Jack Straw’s anti-EU fervour has led him to some wrongheaded conclusions

Labour Party

Jack Straw appears to be the latest prominent politician to jump on the EU for what he perceives as its “democratic deficit”. He even went as far as calling the EU a “system of political elites leading people by the nose that worked when it delivered jobs and welfare” at a seminar organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) yesterday, as reported in the “Guardian”.

Much though I respect Jack having worked with him as Shadow and then Home Secretary while I was General Secretary of the Chief Probation Officers’ Association, his views on the EU have always been towards the extreme end of the spectrum.

His main contention at the IPPR seminar was that the European Parliament should be abolished in order to help put right the EU “democratic deficit”. If democracy in the EU structures is not as healthy or as representative as it could be, it strikes me as peculiar to recommend doing away with the only directly elected body.

Straw does not stop there. Once the only truly democratic institution, the European Parliament, has been consigned to the dustbin of history, it will be replaced by an assembly of national parliaments. I defy anyone to make a case for an indirectly elected body over an elected one. Indeed, I truly believe the EU has become much more democratic since the role of the European Parliament has been augmented and the Parliament now has equal decision making powers with the Council of Ministers over a range of legislation.

There is, of course, the problem that people do not believe their voice counts in the EU. As Straw said, only eight per cent of the population think they are heard. No-one can deny this. However, the answer surely is better communication and accountability for the democratic institution, the European Parliament, not its abolition. No-one knows better than me how tough a nut this is to crack, and I fully accept that we are not there yet. But you don’t get rid of something simply because parts of the way it works are not up to scratch. What you do is hang on in there and work to make it better.

Sadly Jack Straw shows woeful lack of knowledge about how the EU functions when he says, “the EU should not be involved in issues like the working time directive, health and safety and so on” while at the same time calling for the completion of the single market. The EU legislates on issues to do with work in order to ensure a level playing field across Europe for the single market. It is about time Labour politicians in the UK understood this basic fact and stopped spouting the Tory rhetoric on employment legislation. The Tories do not like rights at work per se. Labour stands up for fairness and proper working conditions. It’s as simple as that.

Finally, polling evidence at the seminar from YouGov showed people do actually want more EU co-operation on terrorism and national crime, climate change, poverty and immigration. Let’s concentrate on these important issues and stop attacking the EU as an institution and its only directly elected arm, the European Parliament.


Marginalised Cameron tries to defend his EU U-turn

Labour Party

“A veto is not for life, it’s just for Christmas.” Congratulations to Ed Miliband on this perfect one-liner. David Cameron was indeed on the back foot in the House of Commons yesterday answering questions on  the Brussels summit.

The reason – Cameron is trying to look both ways and utterly failing. Britain is a member of the European Union but opted out of, not vetoed, changes to the Lisbon Treaty in December last year. (Thanks to Labour MP Chris Bryant for this succinct wording).

Unable to sustain his threat to prevent the 26 EU member states that signed up to the “fiscal pact” in December from using the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to uphold their agreement, David Cameron was forced into an embarrassing U-turn. He now accepts that the “fiscal pact” countries can use the European institutions to make sure the treaty changes are upheld.  

Cameron is, however, trying to detract from the mess he has made of this whole saga by telling us he will jump on the 25 (the Czech Republic now appears to have joined the UK) if they do anything which harms the EU single market. If this happens, Cameron will attempt to take measures against the treaty signers.

This is yet another example of Cameron nonsense. No issues concerning the single market are related to the changes to the Lisbon Treaty put forward in December. They are separate matters.

Cameron is again coming up with smoke and mirrors just as he did over the repatriation of powers idea. It goes like this: Cameron, himself an arch-Eurosceptic, needs to keep his feral Eurosceptic backbenchers on board, not least because they were instrumental in securing his leadership of the Conservative Party. However, David Cameron is now the Prime Minister of Great Britain and has duties and obligations in the European Union, not to mention the need to maintain relationships with key EU players. Moreover, Conservative policy is to stay in the EU.

So Cameron is really in a bit of a fix. He cannot fulfil his obligations to all sides. So he’s doing a bit of both and being mightily unsuccessful in the process. The Eurosceptics are still not happy while Jack Straw echoed the feelings of many when he said yesterday that “outside the (EU) door is not a good place to be.”

Never underestimate the extent of  the UK’s marginalisation in the EU under David Cameron’s leadership. Taking the British Conservative MEPs out of the centre-right European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament massively annoyed Angela Merkel. The opt-out, not veto, in Brussels on December 9 caused French President Sarkozy to refuse to shake Cameron’s hand. Merkel and Sarkozy, always an intriguing double act, are growing ever closer with Merkel pledged to support Sarkozy’s presidential election campaign, according to the Financial Times.

 Being a member of an important organisation but not fully committed to it strikes me as a completely ridiculous position. Would David Cameron and William Hague take the same view on NATO? 

We are in the EU, and have been for nearly 40 years. While it is by no means perfect, Britain is surely better in the European Union than lost in the twilight zone outside, especially since the UK could take a leading role if our leaders wished to do so.

Other European countries see working together as a real advantage and many not yet in the EU are very keen to join.

The British idea that we are better off alone is a myth from a past imperial age. Yet even then, Britain itself was never really alone. Since the 18th century we had a world-wide empire to back us up. Now that is no longer there, our only tenable world role is to be a major player in the EU.

It is a mistake to try and derail the referendum on AV

Labour Party

There are those in the Labour Party who seem to be siding with the Tory 1922 Committee in opposing holding the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) on May 5 next year, the same day as local elections and the polls for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.  Quoted in the Guardian, Jack Straw said he would support a referendum on AV because it was in the Labour General Election manifesto, but he told Radio 4’s World at One: “There is an issue about the date. We have got to think about this.”

As far as I’m concerned, the Labour Party promised a referendum on AV in its manifesto and having promised this we must want to make sure that the referendum is won.  I would have thought this is the correct and logical point of view, even though the referendum vote will be put forward by the Tory-Lib-Dem Government.

I have never understood why the Liberal-Democrats in the coalition talks with the Tories agreed that the Conservatives could campaign against the AV referendum.  Until the 2010 General Election electoral reform was the defining policy of the Lib-Dems, a hallowed principle they have now all but thrown away in their rush to government.  The Lib-Dems shamefully gave in and accepted that in the campaign for the vote on the AV referendum they will have to fight the Conservative Party machine which will more than likely be aided and abetted by Ashcroft money.

It is sad to see there are those within Labour who want to take our Party in the same direction. While proportional representation for the House of Commons has never been one of Labour’s core beliefs, in the way it used to be for the Liberal-Democrats, we did put AV in the 2010 manifesto. We should therefore honour this commitment.

Honouring our promise to hold a referendum on AV means doing all we can to win the referendum.  Anything else, such opposing moves to hold the referendum vote at an electorally advantageous time, i.e. at the same time as other polls, is mere talk.  In fact it’s worse than that, it’s saying one thing and doing another – hypocrisy in other words.

Reforming the UK’s archaic voting system for the House of Commons was always going to be just about the most difficult of the Coalition’s pledges to implement.

There are those MPs (generally Conservative but, I am sorry to say, Labour as well) who get very worked up about anything they perceive as upsetting their chances of re-election, and see first past the post (FPTP) as their best bet.  This is hardly surprising since every single Westminster MP was elected under FPTP, though the lack of imagination and willingness to embrace change is disheartening.

Meanwhile the House of Commons is the only lower house of any national parliament in Europe to elect its members by first past the post.  Every other European country uses a system of proportional representation or alternative vote.  They all recognise that a system where every vote cast actually counts is fairer and delivers a result which better reflects the views of the majority of the electorate.

I want Britain to catch up.  There is movement now to start serious modernisation of our political system.  It would be quite unforgivable if Labour MPs prevented us moving forward.

One final word of warning.  Supporting a referendum on AV does not under any circumstances signal agreement to the Tories’ iniquitous proposal to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies.  This is cynical manipulation to get more Conservative MPs.  Introducing AV, on the other hand, is a principled policy to change our voting system to something fairer and would be a long overdue reform. I’m sure we will be able to make this distinction clear in any future discussions and campaigns.  I for one intend to support AV and work for a yes vote in any future referendum while strongly opposing a reduction in the number of constituencies.


Labour Party

I recently blogged that the European elections are not about Gordon Brown’s leadership.


Neither are they about MPs, expenses.  Although I have no wish to comment on the revelations brought to us by that great bastion of progressive jouralism, the Daily Telegraph”,  in relation to individual MP colleagues, there are, I believe, some general points which need to be made.

Firstly, wherever this saga of MPs and their allowances goes, it plays no part in the European elections.  On 4th June the country will be voting for representatives in the European Parliament.  It is neither a vote about who runs Britain or a vote about the behaviour of British MPs.  It is, purely and simply, an election to chose representatives in the European Parliament.  The conduct of some Members of the British Parliament and the system used to pay their allowances has no bearing whatsoever on the 4th June poll.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister has featured in the “”Telegraph’s” feeding frenzy, it would be quite wrong to  judge me and my fellow Euro candidates by the fall out from Gordon Brown’s cleaning bills.  Likewise, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, Davin Miliband, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears and even our own Europe Minister Caroline Flint, are not at all relevant to the European elections, at least as  far as their House of Commons expenses are concerned.

My next point concerns the  Daily Telegraph” itself, now in its second day of its “let’s get them” orgy.  This august newspaper obviously thinks MPs are fair game.  However, it should be remembered that the “Telegraph” came by the expenses information in a less than honest manner.   The “Telegraph”, we are led to believe, paid £300,000 for computer discs containing MPs’ scanned receipts and full expenses records over five years, rumoured to have come from an individual in company employed  by the Commons to process the receipts took the chance to make an illicit copy.

It’s bad enough that the “Telegraph” apparently paid for stolen goods.  It’s made even worse because all these records were due for publication in July.  The “Telegraph” acted to gain an advantage over its rivals without regard to morality or integrity.  And this is the newspaper which is now labelling MPs corrupt.

Finally, I want to cover the issue of releasing MPs private addresses.  Had the records we now have courtesy of the “Daily Telegraph” been officially released in July as planned, MPs’ addresses would have been removed.  There is a real issue here about MPs’ personal safety, surely something they are all entitled to, whatever you may think of them.  When I was first became an MEP I was targeted by the fascist organisation Kombat 18, which has a record of violent behaviour.  Whilst MPs addresses can’t be completely confidential, there is a strong argument for keeping them as private as possible.  Those in the public eye deserve to feel safe in their own homes.          

The European Parliament has now finished for the Euro elections.  I am therefore in London out and about on the campaign trail.  From now until 4 June, this blog will bring you news, views, photos and much more from the Euro campaign.  Please use your vote and cast it wisely.