Cameron is again putting party before country

Labour Party

There is a wise adage in politics that leaders, representatives and their parties should listen and respond to the questions the people, their electorate, are asking rather than matters which endlessly fascinate professional politicos but leave virtually everybody else (99.999 per cent of the population) cold.

Enter the torrid and seemingly endless Tory debate on Europe. Begun in earnest under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Conservatives remain in utter disarray over whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. As Janan Ganesh  of the Financial Times succintly put it, the Tory Party is suffering from “a single-issue neuralgia that knows no equivalent in any major party in the west”.

And nobody except professional politicians actually cares. Opinion polls consistently show that whether or not Britain remains a member of the European Union is not central to people’s lives. According to YouGov they are far more concerned about jobs and prices, schools and hospitals. Although it pains me as an MEP to say it, EU membership is little more than peripheral in terms of voters’ priorities.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that those Tories who fight in such a relentless and unremitting way to get Britain out of the European Union are not answering any question asked by those who voted for them. Instead they are reinforcing their own strange view of the world whereby the EU is seen as the source of almost all that is wrong with Britain and we would all be massively better off without johnny foreigner telling us what to do.

This could be understood and forgiven if it were just a few misguided backbenchers banging the drum. While this may have been the case prior to William Hague’s disastrous four years as Conservative leader from 1997 to 2001, the Tory tide most definitely turned during the first years of the 1997 Labour Government. Local Conservative Associations selected ever more anti-EU candidates while those already in Parliament gained ground. The only comparable episode in recent British politics was the Labour Party during the 1980s when Labour lurched to the left espousing causes such a unilateral nuclear disarmament which the majority of the British people did not want.

Yet the Tories in 2013 are very different position on EU membership. While Labour was in opposition in 1983 when the party wrote “the longest suicide note in history”, the Conservatives are in government, albeit in a coalition, the other part of which, incidentally, does not share their EU phobia. It’s one thing not to listen to the people when the only damage will be that the opposition party does not get elected. It’s quite another not to listen when in government and the party can make a difference to people’s lives.

David Cameron’s unseemly haste to publish the EU Referendum Bill surely indicates that he, the Prime Minister, is not listening to the people. Instead he is putting what he perceives as his Party’s interest first, both internal – pacifying his rabid Eurosceptic backbenchers and external – doing something about UKIP. Cameron is running scared yet in incapable of showing leadership. He appears more like a headless chicken in a mire-filled farmyard than the world statesman he wanted to present during his visit to the United States and meeting with President Obama.

Tragically for David Cameron his strategy of appeasement – appease UKIP and they will not take any more Tory votes and appease the anti-EU backbenchers so that they will pipe down – is patently not working. He is our Prime Minister and as such he would do well to learn basic lessons. Appeasement does not work. Cameron should listen to the people rather than try and maintain an impossible position on something a large majority of the population does not rate as a priority.

The US election shows caring is the new politics

Labour Party

Radio 4’s Today programme ran a fascinating piece this morning on how much Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were thought by their electorate to care about the people whose vote they sought. Unsurprisingly Romney came out the worse by a long mile.

While not new in politics, the strength of the notion throughout the Presidential election campaign that politicians should care for the people they represent does, I believe, mark a sea change. The days when US citizens were concerned above all else about American might in the world are being overtaken by the feeling that politicians should care more about their voters as individuals, their daily lives and what matters to them, their families and their communities.

The way women voted is the most obvious example of this trend. Unlike racial groups who tend to vote a particular way, for example Latinos support Obama and in the UK the ethnic minority communities veer towards Labour, women owe no such allegiance. As 50 per cent of the population, women are just about as representative as you can get of the 100 per cent of voters.

The majority of women did not like Romney. They deserted him in droves. The principal reason for this extraordinary phenomenon was that women did not feel Romney cared about them, mainly because the GOP candidate and his Party chose to attack the only thing which makes women different from men – their reproductive capacity. The result was that women felt threatened and uncared for.

It was, in fact, quite a legacy for the Republican Party. In Missouri Todd Akin talked about “legitimate” rape, saying that if this was the case the female body had a way of shutting the whole thing down, Richard Mourdock from Indiana thought babies born as a result of rape were “a gift from God” while in the campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania Tom Smith compared rape to unwed motherhood. Sadly, there is more. Atlantic Monthly gives a round up well worth a read.

Contraception and abortion were, of course, the other main focus of Republican attitudes to women. Romney himself is against abortion under any circumstances, opposed Roe v Wade and does not agree with insurance funding for contraception. Meanwhile Obama campaigned positively for contraception to be available and for women to have access to safe abortions.

Romney also looked as if he didn’t care about non-whites, highlighted by the phrase “he [Romney] hates Chinese”. Those who are less well-off fared possibly even worse when Romney stated that 47 per cent of Americans do not pay federal taxes.

The caring agenda came through loud and clear during the American Presidential campaign with women at the forefront. Governments and political leaders would do well to think hard about the American lesson. Individuals and their immediate concerns now really count and they want politicians to take note and look after them, taking up matters dear to their hearts rather than political, or in America, religious ideology.

The world economy needs growth not austerity

Labour Party

Throughout sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, British commentators and, unfortunately, politicians as well, have failed to understand the nature of the beast. Unless and until the British accept that the Euro is a political as much as an economic project we will continue to talk in terms of Euro failure and eventual break-up.

Much though the feral Tory Eurosceptics who sit on the right-wing of their already right-wing party would love to see the Euro collapse, the more sensible among us should get real, knowing that this will quite simply not happen. The Euro is here to stay. David Cameron, hectoring the Eurozone countries to put their house in order while the UK flounders in a double-dip recession, admits as much.

Both the political nature of the Euro as a unifying force and its ultimate durability were demonstrated in the result of Sunday’s election in Greece. The Greek people voted, albeit narrowly, for stability, choosing in New Democracy a party that, while demanding some let-up, will broadly follow the Eurozone’s demands. The Euro, despite the crippling demands for austerity, is popular in Greece. In fact, the idea of a single currency is generally hailed across the EU as the way forward and a force for good. It is Britain, Sweden and Denmark who are out on a limb, not the other way round.

The new Greek Leader, Antonis Samaras, meanwhile, does not want to go down the harsh austerity route outlined again by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Samaras is right to seek some slack for Greece. While there is much Greece needs to do to put its own house in order by way of fighting corruption and making the population pay their taxes, further austerity will only make things worse.

In a welcome development, the French people have well and truly understood the ant-austerity message. Francois Hollande now has a clear majority in the National Assembly, ensuring that his growth plans will be approved. It is not only the French socialists who believe in action to stimulate economic growth and employment. President Obama is saying the very same things. At the start of the crucial G20 summit in Mexico there are two clear blocs – the right-wing pedlars of austerity and those who are more enlightened demanding an agenda for growth.

Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls argued in yesterday’s London Evening Standard that we need a global growth plan and that every national leader should support Presidents Obama and Hollande as they seek to get the world economy moving. Given that the India’s massive economy is slowing down, such action is more urgent than ever.

If there is one overriding conclusion to come out of the Los Cabos G20 summit it is surely that “we are all in it together” as separate nation states linked by an ever more global economy. This is exactly the reason why the Euro will survive. We are increasingly living in a world where large power blocs hold sway – the United States of America, India, China. The European Union is on its way to achieving power bloc status.

Where, you may ask, is Britain? My answer is that the United Kingdom is at present moored precariously in no man’s land. I would also contend that although no-man’s land is not an ideal place to be, going it alone outside a power bloc would be disastrous. In today’s world, nation states are always stronger together than apart.

Women need safe and accessible contraception

Labour Party

Yesterday’s “Daily Telegraph” reported that the number of girls under 15 in England who have sought contraceptive implants has increased sixfold in just half a decade, according to government statistics. Nearly 5,000 teenagers below the age of consent were given the devices last year, compared with about 800 just five years ago.

The NHS Information Centre  showed that about 7,400 girls aged 15 or under had implants or injections last year, up from 2,900 in 2005/6. This included 2,500 who had injections last year, up from 2,100.

The increase follows a push by the government to encourage the use of such devices in order to cut teenage pregnancies.

Although parents have apparently complained that their daughters were being fitted with the implants without their knowledge, I for one am absolutely certain that having such a device is better than an unwanted pregnancy. Although it is true that the long-term effects of such implants are unclear, the girls may well not use the devices for very long. They will eventually start a family at an appropriate age or switch to an alternative method when older.

Access to contraception is vitally important and reproductive freedom lies at the heart of public health and equity across the world.

Here in the EU the European Commission has always and supported policy and co-ordination and exchange of good practice to combat health inequalities between member states.

However, access to contraception is not always easy or cheap in several EU countries, due in part to lack of state subsidy and poor information on availability. This has detrimental effects on the health and well-being of low-income women in particular. It also does nothing to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies in these countries.

Unfortunately the European Commission does not at present prioritise women’s reproductive health and access to contraception. The 88 health indicators developed by the Commission do not include availability of contraception or the unmet needs for such provision. What is more, the Commission’s Health for Growth Programme (2014 – 2020) contains no references to sexual and reproductive health.

To try and put this right, members of the European Parliament Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee are putting an oral question to the Commission – similar to Prime Minister’s Questions without the loudness and rudeness – on the issue.

 The Question will ask:

  •  What is the Commission doing to collect data on contraceptive use?
  • Is the Commission sharing best practice across Member States?
  • How is the Commission breaking down the barriers – high cost, lack of insurance cover, lack of helpful information – limiting access to contraception?
  • In what ways will the Commission follow up on the outcomes detailed in its report on health equality initiatives?

It is absolutely right that we push the European Commission on this important subject. Safe and reliable contraception has transformed women’s lives allowing pregnancies to be planned and the size of any given family size to be decided by the parents concerned. Those of us who live in countries where contraception is free and easily accessible have a real duty to do all we can to bring the same benefits to women who live in less fortunate circumstances.

Interestingly United States President Barack Obama recently announced modified plans to require that all women to have access to contraception. The president was uniquivocal when he said the policy “saves lives and saves money”. The White House even hanged the scheme to allow health insurers to provide cover directly if employers object in order to allow access to contraception where employers may not wish to support it on religious grounds.