Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

This week saw Conservative MEPs vote against a Europe-wide initiative to provide aid for those struggling with food poverty. The £3 billion EU fund, known as ‘European aid to the most deprived’, would have sent £3 million in the direction of Britain. The choice to try and block the fund was made on the grounds that “It is not for the EU to dictate…how to help the needy. Individual countries must be allowed to decide for themselves.” It left the Tories among a tiny rump of MEPs voting against, making the Coalition the only European Government to oppose the fund.

With the Tories under pressure to address the explosion in the number of food bank users since they’ve been in office, their approach to Tuesday’s vote baffled many. It comes at a time when pressure is building on the Coalition to address the food poverty crisis, with religious and third sector organisations condemning the effect welfare cuts are having on UK rates of poverty. This week Richard Howitt, my Labour colleague in the European Parliament, called the Tories’ decision to vote against the fund “heartless and callous”.

Blocking European Aid is just the latest in a string of instances which have seen Conservatives adopting indefensible positions in the name of Euroscepticism. Before Christmas they blocked the Estrela report – a strategy to, among other things, end FGM – and they have also obstructed the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, a market-based solution to environmental challenges. They’ve done so on the grounds that endorsing such plans would represent a concession to the EU. This is despite the government’s Balance of Competences review so far finding that the weighting between EU powers and domestic autonomy is roughly right.

David Cameron’s increasingly hostile noises about the EU appear to have been taken by Tory MEPs as a license to indulge their most reactionary instincts. They do this irrespective of morality or the UK’s national interests. As a result we are approaching a state of Tea Party-style fanaticism among some on the British right in Brussels; a new and virulent brand of Euroscepticism. It’s vital that those of us who support the EU do not allow this self-defeating ideology to triumph.

Also this week, UKIP’s Spring Conference was overshadowed by the embarrassing revelation that Nigel Farage’s campaign slogan – “Love Britain: Vote UKIP” – was a rehash of a strapline used by the BNP. Nick Griffin’s far right party campaigned under the same banner in 2010, using the wording “Love Britain: Vote BNP”. The comparisons did not appear to end there, with Farage using his “Love Britain: Vote UKIP”-branded plinth to launch an excoriating attack on immigration, which he claims has made Britain “unrecognisable”. When the BNP link was pointed out Farage argued, bizarrely, that he’d been trying to ‘reclaim’ the slogan.

So far Ukip have resisted calls from the European far right to join ranks. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have both attempted, unsuccessfully thus far, to reach out to Farage, pointing out the common ground their respective parties share with his. But with UKIP MEP Gerard Batten’s ties with the far right attracting increasing controversy – not to mention Farage’s recent admission that he supported the “basic principle” of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of blood’ speech – the overlap between UKIP and the extreme right is becoming hard to disguise.

To avoid a return to the ugly politics and racial tensions of the 1970s Labour must contest UKIP’s narrative every step of the way.

Tory MEPs oppose LGBTI and Women’s rights (again)

Labour Party

A version of this piece was originally posted on LabourList last week. It was co-authored by myself and Michael Cashman MEP.

Tory MEPs showed their ugly side again last week – the anti-women, anti-choice, anti-LGBT dimension to the party which David Cameron tries so hard to shield from public view. They packed in behind UKIP to oppose a range of progressive measures on sexual and reproductive rights, health services and education, and the combating of sexual orientation and gender discrimination.

The measures were designed to provide adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services which are in accordance with age, maturity and evolving capacities – and which do not discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status, disability, or sexual orientation. They underlined that sexual education should be non-discriminatory towards LGBTI persons, and stressed that sexuality education must fight against stereotypes and prejudices. In addition, the report said countries should facilitate safe and non-judgemental access to STI treatment, and should have effective inclusive health strategies for HIV prevention, removing laws that penalise and stigmatise those living with HIV.

The proposals also called for access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to be non-discriminatory and for women to have the right to choose the size and spacing of their family. They asked for sex education to “include the fight against stereotypes, prejudices and violence against women”, and to “shed light on and denounce discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation”. They called on national governments to ensure women who become pregnant as a result of rape can have unrestricted access to an abortion with full legal and health safeguards. Moreover, they stressed that coerced sterilisation and female genital mutilation represent breaches of human rights, and called on Member States to abolish any existing laws that allow such medieval practices.

These are measures which most sensible people can surely agree with. They protect women and LGBTI people, and focus on creating healthcare systems which safeguard the needs of young and in some cases vulnerable people in an effective and non-judgemental way.

So, following on from October’s shameful scenes – which saw the Tories siding with far right parties like the BNP – it was vital that  the draft Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights report went through successfully last week.

Yet thanks in part to Tory votes, it was not passed. Instead it was amended and blocked, with nearly 90 recommendations replaced by a watered down resolution. That Conservatives were among those responsible for this shows that the ‘nasty party’ is still alive and well.

At the moment approaches to birth control, contraception, family planning and sex education vary wildly across Europe. This means young LGBTI people and women in many parts of the EU are not given the information or the options necessary to make the best choices. We in the UK have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe – something which has a knock-on effect for our economy and for the wellbeing of our young people – so this is not an issue we can afford to treat lightly.

One need only look at Finland, where sex education and emergency contraception helped drastically reduce unwanted pregnancies, to see the value of giving women control over their bodies. The enlightened, liberal values which lie at the heart of the European Union are the same values which argue in favour of women being able to choose and of LGBTI people have the right to exist in a safe and open-minded world.

David Cameron’s MEPs are, yet again, failing to stand up to discrimination, and are instead reinforcing prejudice and patriarchy. As Edite Estrela, the author of the report pointed out, they have won the battle but not the war. In so doing they have put themselves on the wrong side of the LGBTI and women’s rights debate, and on the wrong side of history.

The tobacco lobby’s delaying tactics gain traction in Strasbourg

Labour Party

Delaying tactics by right-wingers during the plenary session in Strasbourg last week have jeopardised the European Parliament’s bid to make it harder for cigarette companies to recruit underage smokers.

A vote on the Tobacco Products Directive had originally been planned for the September session, but it was delayed for a month following representations from MEPs on the right – including Tory and UKIP politicians.

The Directive is a response to calls from the World Health Organisation. The proposed legislation asks for cigarette packs to be 75% covered by health warnings – a measure which has been proven to discourage child smokers. It also restricts access to ‘slim’ cigarettes and those with flavourings, and brings in security measures to prevent illicit tobacco sales.

The decision to postpone the vote is part of a sustained effort by the tobacco lobby and right-of-centre politicians to stall progress. With the EU Presidency passing to Greece, a notoriously lax country when it comes to tobacco, in June and elections taking place in spring next year, they hope to filibuster the directive out of existence.

A lot has been made of the pressure exerted by cigarette companies, and in particular by Philip Morris International. I am not adverse to companies making their case (up to a point), and neither am I deaf to the arguments against the Directive. Like many in the Labour Party I have spent most of my career trying to strike the best possible balance between regulation and free choice. I know it is never easy. The job losses it has been suggested the Tobacco Products Directive will bring are small – around 2% at most – but not completely insignificant.

But what I do object to are tactics which push back decision-making indefinitely, and an approach which doesn’t engage with the issue, but instead looks to avoid the democratic process through obstruction and delay.

My own position is clear. I believe the health benefits of this Directive outweigh the economic counter-arguments. 70% of young people begin smoking while they are underage, and child smoking is currently on the rise in many EU Countries; every day in the UK 570 people aged between 11 and 15 start. This is an area where Europe lags behind other parts of the world, and one where action is clearly required.

The proposals in the Directive steer clear of products like cigars, which have an adult market. The focus is not on grown-ups making informed choices, but on young people who are being deliberately targeted. ‘Slims’, for example, are mainly bought by teenage girls who have been persuaded that smoking them is ‘elegant’.

Ultimately I think public health and the economy should be pulling in the same direction. Sacrificing the former in exchange for the latter can only bring about very short-term goals. In the end, I believe, a healthy society is a prosperous one.

I understand and welcome the fact that there are people on the other side of the argument who feel differently. But I ask that they vote accordingly when this issue next comes round in October, rather than once again throwing it into the long gr

The Tory-led Coalition goes against Tory MEPs on food labelling

Labour Party

 The British government today went against their own Tory MEPs and decided to recommend the ‘traffic light’ system for food labelling to retailers and manufacturers in the UK.

It is tragic and to our great shame that obesity rates are higher in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. One of the ways to help tackle this very serious problem is to make sure that consumers have clear and honest nutritional labelling which enables them to make healthier choices when they do their shopping.

The ‘traffic light’ labelling system colour codes the information making it easier for consumers to assess and compare products at a glance. This should help all of us make more informed decisions about what we eat.

Labour Leader in the European Parliament, Glenis Willmott, who introduced the new system, commented, “It’s just a shame that the Tory MEPs weren’t so constructive when food labelling laws were being discussed in the European Parliament. I put forward proposals for traffic light labelling to be used on all processed foods, but these were vociferously opposed by Tory MEPs.”

Glenis also made a commitment to continue to push for red, amber and green ‘traffic lights’ on all processed foods sold in the EU.  Glenis is absolutely right in believing that some of the big multi-national food companies will only change their ways when they are told that in order to sell their food in the world’s biggest trading bloc, they have to be honest about what is in it.

Although it is the case that Glenis Willmott was unsuccessful in getting mandatory traffic light labelling for all processed foods agreed by the European Parliament, I understand that the European Commission made a commitment to revisiting the idea in the near future.

The Tories’ Real Record on Women’s Rights

Labour Party

I have been reading with some amazement recent statements on women from senior Tories, in particular David Cameron and Theresa May.  In David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party spring conference last month, he emphasised how “family-friendly” his party’s manifesto would be with the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Last week Theresa May used the occasion of International Women’s Day to make a “pledge of support for women” in the Guardian online pages. 

All fine sentiments, but female voters beware!  Beyond Cameron and May’s words, there is little sense that there is any support for such policies in the core of the Tory party, or little evidence that the party leadership have the will to implement them.  Indeed, as I have blogged before, the voting record of Tory MEPs on women’s rights issues since David Cameron became leader is appalling, and exposes the fact that really nothing has changed in the Nasty Party.

For example, in 2006 Tory MEPs voted against a Report on combating violence against women, which included provisions on making rape within marriage a criminal offence, eliminating female genital mutilation, and encouraging cross border cooperation on so-called “honour” crimes, all matters mentioned by Theresa May in her Guardian article as commitments of a future Tory government. 

Yet it seems her MEPs do not share these concerns.  As recently as 2009, the Tory MEPs abstained in a vote urging member states to improve their national policies on combating violence against women, where the importance of recognising rape within marriage as a criminal offence was again underlined. 

On childcare, the EU adopted Employment guidelines as part of the EU’s Growth and Jobs strategy in 2008.  These guidelines included targets for flexible working, and access to childcare, surely a key element of Cameron’s pledge of the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Again, this failed to get the Conservative MEPs’ backing.

In February of this year, the Tories voted against a report which included provisions on the need to tackle the gender pay gap – another issue Theresa May purports to be in favour of – and to link maternity and paternity leave.  The Tories in the European Parliament explicitly disagreed with the call to establish paternity leave across Europe, and against linking paternity and maternity leave to ensure fathers are able to take time off as well.  The report in question also contained a provision on one of David Cameron’s priority policies, combating persistent sexist stereotyping and degrading images.  Again the Tory MEPs voted against.

David Cameron said last month in his speech that as a parent he “dreads switching on the television and being bombarded with commercial messages”.  However, in 2008, the European Parliament discussed the issue of advertising and stereotypes in the media.  Member States were urged to ensure that marketing and advertising did not uphold discriminatory stereotypes, and consider the impact of advertising on children and teenagers’ body image and self-esteem, and yet 15 Tory MEPs still managed to vote against this measure.

I continue to be amazed at the disingenuousness of Cameron’s approach.  If he and his party were serious about family friendly policies and women’s rights, they would not let their MEPs vote so brazenly against these reports which recognise the importance of these issues. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, with a general election drawing near, the Tories suddenly remember that they need to try and appeal to women, who do make up over 50% of the electorate, but I would urge female voters not to fall for these well-scripted sentiments, when time and time again it can be shown that they are not supported by the Tories in any way that matters.

Cameron further weakens Tory influence in Europe

Labour Party

As predicted, the Tories are starting to feel the full consequences of David Cameron’s withdrawal from the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).  Though I thought the days of reckoning would start sooner, it’s all now catching up with the British Conservatives.  As a result of his ill-advised move to leave the EPP, a pledge made solely to further his ambition to lead the Tory Party, David Cameron has had no choice but to use force (metaphorically speaking) against his local government representatives in the Committee of the Regions (CoR) to make them leave the mainstream EPP Group against their collective will and sit on their own. 

Last week, the Tories in the CoR,  a consultative body made up of councillors and other elected members from regional and local authorities across Europe, sensibly struck a deal to remain within the EPP, despite the withdrawal of the Tory MEPs from the Group.  (Parties in the CoR are organised in the same political groupings as the European Parliament).  Being part of one of the mainstream Groups obviously has important advantages in terms of funding and influence, as Tory MEPs are now finding.  The Tory leader in the CoR, Gordon Keymer, explaining the deal, said that “if a member does not belong to a political group it is much more difficult to work effectively” and “the staff in the political group offices are crucial to the success of members of the Committee of the Regions and have helped me immensely in my work.”

Cameron has now run roughshod over this pragmatic agreement and seemingly forced Kaymer and his colleagues to leave the EPP and sit on their own. 

As a substitute member on the European Parliament’s Regional Affairs Committee, I am fully aware of the important role that the Committee of the Regions plays in ensuring that local regions have a strong influence on EU policy.  Cameron’s move will hugely diminish the ability of regions in the UK represented by Tory councillors to influence European proposals. 

The only alternative seemingly open to the Tories is to copy their MEP colleagues and open negotiations with more dubious individuals from the fringes of European politics with a view to creating a new Group.  But as the Tories should now realise, alliances with such people do little to enhance credibility or clout on the European stage.  Given how difficult the Tories found it to form the ECR in the European Parliament, it would probably be impossible to do the same in the Committee of the Regions.  Thanks to David Cameron their only long term option is isolation.

David Cameron has yet to justify his move, and I will be interested to see how he can possibly do so.  Make no mistake, this is another act of political posturing by Cameron which shows he has no regard for the views of members of his own party, or for the best interests of the regions, communities and the British people represented in Europe.