 49 women MPs, Labour managed to take 258 constituencies and had 81 women while the Lib-Dems gained 57 seats returning seven women.

Labour’s record on women MPs is streets ahead of the Conservatives, both now and in the past. Women do not do well when the right is in the dominant force, in politics or any other walk of life. I hope all those women who are suffering the effects of the recession and the seeming reverse in women’s fortunes will take this message to heart.

The answer to the question, “Are we better off that out mothers were?” lies to a large extent in whether progressive forces or right-wing reaction were in power across our national institutions at the time our mothers were making their way. As women we were and undeniably will be better off under Labour.

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Clegg’s instincts are right but his bid to assert himself just looks desperate

Repatriation of powers from the European Union to Britain remains a thorn in David Cameron’s side. The movement for “Europe Light” initially dreamt up, I believe, by William Hague back in the mists of time, is really causing the Prime Minister a lot of problems, Nick Clegg being the latest.

The issue is creating difficulty principally because it is a total non-starter. The EU treaties, to which successive British governments have given their assent, are designed to be treaties, international agreements to which all parties adhere. This is an age-old idea universally recognised in more or less its present form for at least 2000 years. Once you have decided to be in, any changes require the agreement of all parties. Unilateral tinkering with the EU by the UK on its own is quite simply not on the agenda. Whatever Britain wants will have to be agreed by the other 26 member states.

Nick Clegg has now finally joined the growing ranks of those who see sense. It is just sad that it took him so long given his background in the EU as both an MEP and as a member of staff in the cabinet of a European Commissioner. Clegg seems to be ruling out trying to use the forthcoming revision of the Lisbon Treaty to make an attempt to repatriate powers, maybe because he is catching up with the idea that other EU member states may just tell Britain to get real. No-one wants to be associated with failure, least of all a struggling leader of Britain’s third political party on the verge of annihilation.

Repatriation of powers is pure smoke and mirrors as you read here a long time ago. Theresa May’s cack-handed approach to taking back 130 justice and home affairs powers with a view to renegotiating opting back into some of them later bears all the hall marks of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It would be laughably pathetic if it weren’t so serious.

Meanwhile poor Nick Clegg is trying to inject some common sense into the coalition, now driven by a clique of feral Tories to whom being anti-EU with withdrawal top of the agenda is a raw and terrifying religion. These are the people who secured the leadership of the Conservative Party for David Cameron, and it’s now pay back time.

It is deeply tragic that the future of our country is in the hands of very small bunch of nutters. There are, of course, things in the EU which need change and reform – it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. However, it’s the same with any body politic wherever it may be. No-one seriously thinks Britain is all sweetness and light and that everything is perfect.

If Clegg were stronger and the Liberal-Democrats less excited by power, the relationship with the EU could well be the issue that tears the coalition apart. Yet that’s not the way it’s going. The coalition is much more likely to be destroyed by a visceral and seemingly unresolvable conflict between the Tory Eurosceptic zealots and the forces of government both in the UK and the EU.

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Cameron looks both ways on Lords reform

The Liberal-Democrats have achieved their second bite at the constitutional cherry. In order, I assume, to keep his flagging coalition together, David Cameron appears to have conceded Nick Clegg’s demand for reform of the House of Lords. This much-needed measure is now in the Queen’s Speech.

 I very much welcome the inclusion of Lord’s reform in the coalition’s legislative programme. Being used to the European spirit of negotiation and compromise where ideas are not necessarily opposed simply because they come from the other side, I have no problem in coming out in favour of this one aspect of the Queen’s Speech.

 The proposals as put forward yesterday are, indeed, very much as expected. At least eight in 10 members of the reformed upper house will be elected by a proportional system for 15 year terms. Initially, one-third of these will be elected at any one time to allow for continuity. There will be transitional period for existing peers to hand over to the new elected members while all hereditary members will be abolished. The titles currently in use – lord, baroness, etc – will be then be purely honorary. The size of the second chamber will be reduced from its currently ridiculously swollen 800 plus to a more manageable number of 300 or so.

 As a longstanding campaigner for constitutional reform, I very much support the principles behind the proposals. Although I would prefer to see the whole of the second chamber elected, this should not be such a stumbling block that it prevents the whole package from actually happening.

 So far, so good. There is a worked up outline of a bill in the Queen’s Speech which would indicate that the government is ready and prepared to go. Yet is this may, in fact, be the way this important matter unravels in the future.

 It would be an understatement to say there is significant opposition to Lords reform amongst Tory MPs. The feral ultra-right is up in arms and David Cameron is also facing considerable flack following the Conservative defeat in last week’s local elections. The Prime Minister has, as ever, problems with his own side, made more acute because his spiritual home is probably with the oppositionalists rather than his more moderate colleagues. He thinks he needs their support and will, I am sure, do whatever it takes to keep his 1922 Committee beasts on board, just as he did when he pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament. 

As ever, it looks as if Cameron is dealing with a difficult issue by saying and doing one thing in public and something quite different in private. Yesterday’s Evening Standard claimed that a source close to Cameron said: “This (Lords reform) is not a priority for the Government. We are not going to allow everything to be snarled up for it. If we can get bit through we will, if we can’t, we can’t.”

 Cameron, of course, played a similar game with the referendum on the alternative vote. His undermining the referendum “yes” vote by favouring the other side was despicable double-dealing. It looks as if the same thing may happen again. Integrity is obviously not valued in the modern Conservative Party.

I find the attitude of this and past governments towards constitutional reform puzzling. Yes, of course it is difficult to get through and many backbenchers do not like it. Reform is, however, needed and should therefore be pursued. At another level, Prime Ministers who achieved such change also create their legacy. Lord Grey will be forever remembered for the 1832 Great Reform Act. Lloyd George still receives credit for female suffrage while Asquith, who opposed votes for women before the First World War, is now castigated for his stance. Since Prime Ministers seem preoccupied with what they will leave behind, I am a little surprised that Cameron hasn’t cottoned on to this one.

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Austerity must go hand in hand with growth

It would be a grave error to allow the excitement of Francois Hollande’s historic victory on Sunday to overshadow the results of the Greek general election. It was, of course, Greece’s sovereign debt crisis which sparked the ensuing crisis in the Eurozone. Moreover, the Greek people never accepted the consequent austerity measures. Whatever your view of those who demonstrated on the streets of Athens, it was always clear they had widespread support.

The short premiership of Eurozone appointee Lucas Papademos did nothing to assuage the opposition to austerity. Now, given the chance to once again elect their government, the Greeks have said no to austerity. Having come second in the inconclusive poll on Sunday, the far-left Syriza Party are incredibly in talks to form a coalition. If they are not successful the baton will pass to the leader of Greece’s socialist party, PASOK, former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos.

Both the Greek and French result aptly demonstrate that austerity on its own without plans for growth, while never popular, is now losing whatever credibility it had for solving Europe’s economic problems. Put simply, the people will no longer put up with recession, unemployment and public expenditure cuts seemingly for no gain.

Now that two general election results have delivered this verdict along with local elections in Italy, another country under a Eurozone appointee, it is surely time to re-evaluate the austerity strategy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday it was of “utmost importance” that the programmes of austerity and economic reform as a condition of the €174 billion Greek bail-out package “continue to be implemented”. She also made clear that “The process is a difficult one, but, despite that, it should go on.”

Likewise the European Commission would do well to think again as they seem to be taking a pro-Merkel line. A spokeswoman said it was up to the Greek political parties to “work in an atmosphere of responsibility” and continue implementing structural and economic reforms.

The only realistic way out the austerity deadlock with the people on one side and powerful financial vested interests, not to mention the leading lights of the Eurozone, on the other is to seek a middle way. Just as Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has always said, austerity must go hand in hand with measures for growth. Austerity alone causes huge suffering – unemployment and poverty coupled with the absence of hope. The people of Europe need to believe there is a future and a relatively strong one at that. Angela Merkel’s regime is providing the exact opposite and the people are making their views known.

While I would never claim the British local election results were wholly based on opposition to austerity measures, they clearly showed that our electorate prefer Labour to the current coalition. On the basis of those results Labour would form a government. We are seeing the Tory-led coalition sinking deeper into the mire as Cameron and Clegg try to revive their flagging fortunes. We should, perhaps, add the UK to the list of those countries who have had enough of austerity and want to feel hope for their future.

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The “veto” that never was and the ire of the Eurosceptics

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for David Cameron. He really seemed to believe that walking out of the Brussels summit in December would begin to end his EU troubles.

Far from it. As Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said in the Guardian this morning: “The unanswered question after this summit [the one which has just ended] remains what exactly David Cameron achieved by walking out of the EU negotiations last month? With the EU institutions now involved, it seems clear that all his earlier phantom veto achieved was to undermine British influence.”

The Brussels summit which ended yesterday endorsed the use of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to enforce the “fiscal pact”. Britain reserved its position, along with the Czech Republic, the only other EU member state to do so.

This latest climb-down by the British Prime Minister makes it even clearer that David Cameron achieved absolutely nothing by walking out of the last Brussels summit. He did not “veto” the treaty; he quite simply did not sign up to it. A veto implies preventing or stopping something happening. Cameron did not achieve this. Rather he took himself and the UK away from the agreement. “Refusal to agree” or “abnegation of responsibility” would be better terms for David Cameron’s antics.

However, this is not the view of the feral Tory Eurosceptics.

Cameron’s personal woes are at home while our country’s are in the EU. Losing influence and being marginalised in Europe do not help the UK. Because of our geographical size and proud history, we should be a major player at the heart of Europe, leading the EU, one of the world’s major power blocs, in the direction which would be best for Britain.

Meanwhile, unable to perform in any credible way in the EU, David Cameron is facing a  Eurosceptic backlash in the House of Commons as well as searing criticism from his own MEPs.            

Speaking about Cameron’s volte-face on the use of the EU institutions to enforce the fiscal pact, Martin Callanan, Leader of the ECR Group, largely made up of British Tories, is quoted in the Guardian this morning as saying, “I blame a combination of appeasing Nick Clegg, who is desperate to sign up to anything the EU puts in front of him, and the practical reality that the pact is actually quite hard to prevent.”

Leading feral Eurosceptic backbencher Bernard Jenkin said, “The government cannot retreat from that [not agreeing to the treaty changes last month], or they will refuel demands for a referendum on the UK’s present terms of membership of the EU.”

So Cameron’s attempts to pacify his Eurosceptics at the expense of Britain being able to take its rightful place in the EU are failing miserably.

The embattled Mr Cameron is also facing criticism from the backbench mob for doing what Nick Clegg wants.

I always thought coalitions were about agreeing joint policies and taking them forward together. Not, it appears, in the modern Conservative Party who are behaving as if they won the last general election with an overall majority. They did not, and would do well to remember it.

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David Cameron increasingly looks both ways on Europe

Balancing the responsibilities of Britain’s membership of the European Union with his feral Eurosceptic backbenchers is proving well-nigh impossible for our pull me – push me Prime Minister. 

David Cameron is, inevitably, being forced into U turns on Europe.  Having flounced out of the EU summit in Brussels as it was agreeing changes to the Lisbon Treaty in December last year, David Cameron seemingly felt the need to shore up his extraordinary behaviour.  He accordingly held forth in adamant fashion stating that the UK would resist any attempt to involve the EU institutions in enforcing the amendments to the treaty agreed by 26 of the 27 EU member states in December.

 Such a hot-headed, indeed stupid, way of operating was bound to come unstuck.

 It did not take long to unravel.  In abandoning his pledge to block the Eurozone from using common EU institutions to police the new regime of fiscal integration agreed by the “EU 26” in December, Cameron has given way to the European Union in a major way.

Britain will now no longer object to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) enforcing the international, as opposed to EU, treaty among the 26 EU member countries who agreed it. This is a significant U turn on the part of the Prime Minister, who as recently as 6 January said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “Let me be very clear that they [the ECJ] shouldn’t do things outside the European Union that are the property of the European Union.”  

Cameron has also accepted that the European Commission will act as “referee” in deciding whether Eurozone members were breaching the new rules.

Meanwhile, according to the Guardian, arch- Eurosceptic and leading feral Bill Cash, is not at all happy and is on record as saying, “There mustn’t be any backsliding. There are serious concerns about the lawfulness of these proposals. The institutions are simply not allowed to use the European Commission and the [European] Court of Justice in an unlawful manner.”

I predict there will be more situations like this for David Cameron. His feral backbenchers will push him one way while the EU (and possibly Nick Clegg) will pull him in another. The inevitable outcome will be victory for the EU. After all it’s one against 26, long odds indeed.

We already know that UK observers are at the tables looking at the changes to the Lisbon Treaty, despite Cameron’s refusal to sign in December. This represents a quiet U-turn which speaks volumes about the way David Cameron is seeking to resolve his EU dilemma. To try and have your cake and eat it is not a sustainable policyin the long run.

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Cameron should forge an alliance for green growth and jobs with Denmark

Nick Clegg has called David Cameron’s antics inBrussels last week, which culminated in Cameron’ failure to get anything forBritain before flouncing out of the negotiations, “bad forBritain“.

Vince Cable, the erratic Lib-Dem Business Secretary, subsequently went further saying, “We need to continue to work with countries in Europe because millions of jobs in Britain depend on it.” 

Cable is right, of course, and David Cameron, George Osborne and their right-wing Eurosceptic colleagues would do well to take note of their beleaguered coalition partners. Though the Tories have gained a slight bounce in the opinion polls at the expense of UKIP, the government still has to carry out its responsibility to the British people.

And that responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the European Union. David Cameron himself has always said he does not want Britain to come out of Europe.

So, come on Mr Cameron. If you believe Britain’s place is in the EU, then stand up for Britain in the Council of Ministers and make sure we are properly represented and that you get the best deal for all of us.

This deal inevitably hinges on the EU Single Market. It was none other than Margaret Thatcher who took us into the Single Market on the excellent grounds that it was good for British business and trade. Se has been proved right ever since.

Made up of a series of measures to boost the European economy, the EU Single Market is the UK’s largest trading area. Already there are 12 further measures on the EU table to improve the Single Market, ranging from a directive on public provision, revision of accounting standards and a new proposal on venture capital.

If the Con-Dem Government is not involved in the discussions on these and the other new Single Market initiatives it will be very bad for Britain.

Cameron and co should also be supporting the forthcoming presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, due to be taken up by Denmark next month. David Cameron, George Osborne et al will, of course, not like the fact that Denmark now has a social democrat government.   

As you would expect, the Danish presidency is putting forward some extremely important initiatives. In particular they are looking beyond austerity to tackle the economic crisis. The Danish presidency, unlike other European leaders, believes growth is an extremely important element in rescuing us from recession and the economic downturn.

Accordingly Denmark is proposing developing green technologies to foster economic growth while at the same time ensuring the preservation of our natural resources.

Now that David Cameron has so spectacularly fallen out with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, in order to fulfil his pledge to keepBritain in the EU, he would do well to look at rebuilding Britain’s fractured relationships with the smaller EU countries, many of whom have been allies of the UK for a number of years.

Denmark, a Scandinavian country and a natural friend, would be a good place to start. Denmark has a raft of dynamic ideas for Cameron to consider, most of which would be extremely good forBritain.

I will watch developments with interest.

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

What a week it’s been for UK relations in Brussels. Media coverage was dominated by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, failure to reach an agreement and deliver a deal that would have ensured that the UK remained at the heart of continuing negotiations in Europe.

Instead Britain has isolated itself, or at least Cameron has isolated Britain, the Coalition Government is in disarray and Britain is the laughing stock of Europe.

We are marginalized and isolated. Wisely (and it’s odd to say this) Nick Clegg  has warned Cameron not to appear triumphant tomorrow when he reports back to Parliament tomorrow.

How Cameron will be able to build any sort of bridge with Europe who are rightly furious with his behaviour remains to be seen.

The Financial Times has an excellent write up in this piece which you can read here.

There are further implications, however,  which concern the way in which business will be affected. Cameron may believe he has helped the City in his (short sighted) moves, but he is very misguided.

The threat it poses to economic growth in the UK has been expressed by business and manufacturing groups across the country. Manufacturers, many of whom are heavily reliant on demand from the EU are very nervous.

Steve Coventry, head of government affairs at manufacturers’ association the EEF, says was interviewed by the Guardian and told the paper: “What we need to do is step back, forget about the politics of this, and think about the practicalities of the way it’s going to affect how we engage with our EU partners on a daily basis.”

Perhaps the most high profile concern from the City comes from The British Bankers’ Association chief executive Angela Knight who told the Guardian: “We do not yet know the impact this new arrangement is going to have on the UK’s ability to secure agreements on sensible regulation – but that is critical.”

You can read the full article in the Guardian here.

And the Association of British Insurers adds: “The immediate challenge for us will be exerting influence over EU regulations that will affect the UK financial services industry and its customers.”

The greatest fear is that Cameron has left the country, industry and business exposed.

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Inept Cameron sails Britain merrily down the river

The result of last night’s Eurozone summit is a disaster for Britain.

David Cameron has vetoed the proposed treaty on the euro involving all 27 member states because he is so incapable. He failed to adequately negotiate a situation which would ensure Britain is kept in the process.

If the treaty of all 27 member states had gone ahead British sovereignty would not have been anymore affected because British sovereignty was never at threat, the new treaty clause was solely about the euro.

The real consequence of Cameron’s actions for Britain is that our influence will now be severely limited. There is a real danger that we will not be able to protect important British interests especially in the EU single market which is very important for British trade and jobs.

Just one example of our monthly trade with the EU shows how important it is financially to the UK to have such good relations. An example can be found in just one month in the UK’s EU exports which increased by £1.6 billion (13.4%) in a single month from August-September 2011, to £13.6 billion. And compared to September 2010, exports have increased by £1.7 billion (14.8 %).

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Cameron is despised in the EU, by Merkel and Sarkosy especially. The problems began in 2009 when Cameron pulled Conservative MEPs out of the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right political grouping in the European Parliament.  He then formed his own grouping with various fringe parties from across Europe, leaving Merkel and Sarkosy incandescent.

Such a loss of power is not helpful for the UK and it is imperative that we continue to be part of future negotiations with the euro zone. A two tier Europe, which may well result from this, would be disastrous for the UK and as a result we will not be able to fully protect British interests, as Sarkosy has already pointed out.

Domestically there are going to be fallouts. Nick Clegg, is as we know, very pro-European and yet the Deputy Prime Minister is also part of a government which has loosened ties with the EU and lost the respect of European heads of state. This will undoubtedly have implications for the survival of the coalition. And globally there are massive implications; markets have fallen and during this uncertain time it will continue to hit the already fragile global economy.

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