May can and should do more to facilitate change over Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Labour Party

‘“There are currently no plans to intervene in the Northern Ireland abortion law debate”, the Prime Minister has said. Such a statement denies women citizens of Northern Ireland, who require an abortion, the opportunity to receive safe medical care, dignity and compassion. In fact, it not only denies them access to such care but it ignores their need for it.

It would be foolish to not recognise that the political situation makes this an incredibly difficult journey to undertake, but as complicated as it is its most definitely a necessary one.

May’s spokesman has said that the only way legislation can come into force is through legislation from the devolved assembly because it has responsibility for health. The problem is, of course that the Stormont legislature hasn’t sat for 16 months.

If Theresa May is to pursue this line (that change must come from within Stormont) then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must work with great urgency to facilitate the restoration of the legislature. It’s simply not good enough to make a dismissive statement like “it was a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland Government”.

The current stale mate can’t continue. Northern Ireland must change its laws on abortion and do so urgently.

I campaigned in the Irish refferendum last month and was obviously pleased with the result. I wrote about my experience for the New Statesman, and the article is available online which you can read here. Now that the eighth amendment in Northern Ireland will be repealed the focus inevitable turns to Northern Ireland where the pressure to change the law will rightly increase.

UK consumers could miss out on EU digital reforms

Labour Party

European citizens will, from 1 April be able to access digital content they subscribe to anywhere in the European Union, The European Commission, Council and Parliament confirmed.

Those who use platforms such as Netflix will be able to access the content they have paid for when travelling abroad or staying in another EU country.

However, the benefit for the UK is in jeopardy following Theresa May’s, her Mansion House address in which she ruled out participation in the EU digital single market if Britain leaves the EU.

In a statement released by the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) yesterday I said: “Step-by-step the EU digital single market nears completion, bringing ever greater benefits to consumers, from the ban on mobile phone roaming charges to the freedom to access your online digital subscriptions like Netflix while abroad – benefits that British citizens could lose out on in just over a year under the disastrous Tory Brexit we are heading towards.

“In saying the UK will leave the single market, Theresa May has put British people’s future access to a swath of consumer benefits at risk and is causing untold damage to business. The government must ensure British travellers and businesses continue to enjoy benefits like online portability and free roaming if the UK leaves the EU.”

You can read the statement in full and comments from my EPLP colleagues here.

The Mansion House speech was ‘fantastical’-despite a more conciliatory approach

Labour Party

Theresa May’s road to Brexit speech last week at Mansion House delivered the inevitable. Instead of inflammatory “red, white and blue” language it was honest, detailed, serious and perhaps the most conciliatory we have seen her to date. It was inevitable that eventually she must deliver a speech which aimed to bring together the warring factions. She has spent the last 20 months alienating those in the Remain camp and internally her party is tearing itself apart, and that’s even before we start on how she has handled relations with the EU.

John Major said that Europe is the beast that gets to all Prime ministers in the end- it did it for him, and we all know what became of David Cameron.

But back to May’s speech; the positives are that she acknowledged things she previously had resolutely refused to, for example she admitted for the first time that Britain will not get the same kind of access to the European markets after Brexit in the we currently do. She was also clear that in order to operate within the EU it will be necessary for the UK to continue to make financial contributions, and she conceded that the European Courts will have some effect over UK legislation. The latter point had previously been a red line, so this was a big shift.

The message was clear: the expectation that the UK would continue to enjoy the same benefits outside the union as inside would has gone-realisation is finally setting in.

However, although a shift in her speech was clear what she articulated continued to be, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote this weekend, “fantastical”.

She told those gathered at Mansion House: “We must bring our country back together, considering the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate.”

May’s great plan to unite where there is such huge division is an impossible task, one she clearly underestimates. Although May should not be blamed for all that has happened in the last 20 months, after all she did inherit Brexit, she has made life more difficult for her own premiership but more importantly her tone has on many occasions threatened to jeopardise the entire agreement.

Her lack of experience in international negotiations is no secret, she was, in fact, previously Home Secretary. Even this weekend she told Andrew Marr that in many ways Brexit is a very simple thing. What a magnificent underestimation that really is. The complexity and risk are enormous – we need not look any further than the current negotiations over the issue of Northern Ireland to realise the implications of taking such a gamble.

May’s, up until now, hard line approach to Brexit has divided a country where the outcome of Brexit was so narrow. Yet she has continuously alienated the entire Remain camp by using terms like “crushing the opposition”, and its won her no plaudits. Most importantly, and as Andrew Rawnsley observes, by taking such a trajectory with the European Union she has “made the negotiations much thornier.”

The speech wasn’t met with any great shakes on either side, what it will achieve is yet to be decided. What we do know is that by next March we must have a much clearer idea of where the UK is going.

But my own position remains-as I said in my article for Left Foot Forward last week: “It would be an act of unbelievable recklessness to leave without knowing where we’re going at the end of the Brexit process.

Moreover, it would be simply foolish to swap our existing deal for an inferior one.”

EU negotiations facing further fragility

Labour Party

The Financial Times reports that the already fragile EU negotiations are in further jeopardy. Concerns have been raised after the European Union announced it was to publish the legal text of December’s Brexit divorce agreement which will stipulate unambiguously how it sees its future relationship with Northern Ireland i.e. how it would align with the Union’s single Market.

I’m sure we all recall the furore between Theresa May and the DUP’s Arlene Foster who four days before the meeting on the 8 December rejected language which was to be used in the Brexit Divorce meeting which would essentially see Northern Ireland remain under the EU’s regulatory orbit- and it was this which was wholly unacceptable to the DUP.

Admittedly May was in a rock and a hard place politically – to avert the walkout of the DUP (an alliance Theresa May rely on to ensure she has a parliamentary majority) some wording was hastily drawn up and vaguely agreed. However, it was as the FT article reminds us, somewhat of a fudge – the wording was deemed so ambiguous as to not have any real meaning and it is unlikely to be coherent enough to be replicated into a final legal document concerning the UK’s withdrawal.

The publication of the official legal text in the next few weeks could seriously hamper the situation domestically. But May will not be able to advance on the next stage of negotiations concerning the transitional period either unless the UK Government is prepared to fully accept that which was agreed on the 8 December – as we know this was a pre-condition to moving to the second stage.

The problem with the legal document which is set to be published imminently is that it will contain much of the detail, something that the UK Government has so far avoided where possible! This is such a delicate and fragile situation that it risks jeopardising many areas politically and May really must tread very carefully.

You can read the excellent full and detailed article here.

The EU has more concerns than just Brexit

Labour Party

Theresa May has the dubious honour of being probably the worst British Prime Minister since the 1930s. Rather than list what has gone wrong, it would be easier to consider what has gone right, in general as well as for Brexit. The answer – a blank space, a big fat zero, absolutely nothing (except perhaps regaining blue passports).

To be fair to her, she wasn’t dealt the best of hands. Brexit was always an infinite black hole lying in wait for whoever drew the short straw. Yet May did not draw it, she positively chose the role, as do all Prime Ministers. Perhaps they are all masochists. Maybe Boris Johnson is even more of a masochist than Theresa May for so desperately wanting her job.

But her latest skirmish with Brussels does her, and especially the UK, no favours as we enter the next phase of negotiations. Her latest clash concerns her refusal to agree to continue with the “status quo” for the transition period which would see free movement and citizens rights for those who settle in the UK during that period.

While May muddles through with gritted teeth and “duty” written all over her features, the EU looks on with a mixture of bemusement and concern. However, from my perspective in the European Parliament, Brexit is not the only, and probably not even the main, concern. The UK would do well to understand that the world does not revolve around Britain, and certainly not round England.

To me, it often feels like two parallel universes: the EU looking outwards to the wider world, Britain caught up in a backwards facing introspection. What is more, there is really not a great deal of interest in Brexit in the European Parliament. True, we agreed that enough progress had been made to proceed to the second stage of the negotiations. Yet, on the few occasions Brexit had been discussed in meetings of my political group, the Socialists and Democrats, attendance has not been as high as usual and the speakers have been mainly the British members.

Brexit is floundering on its own self-absorption. Britain is not the country it was when I was elected to the European Parliament in 2000. This government and the coalition before it with their disastrous referendum on EU membership have greatly diminished the United Kingdom. This is not what people voted for on 23 June last year. Britain deserves another say.

Brexit has an unworkable timetable

Brexit, Labour Party

When Norway held its referendum to join the EU in 1994, the results were very similar to the UK’s to leave, being 52% against joining to 48% in favour. It was, however, a fair vote and a truthful campaign and the status quo won.

In the spirit of reasonableness and wishing to heal the divisions, Norway’s politicians at the time sought to compromise and come up with a settlement which took on board the fact that the country was divided on the issue.

In stark contrast, Theresa May’ decision to go with the hard-line Brexiteers reflected her desire to pacify noisy elements in her own Party. We are all now paying the price for both her and David Cameron’s unprincipled actions.

Incredible though it may seem, there is effectively only 10 months to go before the EU and the UK hope to sign off a formal “divorce” agreement and some kind of outline of a future trading relationship by October this year. This timetable would allow the 27 remaining EU countries to approve the package before the Article 50 deadline runs out at the end of March 2019.

Put starkly in black and white this looks an impossible task. Trade talks have not yet started, and given it took seven years to negotiate the much vaunted trade deal with Canada, 10 months is surely an impossibility.

The truly intractable problems, at least it you’re a Brexiteer or a Theresa May will o’ the wisp, such as the border with the Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar, are unlikely to go away by October. Incredibly May and Davis continue to insist that a “creative”, “deep and special” relationship holding on to most of the benefits of EU membership is within their grasp. In your dreams, Mrs. May. The EU has made it clear that unless the UK changes its tune, the final outcome can only be a trade deal along the lines of Canada’s, plus some extra cooperation in areas such as defence and justice but with customs barriers and little provision for services.

This is the biggest political muddle I can ever remember, and it’s the British people who are suffering. The 52% who voted leave expected extra money for the NHS not a staggering winter crisis, and no-one voted to be poorer, now happening as inflation rises.

Come on Mrs. May, come on Jeremy Corbyn. The UK will never get a deal that’s as good as actually being a member of the EU. That is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

My Weekly Round-up

Labour Party

Happy New year to all my readers and I wish you a healthy and prosperous year, one which will be a significant year for British politics. The general election in May is what the pollsters have hailed one of the closest to call elections in decades. Kicking off its election campaign the Labour Party promised to put ‘working people first, deal with the deficit and protect the NHS as top priorities.’ Ed Miliband is set to further outline this today in a speech to launch the party’s campaign.

To answer questions from as many voters as possible, Ed Miliband will attempt to undertake a huge campaign and has promised to hold a weekly question time with voters during the run up to the general election, where he will reach an estimated four million voters.

Over the weekend Miliband criticised the Tories’ rather bleak looking first election poster, which literally ‘depicts a road to nowhere’, as Miliband said. He also calls Cameron a prime minister who simply wants everything to carry on as it is. He criticises the Tories desire and willingness to undertake a plan which doesn’t alter in any way to the original one. He suggests they are pessimists about what’s achievable for Britain.

It’s going to be an incredibly busy five months in the political world and I will fight with colleagues wherever I can to convey Labour’s message, to show voters that there is hope, that the road isn’t bleak, in the way the Tories image would suggest and an alternative plan can work.

Meanwhile, the Tories came under fire from one of Britain’s most respected business leaders and inventor, James Dyson. He criticised the home secretary, Theresa May ,over proposals to force overseas students to leave the country upon graduation.

Sir James Dyson argues this is a mistake because it ‘exports’ potential top talent for the sake of a quick electoral fix.

He ridiculed Theresa May’s idea which would effectively turn the UK’s world class university education into an “export” rather than a magnet for investment.

Just before Christmas the Church of England announced it had appointed its first woman Bishop. The Reverend Libby Lane was announced as the new Bishop of Stockport only a month after a historic change to canon law.

The appointment will end centuries of male leadership of the Church and comes 20 years after women became priests.

I wish her the very best of luck in her new post, and am delighted that the Church has broken another glass ceiling.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Tensions ran high this week after Gabor Vona, leader of far-right Hungarian political party Jobbik, came to the UK to speak at a central London rally.  Despite 14,000 signatures being added to a petition to Theresa May calling for Vona to be banned, the leader of Hungary’s third-party was eventually permitted to speak. In a letter to May London Assembly member and former Labour MP Andrew Dismore wrote, “I think it’s very important to send the message that we won’t have hatred spread on our streets”, and as I wrote for Shifting Grounds earlier in the week, I believe we should not have allowed him to come.

Jobbik’s visit to the UK was designed to woo the 50,000 Hungarians currently living here. With elections approaching, Vona – whose party have 43 seats in the parliament there – is looking to win the absentee votes of Hungarian ex-pats. Jobbik’s policies are highly controversial, echoing the language and rhetoric of Fascist movements in the 1930s and 1940s. Travellers and Jewish people come under particular attack: “The integration of gypsies has failed. In most cases, segregation would be the most effective way of educating these people,” Vona is on record as saying.

In the end Vona’s speech, which had been scheduled to be held in Holborn on Sunday, had to be relocated after Unite Against Fascism (UAF) gathered there and prevented his supporters from leaving the station. UAF’s Sabby Dhalu said Jobbik’s views “had no place in a modern society”, adding that “Wherever fascists have a presence, racist, antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks increase”. Vona eventually managed to find a platform in Hyde Park, where he spoke for around an hour, addressing the crowd in his native Hungarian.

It is easy to associate Jobbik with a strain of Fascistic Eastern European politics which has no equivalent here in the UK. The BNP, after all, is a faded force which has never won a single parliamentary seat, let alone 43, and the EDL appear to have lost support. Yet we must not be complacent. The widespread scaremongering over Christmas about a Roma ‘invasion’ is just one illustration of how, in straitened times, dangerous myths can gain traction. With the issue of Europe acting as a lightening rod, those who oppose the EU and want a more insular Britain often play into people’s worst fears.

Vona himself eschews the traditional left-right perspective on politics, saying “The true division is between those who want globalisation and those who do not”. Just as UKIP are seeking electoral success off the back of an unholy coalition of white collar Eurosceptic Tories and blue collar voters worried about immigration, Jobbik have garnered their support from both ends of the political spectrum.

This is not to compare UKIP with Jobbik – although it is worth noting the number of UKIP representatives who have flirted with right-wing politics – but rather to point out the danger of allowing populist narratives to take hold. In a European Election year those of us on the left must engage with voters who feel alienated by globalisation, and make a positive case for why Britain does better by working with its neighbours.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, the trial of footballers Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema began in France. The two players, who are accused of having sex with an Algerian-born prostitute while she was under 18, face prison sentences if found guilty. In a week where my prostitution report (which recommends the Swedish Model) went through the parliament, the Ribery-Benzema case illustrates the need for a change in how we tackle prostitution. The sad fact is that, had the woman in question been a year or so older, it would have been perfectly legal for two multimillionaire footballers in their late twenties to buy her body for sex.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week saw the synod, the Church of England’s decision-making body, vote in favour of female bishops. Having at first been narrowly outvoted in November 2012, plans to allow women to rise to the top level of the clergy were passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday, with only a rump of ultra-traditionalists opposing or abstaining.

The outcome was described as “miraculous” by Reverend Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark. It will now go to a second vote in February 2014, at which it must get a two thirds majority. If passed it could come into effect as early as July, with implementation overseen by an independent regulator.

The vote endorses the ‘simplest possible’ model for women becoming bishops. This represents an advance on last year’s proposals, which had included ‘safeguards’ – such as men overseeing women candidates – to placate traditionalists. That the new, more progressive measures were passed this week has been attributed to a more cooperative climate in the church.

Although I am a humanist myself, I welcome wholeheartedly diversity at the top of the Church of England. Hopefully we will start to see women bishops ordained sooner rather than later.

At present the episcopacy lags behind other institutions. Unlike the boardroom and the front bench, which – in theory, at least – are open to women candidates, the so-called ‘stained glass ceiling’ remains legally reinforced. If the Church of England is to have any chance of being relevant to national life it must change this once and for all in February. As the worlds of business and politics have learnt the hard way, you can no longer connect with people unless you shed the ‘male, pale and stale’ outlook which has for so long dominated the British establishment.

This week also marked Silvio Berlusconi’s appeal case and the ongoing fight for political survival of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Berlusconi’s appeal brought to the surface further details of the ‘bunga bunga’ parties at which he is alleged to have had sex with under-age prostitute Karima El Mahroug. The three-time Italian Prime Minister was sentenced to seven years in June, although he has still not surrendered his political position and many remain sceptical about whether he will serve his time.

Ford, meanwhile, continues to hold onto his role despite allegations of sexual harassment and prostitute use, as well as admitting to taking crack. This week he body-checked a woman to the floor while trying to attack a heckler, yet bizarrely his poll ratings have remained steady.

With political disaffection becoming more common in parts of the developed world, dangerous buffoons like Berlusconi and Ford are often able to sidetrack the political process. We must fight robustly in the UK against their way of doing things – starting with more detailed cross-examinations of UKIP, the current clown prince elect of British post-austerity politics.

Finally, this week saw the revelation that three South London women, aged 69, 57 and 30, have finally been released from 30 years of slavery at the hands of a Lambeth couple. Many of the details are yet to come out, but this is clearly a desperately sad case. The sense of wasted life is hard to believe.

Frank Field has called the story the “tip of the iceberg” and Theresa May says prostitution is “all around us”. For me this issue transcends party politics. We must unite to ensure victims are supported and culprits put to justice.

The issue of Modern Slavery exposes Conservative policy at its most flawed

Labour Party

John Major’s attack on Euro-sceptics as living in “fantasy land” hits on an uneasy fault line. There is a fissure within the Conservative Party, between an aspiration to again be ‘the natural party of government’, and a temptation to fall back on knee-jerk, Tea Party style approaches which win quick votes. At its core this remains a 1980s distinction, between high-handed ‘wets’ and the visceral politics of Thatcherism. This is perhaps why Major’s experiences remain so relevant 16 years on – nothing really has changed. The Conservatives are still torn between rhyme and reason.

This schism is brought into sharp relief by today’s European parliament vote on trafficking and organised crime. MEPs from across the member states have overwhelmingly endorsed recommendations by the Organised Crime committee, following a new report on trafficking networks. The report advocates tougher sanctions and renewed emphasis on improving labour conditions. It also asks for a pan-European public prosecutor’s office, and has drawn calls from trafficking NGOs for a more proactive Europol.

How the Conservatives respond to this will be fascinating. On the one hand Theresa May has made a clear and commendable pledge to end Modern Slavery; on the other she has persistently sought to repatriate judicial and policing powers from Europe and talk tough on immigration. These two approaches are wholly contradictory. They are two dogs, lashed together, which will simply never run in the same direction.

According to the committee’s report there are currently 880,000 enslaved people in Europe – 270,000 of whom work in the sex industry. I know from my own efforts to address sex trafficking that acting unilaterally just isn’t an option when faced with the fluid challenges posed by globalised crime. As the National Crime Agency’s Keith Bristow says, organised crime now operates “in an interconnected world where international borders are much less significant.”

On top of this – as the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster showed – the groups most vulnerable to trafficking are refugees and migrant workers. These individuals need more help from the UK government. Instead, as Walk Free’s Global Trafficking Index reports, the UK’s vulnerability to trafficking is exacerbated by the “incredibly precarious living situation” our asylum system creates for people going through it.

The Conservatives’ hostility to the European Arrest Warrant, Europol, Eurojust, and the European Bill of Human Rights – not to mention their aggressive stance on asylum seekers – therefore fly in the face of all serious attempts to tackle trafficking. Moreover they undermine the party’s self-styled toughness on crime, and make a mockery of any designs their MPs have on becoming ‘the natural party of government’.

In July of this year the Conservatives grudgingly agreed to ‘opt back into’ 35 of the 130 EU Law and Order measures which they had previously withdrawn from, meaning Britain will now, thankfully, retain our involvement in Europol and the European Arrest Warrant.

But we need to go much further. As Anti-Slavery International’s Klara Skrivankova puts it, “The tools are there, but we don’t use them enough. Europol is still seen as a supplementary force – it should be more proactive.” To genuinely take on the scourge of trafficking we must not just pay lip service to Europe, but throw our full weight behind the solutions it can provide. On the issue of trafficking – if on nothing else – we really do need an ‘ever closer union’.

I would therefore urge Theresa May, if she wants to show she is genuine about tackling modern slavery, to set aside her party’s gut impulses for a moment and focus on the real problems the modern world faces. The alternative for the Tories is to succumb to incoherence and allow the brawnier, stupider of the two animals lashed together to lead Britain down an isolationist course which ultimately makes us more vulnerable.