Secret Consultation on ‘no deal’ Kent roads condemned

Secret Consultation on ‘no deal’ Kent roads condemned

MEP slams government secret proposals for unfair sanctions against lorry drivers to Dover

Responding to reports carried by Sky News that the Government are contemplating giving emergency powers to Highways Agency Officers to issue on the spot fines to hauliers with incorrect paperwork in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit, Labour MEP for South East England commented:

“I am alarmed by the reports of secret plans for unprecedented summary powers for traffic officers in Kent in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU without an agreement.

“These are not the actions of a responsible Government. A responsible Government would be ruling out leaving the EU without an agreement. A responsible Government would not be preparing to deal with the food and medicine shortages threatened by the imposition of customs controls at Dover, they would be ensuring that there was no need to do so. This is an admission that Kent faces chaos and the introduction of neo-police state powers with a so-called ‘consultation’ carried out in secret and with ‘non disclosure agreements’ is quite disgraceful."

Sky reports that the Government is carrying out a consultation in secret with Kent County Council and hauliers representatives under non-disclosure agreements.

John  Howarth added:

“I am writing to Mr Shapps calling for full disclosure of these proposals and to Kent County Council calling for their response to be made public. Only then can we judge if such measures are proportionate or are simply part of the Government cranking up its no deal bluff. Nobody voted for this in 2016 and this Government has no mandate for no deal.”

Read the Sky News Report here

ENDS

 

Posted by John Howarth
All change and no change – Brexit can and must be stopped

All change and no change – Brexit can and must be stopped

So it came to pass, as we all knew it would, and the tiny segment of voters who hold Conservative Party cards elected Boris Johnson.

One of the most strikingly accurate portraits of Mr Johnson I read recently came from US commentator Cas Mudde. He compared the latest British PM to Donald Trump. It wasn’t pretty: “Both are loud mouthed, man children, whose professional success is a combination of immense privilege, unscrupulous opportunism and relentless self-promotion,” Mudde said.

We also know that Mr Johnson isn’t a details man. It’s unlikely he had a plan to ‘deliver Brexit’ so he has hired a man who does plans. Dominic Cummings is the former Michael Gove advisor who was ‘let go’ and went off to run the ‘official’ leave campaign. Mr Cummings later admitted that key claims of the campaign he managed were substantially untrue, doubted the wisdom of leaving the EU and was even found in contempt of Parliament for failing to appear before the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Select Committee to answer questions regarding false news during the referendum campaign. This dubious record doesn’t matter to Mr Johnson, nothing seems to, and he has been installed in number 10 as de-facto Chief of Staff with the brief to finish what he started.

So what’s the plan?

The plan seems pretty obvious: crank up the prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union, spend enough time and public money to convince folk that you are serious and so scare/bribe/bully enough MPs into voting for Theresa May’s ‘deal’ retro-fitted in a Johnson sized party frock. Whether that happens by 31 October or at a later date, who knows? If Parliament – where nothing much has changed – doesn’t buy the ‘no deal’ threat a General Election would be sought. In the meantime claim to all and sundry that you don’t want an election – because it will be Parliament that forces that one and it won’t be your own fault and neither would any necessary extension to the UK’s membership should Parliament insist on it.

The usual suspects among the commentariat have lauded Mr Johnson’s ‘brilliant speech’, ‘full of promise’, ‘sharing his vision for the country’, etc. Much focus was on domestic policy. There was a pledge to repair the broken and severely damaged social care system, a commitment to increase expenditure in schools and to the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers (in other words restoring that which has been cut since 2010) within a message targeted at a core demographic that was vital to the leave vote and for a long time now favourable to the Conservatives.

In reality he won’t get to touch any of this unless and until he sorts out Brexit. He promises he can and will deliver it. He promises to take personal responsibility. We just don’t know how he will do it, and beyond the Class A bluster, neither I suspect, does he. Simple questions like 'where on earth the money is going to come from?' are just not being asked.

In the meantime we are being forced to rewind the Brexit argument to a point before the collapse of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. However the truth hasn’t changed. The prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit has such catastrophic consequences for every corner of the United Kingdom and for all of us as individuals.

It is worth briefly reminding ourselves of the prospect:

Transport failures:

British ports will be affected by long delays; this is well known. Kent County Council has warned of the potential ramifications not just for the ports and surrounding areas but also access to roads leading to other parts of the UK. If haulage is affected then the products it’s transporting will be affected too. There is a knock-on effect for the wider economy, inevitably.

Government admitted that UK driving licences may no longer be valid across the channel if the UK crashes out with no deal. In excess of £3.2 million has been spent by motorists on International Driving Permits (IDP) in the last five months.

Food shortages and shopping disruption:

Some 28 per cent of our food is imported from the EU. It is, therefore, highly likely that some food will be delayed due to transport issues. It is inevitable that costs will increase. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, warned our shopping bills could increase by 10 per cent.

Supermarkets have warned that October 31 is one of the worst dates to exit the EU without a deal because warehouse capacity will already be strained due to seasonal stock build relating to Christmas and Black Friday.

Shoppers wishing to make purchases online could face higher debit or credit card charges if making purchases from within the EU.

Medicine shortages and rationing:

The delivery of, and access to, medicines could be interrupted. It is not uncommon for there to be a European wide shortage of a particular drug. If the UK is not part of the distributive system then it cannot expect to be satisfied first. It will be at the end of the queue.

Farming slaughter:

Half of Northern Ireland’s lamb is exported to the Republic of Ireland. The impact of tariffs under WTO rules at 40 per cent isn’t sustainable.

Further, in the event of a no deal, farm leaders warn Government would be under pressure to embrace a cheap food policy. This means the UK would be open to tariff free imports which would undercut domestic production and threaten the viability of many UK farms; particularly small family producers. It has even been suggested that farmers may have to slaughter flocks because there is no practical market for the product.

There is a possibility that the Government might subsidise the industry but this isn’t sustainable and it’s also a waste of public money!

Small business under the bus:

Small businesses may be affected in a huge number of ways. To give one example: the timely delivery of fresh flowers is critical to the florist industry. The majority of cut flowers are distributed from the Netherlands – a delay in their delivery, even by a few hours, will have a catastrophic affect on the florist on the high street. Nobody can sell dead daffs.

Science and research out in the cold:

‘No deal’ excludes British institutions from joint European research programmes and severs their funding streams. It means, coldly and bluntly, that our brightest and the best are excluded from the environment that prevails in any serious scientific environment – a collaborative framework. For medical research it means fewer clinical trials with later access to new drugs and lifesaving treatments.

Travel more expensive:

Mobile phone roaming charges may rise. While some operators have said they don’t intend to change current plans on roaming, there would be nothing now stopping them from doing so.

The Government advises passports should be valid for at least six months at the time of travel.

And even though we haven't left yet ...

These are just some of the potential threats and consequences the UK faces in the event of a no deal Brexit. While emergency legislation passed by MEPs early in the year dealt with some of the most drastic consequences of a disorderly exit (such as the inability of planes to fly or trains to run in the short term) there is no changing some of the fundamental truths – like the limited capacity of a Dover Calais corridor that developed its current shape within a single market.

The sharp eyed will have noticed there is something missing from the bluster – any reality supported by facts, any serious argument beyond ‘believing’. The newly unelected Prime Minister and his henchfolk are shamelessly spending your money telling us everything will be fine while the real economic damage of Brexit continues apace – expect more closures of manufacturing plants in the months before October.

No sign of a fat lady

The argument for a Brexit of any sort was long since defeated, but now must be won again. A Government constructed around a ‘no deal’ policy is one without a mandate. It was not what was promised, it was never on the ballot and it is a disastrous course for the future of Britain and its relations with its neighbours and allies. The  ‘no deal’ fantasy is the result the failure to define any kind of Brexit that works. It is the only common denominator for the Brexiteers. In the Johnson ‘do or die’ project 'no deal’ is the crowbar to force a deal and so to rescue the Conservative Party.

We face a summer of propaganda at public expense devoted to the project. We have no option but to fight the battles again and to re-win the arguments and ensure that Parliament asserts the real national interest, but beyond that there is an argument to be won with the people – and to do so the sub-Churchillian rhetoric of Mr Johnson needs to be exposed for what it is: the Emperor’s New Clothes of a narrow patriotism of nostalgia. The alternative must be the patriotism of partnership that flickered brightly at the Summer Olympics of 2012 too soon to fade into the mire of austerity.

It isn’t over. I still can’t tell you how it ends but I do know it has to be and can be stopped.

Posted by John Howarth
Labour MEPs – action against anti-Semitism

Labour MEPs – action against anti-Semitism

The following statement was agreed by Labour MEPs concerning the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. John Howarth MEP endorses the statement and has also signed the statement by Tribune Group Labour MPs at Westminster.

 

Statement from Labour MEPs on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party:

"At a time when anti-Semitism is rising across the EU, it is deeply worrying and upsetting that as Labour politicians we are being asked by colleagues from our sister parties to explain what is happening within our own party on this issue. While Labour points to the action that has been taken, it is clear that is widely perceived as insufficient in dealing with the problem.

"It is also worrying that the reaction within the Labour Party when concerns have been raised has sometimes been to question the motives of those making allegations. We must be clear: this is a problem that exists and must be addressed urgently and decisively.

"It is distressing that political opponents are able to exploit this issue and do so. This problem is weakening and undermining Labour’s cause to counter hate, racism and discrimination in society, in all its forms. Political opponents and others are only able to criticise Labour on this because there is an undeniable problem that must be addressed urgently.

"Vigorous action is now required by the Labour NEC to reassure and rebuild trust with the Jewish community and beyond. This must include provisions for immediate expulsion from the Labour Party in the most blatant prima facie cases, and a fully independent complaints process that can be judged free of political and factional interference. Labour's response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation must be shared in full with the NEC.

"All victims of racism must be heard and supported, and concerns of staff, former staff and others heeded. Those staff who have spoken out must not be subject to legal proceedings.

"We support the Jewish Labour Movement and others demanding prompt and decisive action. Labour MEPs stand with our sister party colleagues in fighting intolerance and injustice across Europe. We must therefore also be willing to challenge it at home, and sadly, even inside our own party."

ENDS

See also John's article on the need for action and the new anti-Semitism in Europe

Posted by John Howarth
Von der Leyen and EU Democracy

Von der Leyen and EU Democracy

This week in Strasbourg (14-18 July 2019) saw the conclusion of the first part of the European Union’s ‘transition’ from one administration to the next. The UK media rarely explains how this all works. It’s not really that complicated – so here’s a quick explanation of what has happened and how.

The European Union has three Presidents: the President of the Parliament, akin to the Speaker of the House of Commons and elected by MEPs; the President of the Council, appointed by the member states, to speak and negotiate on their behalf; and the President of the Commission; the effective boss of the Commission - the EU’s civil service, who is nominated by the Council and ratified, or not, by MEPs.

The Parliament President, a lot like the Speaker of the Commons, tends to alternate between the largest two parties in the Parliament. This time the Socialist and Democrat Group (S&D) had its turn; both the Peoples’ Party (Christian Democrats - EPP) and ‘Renew Europe’ (the Liberals Re-branded for the benefit of President Macron) declined to put up their own candidates. Three other groups, however, did - so there was an election by secret ballot. The S&D candidate, David Sassoli, was a few votes short of the 376 necessary (50% plus 1 of the MEPs) but made it on the second ballot. The Green candidate, the popular German, Ska Keller, did well on the first round but not well enough - the first ballot is a sort of ‘tone in the water’ vote where MEPs express a view. The rules allow new candidates to come in at the third ballot if nobody has a majority. Elected MEPs elected their President – for some reason Ann Widdicombe thinks this is undemocratic.

The Council choose their own President. It has been till now a former Prime Minister of one of the member states - the last was Donald Tusk from Poland, the next will be Charles Michel, a Liberal from Belgium. Elected governments nominate and elect their President – for some reason Nigel Farage thinks this is undemocratic.

The Commission is more complicated. The President serves both the Council and the Parliament, Commissioners act as 'honest broker' in negotiations between two. These are the famous ‘unelected bureaucrats’. Except these days they are not unelected. Only the elected governments of the member states acting together have the right to nominate. To succeed their nominee must then get a majority (376) of MEPs voting positively in a secret ‘approve of reject’ ballot. If the candidate is rejected the Council nominates a new candidate. For the first time in 2014 the ‘spitzenkandidate’ idea was introduced to create a more direct link between the voters and the top job. The ‘lead candidate’ from the group gaining the most seats in the Parliament would put themselves forward as Commission President and attempt to get the approval of Council and a majority in Parliament.

All this was great in theory. The 2014 election produced a fairly clear outcome from which Jean Claude Junker was installed despite shouting from the sidelines by David Cameron (one of his many mistakes). The 2019, however, election produced an unclear outcome where the EPP lost seats and hold a relatively narrow lead over S&D with the Liberals/Macron centre block gaining ground. The EPP lead candidate, Manfred Weber, a charisma free German from the mildly eccentric and rightist CSU - the Bavarian ally of Frau Merkel’s CDU - failed to get approval in Council and was not going to get a majority in Parliament either. Logically, the nomination would have gone to Franz Timmermans, S&D Netherlands Commissioner. Timmermans, popular, charismatic and highly skilled, had a good chance of getting a majority in Parliament but had made key enemies in Eastern Europe where he had led the ‘Article 7’ procedure seeking to act against the authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland (two of the four ‘so-called’ Visigrad countries) who accordingly blocked his nomination but importantly seven governments in addition to the Visigrads were opposed to Timmermans.

To break the deadlock Ursula von der Leyen ‘emerges’. This is convenient for lots of reasons – a German for a German, EPP for EPP, something Merkel and Macron can agree upon and, importantly for many, the first woman to lead the Commission. Unanimity (or at least without opposition) in the Council and it is over to the Parliament.

Issues clearly existed around VDL: her reputation as a minister in Germany is not great; she is perceived to be ‘on the right’ of German politics; she was not a spitzenkandidate; she isn’t a sparkling orator. Others however argued her merits: ability to compromise; some landmark legislation under her belt in Germany; the more than symbolic importance of female leadership (and the question of whether or not a man would be subject to such a critical eye – remember Jean Claude Juncker was the leader of a country, but a country the size of Cornwall).

Before the Parliament votes on the Commission President there are two weeks of hearings and effective negotiations about the President’s programme for the Commission. In this period VDL had to construct a majority in the House. With the far right and far left blocks voting against her, and the EPP and RE backing her, the decision depended upon the Greens, S&D and the ‘national Conservatives’ of the ECR. VDL initially appeared to be tilting right but produced a programme with a range of concessions to S&D and climate policy. As usual the Greens choose purity over engagement and quickly determined not to back VDL, however the ECR, now dominated by the governing Polish Law and Justice party, took offense over VDL’s commitments on rule of law, environment and her willingness to offer Franz Timmermans the first Vice President job with his choice of portfolio, so declined to give their support. The decision depended on S&D which split but just enough VDL’s way to give her a wafer thin 9 vote majority.

That’s not entirely that. VDL now has to produce a Commission around a clear work programme that gets the approval of Parliament in the autumn. Battles lie ahead, not least over populist and national conservative nominations (each country nominates a Commissioner). It has to be expected that one of more will be ‘negotiated’ out of place but the entire Commission could yet fail to be ratified. This observer considers that unlikely.

Had VDL failed to gain Parliament’s endorsement it would have sent several messages: first, a powerful democratic statement – not only could the EU’s directly elected institutions wield a punch, they could be seen to defend an agreed process; second, European Parliament Elections would have been seen to be meaningful; and third, the appropriate judgement would have been issued to the ‘continuity candidate’ of the Junker Commission. On balance this was an approach I could have supported, recognising the risks. EPLP Leader, Richard Corbett MEP explains why UK Labour MEPs took the other course here.

However, the very valid question had that been the outcome would have been ‘what happens next?’ It would be entirely wrong to conclude that rejecting VDL would have breathed life into the corpse of the Timmerman’s candidature – not a chance. The uncomfortable reality that many in S&D just can’t see is that the Socialists lost the elections too. At present the left is just not strong enough in Europe to foist its candidate on an unwilling centre-right. In the Council the Visigrad bloc and assorted populists remain a reality; the left, despite its Iberian victories, remains historically weak. Despite having a good and able woman as Commission VP in Mrs Vesthager, the liberals already had a nominee as Council President, so without undoing the entire package the undoubted reality would have been another EPP nominee.

Another set of approval hearings and renewed courtship of the political groups would have followed and, having failed to win by being seen to court the left, the new EPP candidate would have been obliged to tack right. Either way the rejection of VDL would have left Europe embroiled in weeks of infighting and uncertainty. In the context of huge uncertainty in the UK, with convulsions over Parliamentary sovereignty and election of Boris Johnson, it was important that there was some stability at least in the leadership of the EU. It was in nobody’s interest to have an extended crisis of leadership during this already precarious time for the UK and the EU. At Westminster this seemed to be the view of the Labour front bench as well as of both Tories and Liberal Democrats.

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission, although contentious, demonstrates that democracy is alive in the EU – despite its critics. She won by 9 votes and it could easily have gone the other way. It was a compromise, of course, but then it always is, and in a situation where there is no majority for a single group, has to be. Any left of centre nominee would also have to make compromises to gain a majority. The result also denied the far right having the ‘success’ they would undoubtedly have claimed.

So we have, subject to confirmatory vote, the first woman President of the Commission and the S&D group has, ironically, demonstrated clear influence in a Parliament where they form an essential part of any legislative majority.

Posted by John Howarth
Change law to make EU voting easier

Change law to make EU voting easier

John Howarth MEP has called for a change in the law to simplify electoral systems. The change would help EU citizens living in the UK to vote in European elections avoiding the chaos that denied many a say at the polls this year.

In May, many EU citizens were turned away from polling stations unable to vote, while Britons overseas protested that their ballot papers only showed up in the days before or did not show up at all. A legal challenge is bring mounted by citizens around Europe who recently met with Labour MEPs (pictured top).

He told the European Parliament changes are needed at EU level to avoid the confusion which barred those residents outside their home states from voting.

John says:

“This was an important milestone in the development of European democracy. But I am concerned to learn of citizens from other EU member states who are resident in my constituency who were denied the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

“While the logistics of exercising a vote in more than one member state may theoretically be possible, it is practically ridiculous - so the measures that are currently in place do nothing but make it more difficult for EU citizens living outside their state of citizenship to vote. The extent depends on how the member state implement the rules. The change I'm proposing would matter to EU citizens all over Europe whether or not the UK leaves the European Union. Democratic politicians should be making it easier for people to vote but in too many places, the UK in particular, it seems governments want to make it more difficult.

"A simple form held at polling stations would allow citizens to declare their intention to vote in the member state of residence and not their state of citizenship.

"At present the law requires citizens to make a declaration of intent "in good time" before the polls - in other words fill in an additional form to other citizens. It isn't difficult, but it does get forgotten and is in the way of participation to no real effect. The move would also help UK citizens living across Europe"

 

Posted by John Howarth
Deadlock in Strasbourg? Let’s hope not

Deadlock in Strasbourg? Let’s hope not

“The EU is a Super State, the European Parliament is a talking shop and the Commission is run by unelected bureaucrats”. We’ve heard it all a thousand times from anti-European politicians  of different stripes over the past 30 years.

The facts are quite different: the EU is a club of member states and is staying that way for the foreseeable future, the European Parliament has been a legislative chamber and budgetary authority for some time and the Commissioners are appointed by elected member state governments with the President coming from among the lead candidates (spitzenkandidaten in Euro jargon) put forward by the various political groups in the European Elections. Of course the system is far from perfect - what system of governance is? - but it has evolved and will evolve further. The so-called ‘democratic deficit' is nothing like it was in the earlier years of the EU.

Who succeeds Junker?

The retiring Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, was the first to be appointed from among the lead candidates. He represented the European Peoples’ Party (the centre-right Christian Democrats) which was at the 2014 European Elections the largest party with the largest vote and the most seats and so was able to gain a majority in the Parliament. Despite that the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who some readers may remember, decided Mr Juncker was ‘unacceptable’ and opposed his election in the Council (the member states) which approves the appointment for the President. This was a ridiculous fight for Mr Cameron to pick - not just because he was certain to lose but also because, having gone on for years about the need for the EU to become more democratic, it was self-defeating not to welcome even an imperfect process that links the EU’s top jobs to the voters.

The European Elections of 2019 saw a significant increase in turnout across Europe, with 51% of voters going to the polls across the 28 member states. The EPP, while remaining the largest party by a small margin, lost support and seats to the extent that it looks highly unlikely that their lead candidate, Manfred Weber, can gain a majority in Parliament for the Commission Presidency. Mr Weber, from the Christian Social Union (the rather more right wing Bavarian partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU), was a controversial and not especially popular choice among the EPP not least because it is a fact of European Parliamentary life that appeal beyond one’s own political family is an essential part of a majority. Reduced to 24.2% of the seats the EPP cannot seriously expect to have things all their own way. Worse for Mr Weber is that he doesn’t appear to have the support among the member states to force through his election.

Manifestly competent alternatives to Weber

What happens next is a key test. If the first lead candidate cannot gain a majority in Parliament, then it must be open to others to try to gain that majority. The second largest group, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in which I and the other Labour MEPs sit, put forward Frank Timmermans, from the Netherlands where the S&D parties topped the poll. Mr Timmermans has not only been manifestly competent as first vice-president of the Commission, but he has the possibility of winning a majority in the House. He is also, importantly, a polite and businesslike man who is also a friend to Britain. The third group of Liberals and Macron-centre, formerly ALDE, now RE, hedged their bets putting forward ‘“a team” (in other words they probably couldn’t agree) which included the excellent Competition Commissioner from Denmark, Margarete Vestager - their de-facto lead candidate. Unfortunately for her, her aggressive (and entirely justified) pursuit of anti-competitive IT giants and opposition to key mergers in the manufacturing sector has probably made her too many enemies.

Elections must mean something

I and other S&D MEPs take the view that the new Commission President should come from among the lead candidates if any can gain a majority in Parliament - the graphic at the top shows how complex that could prove. If none can then perhaps another compromise will have to be found but in Strasbourg at the Parliament’s first session the democratic process must be given the chance to deliver consensus. The EPP must accept that topping the poll in a proportional election doesn’t give you the right either to appoint just who you want to whatever you want or to rip up the lead candidate process. Equally the member states should accept that elections have to mean something - so imposing their choice just won’t do. Posts like the Parliament President pose similar issues to the Commission President and are equally open to argument  All this has the potential for deadlock and delay - which would be a great pity as there is so much urgent work to be done.

 

For those interested there is more on the Spitzenkandidaten process and the Flourish Data visual above here 

 

 

Posted by John Howarth
The 2019 European Parliament Election in the UK

The 2019 European Parliament Election in the UK

A landmark result and a real setback

The predicted headlines came to be printed. The ‘Brexit Party’ had swept to victory. Nigel Farage had ‘won’ the 2019 European Parliament Election. The stalled project of national self-harm was confirmed as the ‘will of the people’. Britain had voted for Brexit again.

Or had it?

Once the facts are analysed only the most superficial reading casts the result as an unequivocal endorsement of Brexit. However, not for the first time the reporting of a UK election result was pre-conceived, shallow and inevitably misleading. What really happened in the 2019 European Parliament Elections was quite different to the shallow propaganda of the pro-Brexit press. The calm voice of psephology among the headless chickens, Professor John Curtice, summed it up like this:

“Alas, ... care and circumspection ... sometimes seemed in rather short supply in the immediate wake of the declaration of the results as those on all sides of the Brexit debate attempted to argue that the results showed that most voters supported their outlook on Brexit. They could not, of course, possibly all be right.”

So what really happened?  And what does Labour need to do to win back the votes it has lost?

Facts and Fictions

Both the Faragistas and the Remainiacs (for want of a better term - more on that later) set out to play the European elections as a ‘proxy referendum’; Farage had been peddling his betrayal narrative since shortly after the polls had close in then 2016 referendum. Sadly the Liberal Democrats chose to play the Brexiteer game and positioned themselves as the ‘remain’ option in the proxy plebecite. This position suited Farage but was always a flawed strategy for remainers because, well, it wasn’t a referendum.

  • Referendum: binary question,
  • EP elections: multi-party, proportional choice. Not the same.
  • Turnout at the 2016 referendum: 72.2%. Turnout at the 2019
  • EP elections: 37%. Just over half. Not the same.

There may have been only one reason for voting for the Brexit Party, but hard though it may be for some to understand, there were more reasons for voting Green, for example, than their opposition to Brexit. Equally, not everyone who voted Conservative did so out of enthusiasm for Mrs May’s failed settlement. There was, however, only one reason for voting for the Brexit Party. So while the results tell us something about the support for ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ positions they are indicatoras rather than conclusions.

So what truths do the numbers tell us?

Remain parties outscored Leave Parties

In a proportional election voter loyalty to the big UK parties is weakened. Unlike ‘first past the post’ there are few, or at least many fewer, ‘wasted votes’, so the ‘no point in voting Green/LibDem/Labour/Tory’ argument doesn’t really apply. Accordingly voters are much more likely to reflect their view through the ballot box rather than vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ a Government or opposition.

As a result ever since the proportional-ish system replaced the single constituency system in 1999 each European Parliament election has brought out those most opposed to the EU while those who don’t really care that much have stayed at home. For opponents of the EU and/or Britain’s membership the EP elections were not about deciding how the EU should be run but to vote against Europe’. In 2014 UKIP, knawing at votes of the other parties, topped the poll.

In 2019 the Brexit Party would reasonably claim that a vote fo r them was a vote for Brexit. It is also fair to assume that the residual vote for UKIP 1.0 is a vote for Brexit, along with those for fringe far-right elements in various regions. Less reasonable it the contention that a vote for the Brexit Party is a vote for a ‘no deal’ exit - it is hard to argue that some Brexit Party voters at this election would prefer to leave with a deal but were expressing frustration that the UK had not yet managed to leave the EU.

On the other side of the fence the only reason anyone was given to vote for the Liberal Democrats was to “stop Brexit”. Their positioning was voting LibDem = voting remain. While it is true there were reasons other than opposing Brexit to vote for the Green Party, the demographic of their vote is firmly ‘remain’ - it is reasonable to count their votes as anti-Brexit. Change UK made ‘remaining’ their reason for existence, so they have to be counted with the remain total. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland have consistently adopted a remain stance (though SF had argued support for Mrs May’s settlement) .

On this basis the (Brexit Party, UKIP and the DUP) garnered 5.9 million votes (34.9% of the vote). The ‘remain’ parties (LibDems, Green Party, Change, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and others) totalled 6.8 million (40.4% of the vote).

It is pretty hard for Mr Farage to claim that the vote for his UKIP upgrade has a clear meaning while more votes for people clearly opposed to his view somehow has none. Whatever else Britain voted for it clearly did not vote in favour of leaving the EU without a deal.

This remains true when Labour and Tory votes are added

The Labour and Conservative parties suffered badly and their vote shares, already diminished by the effects of proportionality, were squeezed hard by the ‘proxy plebecite parties’. The most logical interpretaction of a Labour or Conservative vote at these elections was that those voters are just supporters of those parties who just always vote that way. This doesn’t mean they didn’t necessarily believe Brexit was important, just not as important as supporting their party.

So while on the face of it might seem reasonable to assume that the Conservative vote was a vote for Mrs May’s version of Brexit, in reality many of these voters simply always vote that way - they would split in favour of Brexit, certainly, but not entirely.

Evidence suggests that voters deserted Labour for the LibDems, the Greens and to a lesser extent the Brexit Party. Those who stayed with Labour did so largely because they were Labour voters come what may. We know from consistent polling evidence that Labour’s vote splits heavily in favour of ‘remain’ but again not entirely. Precisely because these voters are ‘core’ voters - they are the most likely to follow the lead of their party come another referendum. Whatever machinations may yet go on it is hard to see in the case of a second vote the Conservatives now calling for anything other than a Brexit vote and Labour calling for anything other than remain. For this reason as much as any it is a reasonable assumption that these core voters largely cancel each other out otherwise could be counted Conservative for ‘leave’ and Labour as ‘remain’

On this assumption in Great Britain the ‘leave’ parties totalled 42.5% and the ‘remain’ parties 53.7% (the other 3.8% being made up of fringe outfits and Northern Ireland (which was and is clearly pro-remain). The mean of Great Britain 55.8% leaned toward remain and 44.2% toward leave - a swing of 7.6% from the referendum on a much smaller turnout but nonetheless looking rather like much of the recent opinion polling.

Farage did not win as big as he wants you to believe

The performance of the Brexit Party itself compares poorly with the post-election bombast of Farage. The Brexit Party vote was 30.5% of the turnout - only 3.9% higher than UKIP 1.0 in 2014. Adding in UKIP 1.0 at 3.2% that came to an increase for the ‘hard Brexiteers/‘no dealers’ of 7.1%, yet the Conservative share was down 14.3% - so where did the other half go? Clearly not to Labour, but to Change, the LibDems and the Green Party - explicitly pro-remain parties. So despite this ‘great betrayal’, the detox of UKIP 2.0 and the single policy, the Brexit Party and UKIP managed to get 5.8 million voters - just one in three of those who voted  to leave -  to ‘tell them again’. 12% of the electorate - equivalent to roughly 18% of the referendum turnout - is just not an endorsement of anything.

In every region of the UK the ‘leave’ parties polled a lower combined share of the vote than the share ‘leave’ reached in the 2016 referendum. In several the outcome tipped from ‘leave’ to ‘remain’ - Wales, North West, South West and South East England. In only Scotland and North East England was the combined vote of the right of centre parties (Brexit, UKIP and Conservative) higher than that at the 2014 European Elections.

By no credible criteria was the 2019 European Parliament election a vote of confidence for Brexit. There are now 39 MEPs supporting a public vote with the option to remain and 34 supporting Brexit. Once again, not what anyone rational would call ‘winning’.

The Brexit Party’s 'success' has already shifted the Tories further right

However perceptions are often more important in politics than reality. The narrative of a Brexit Party victory and a Brexit frustrated electorate driving Conservative defeat in local elections has certainly helped to drive the Conservatives further toward a ‘leave at any cost’ position. The perception, aided by the volatile evidence of Westminster opinion polls, that the Conservative Party faces electoral oblivion should it ‘fail to deliver Brexit’ has spooked the Conservative centre and emboldened the right. It has also given Mr Farage leverage over the party many of his former UKIP 1.0 members have re-joined or infiltrated. Now he threatens de-selections, electoral opposition and vote splitting. Boris Johnson, strengthened by ‘no dealer’ entryism, makes a naked appeal to the party interest over the national interest in his leadership pitch. A deeper examination of the results of 27 May seems to have eluded most Tories caught like rabbits in the Brexit Party headlights or prepared, according to internal surveys, to sacrifice many a former sacred cow on the alter of Brexit.

What drove the result?

Brexit Party: An effective strategy

Let’s not underestimate what Mr Farage pulled off, with a little help from some exceedingly gullible journalists. As an exercise in ruthless political re-engineering it was remarkable, as a branding exercise stupendous, and the clarity of the message pretty much faultless. The Brexit Party campaign was as good as Labour’s was bad. As a comms guy/strategist/marketeer/spin doctor of 30 years (choose your epithet/insult as you wish) I have to take my hat off to them. None of this, however, changes the reality. It does not make them right, or good, or rational or anything really other than UKIP gone to rehab. Control of the message is easy when you don’t engage, gaffs are easy to avoid when there is only one face to keep on message, policy is beyond scrutiny when there isn’t any policy to scrutinise, members don’t embarrass you when there are no members, and as for sitting MEPs - why on earth should they get to play (other than the odd one or two). All this suits Mr Farage, noticeably reluctant to share the limelight at the best of times, down to the ground.

It also passed off largely without challenge. ‘A party set up only five weeks ago’ - technically true, but really just a re-brand of UKIP because UKIP was always just Nigel and Nigel was always UKIP. When Andrew Marr provided some semblance of challenge it was dismissed by Farage as ‘proof of BBC bias’, when Channel 4 exposed Mr Farage as “a kept man” once again he didn’t engage, when questions are raised about murky finances they are dismissed by Mr Farage because ‘people don’t care about that stuff’. So the spectacle of a bunch of rich men passing themselves off as ‘anti-establishment’ continued as the same old piss in a shiny new bottle. Underperformance is easily dismissed as in any case ‘remarkable for a party only five weeks old’, etc - expectation management and spin.

Tories: Chasing Unicorns

Aside from paralysis and panic the debate among Conservatives has been taken backwards in the aftermath of 27 May. The contest for the conservative leadership boiled down to two candidates conducting a bidding war over UK public policy and the Brexit settlement. After a baffling array of incompetents and oddballs were whittled down both of the final candidates promised both deal and no deal to their potential followers. They each promise that by charisma, determination, smarm or just by asking nicely some kind of ‘better deal’ with the EU27 can be produced after the failure of Theresa May to do exactly the same thing on a timescale universally accepted by anyone who knows as utterly ridiculous. The notion is entirely absurd yet, having been proved as such, is being rolled out again.

Einstein’s observation that madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is not just part of the UK’s malaise, under the Conservatives it has become public policy.

LibDems: The national by-election

The Liberals, their Alliance with the ill-fated SDP and their LibDem successors were most successful as the recipients of protest votes at UK parliamentary by-elections. This came to a screeching halt after their coalition agreement with the Conservatives in 2010. The European Parliament Elections of 2019 saw them fighting a by-election on a national scale. Without doubt the LibDems spotted the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves with an electorate sceptical of their broken promises an long-term support of the economic austerity of the Conservatives. It was fought with a clear, simple message despite their self-evident inability to deliver their promise to ‘stop Brexit’.

In England, the LibDems did best in strong ‘remain’ areas, eating heavily into the Labour vote. However, it is worth noting that these areas tended to have something else in common - they did best in areas where they had a presence on the ground - those parts of the country where they gained heavily in council elections four weeks previously. In those areas where the LibDems have little organisation the ‘remain’ vote stayed with Labour in greater numbers. This by-election on a grand scale, was one where the chattering classes chattered that ‘this time everybody is voting LibDem’.

Chatter was a factor - but less so where the LibDems were not organised. The very fact that Brexit has been constantly in the news meant that people were talking about the elections. The turnout was up 1.4% on 2014 - which was co-terminus with local elections in much of the UK - and this for an election which was not meant to happen and where MEPs were not meant to take their seats. The Green Party did proportionally better where they had previously failed to trouble the scorers - the north and midlands of England, but may have done better had they not struggled against the LibDem assertion to be the vote to ‘stop Brexit’. Fishing in the same pond were Change UK, of which little should be said other than it is fast becoming a textbook study of how not to launch a political party.

Labour: Unfinished business

Labour’s share of the vote fell by between one third (in London) and by two thirds (in Scotland) from the last European Elections. Labour seemed to hold its share most effectively where its ground organisation was strongest (and conversely the LibDems weakest) and where the black and ethnic minority vote was most significant. In Scotland, comparison with the last European Election is not equivalent to England and Wales because of the post-2014 referendum legacy. Labour, while facing a squeeze from both sides post-election polling (asking people how they voted rather than how they intended to vote) shows that Labour lost only a small share to the Brexit Party and massively more to the LibDems and Green Party. It should be noted that Labour has always lost support to the Green Party in European PR elections but rarely to the LibDems.

Labour’s problem was political. While it is true that it is a great deal easier for a minor party to make a promise it can’t actually keep on something like ‘stopping Brexit’, Labour’s NEC, who set the policy for the election, failed for whatever reason to grasp the obvious - that there was simply no political space for Labour’s position of ‘bringing the country together’ as the voters believe there is unfinished business. Under such circumstances to fail to complete the move toward a re-consideration of Brexit was electoral suicide. Labour’s dilemma ahead of the next General Election is well summed up by an activist on the campaign trail who said to me while pointing at LibDem posters:

“We had wiped out the LibDems round here. They’ve not been seen for years - now look, they are back.”

The problem is when people stop voting Labour it is often a challenge to get them to start again.

Where that road map when you need it?

The elections scared the Conservative Party and, if anything, seem to have made it even more pro-Brexit and near enough guaranteed a hard Brexiteer in Number 10.  For Labour the outcome was a major defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. As things stand neither Government nor Opposition looks capable of winning an election with anything like a convincing share of the vote. The consequences for the UK of a Government that patently lacks public support and moral authority thrown into Downing Street on the back of the quirks of first past the post are potentially very serious. All that probably means an election is less likely than many observers surmise.

But when the election comes it will still be fought under that maligned and discredited system and it is essential that a real choice is put before the country. For first past the post to work it requires two large broad coalitions providing that choice. To recover from its worst result in 100 years Labour needs first of all to listen to its voters and to restore the faith of those members who have remained on board, though I fear in truth it may be too little, too late. If Labour is to come through this the only possible road is to support the public vote on the Brexit settlement, argue remain and reform. If that is beyond some in the high command then they need to move over for someone who can do so convincingly. Without this neither the party nor the country will be able to move on.

The election was a step on the road the Brexit Party are treading - it was a battle in the greater war of winning the real second referendum. They saw and understood the opportunity and they took it. Farage has already said he would work with Johnson in a no-deal electoral pact. However the outcome also showed that Brexit - the concept not just the Party - can be defeated.

Furthermore, the elections fractured the de-facto remain alliance that had developed since the 2016 referendum. The Liberal Democrats were prepared to sacrifice that to restore the electoral fortunes of their party. Their objective, reasonably accomplished, was to harness the ‘remainiac’ vote - they were not changing minds, merely providing an outlet for frustration and self-righteousness. The fact, however, is that minds need changing and the way the Liberal Democrats go about the issue turns off all but the most convinced.

But despite the short-term success of the LibDems, their resurgence won’t and can’t ‘stop Brexit’. Something more and something less arrogant is required. So painful as it may be that alliance must be repaired and a strategy for winning a public vote, rather than just fighting for one, implemented - and fast. That strategy must go beyond feel good statements and flag waving toward taking on the problematic notion of how we see ourselves as a nation in 2019 and debunking the concept that Britain ever won anything by ‘standing alone’.

 

Photo: campaigning in Brighton during the campaign that never was.

Posted by John Howarth
Dealing with anti-Semitism must be Labour’s next step

Dealing with anti-Semitism must be Labour’s next step

We were campaigning at a street stall in Canterbury. I was in conversation with one of the many Labour voters doubting their support for the Party in the European Parliament election. I caught a man speaking as he walked by to one of my team who looked surprised. She later told me the man had said to her, “Sorry, you don’t want to talk to me, I’m Jewish.” In my 45 years working for the election of Labour representatives it was a new low.

Last week the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a Labour creation, commenced a statutory inquiry into the ongoing issues of antisemitism that have dogged the Labour Party and led to a situation where Labour is perceived by many as an institutionally anti-Semitic organisation. Opposing discrimination was a fundamental principal of the Labour Party I joined. It was also the Party that the Jewish people I knew and knew of largely supported. Over the years the paces forward down the long road against discrimination and toward equal treatment had more often than not been made by Labour governance. I have often cited these steps as the Labour achievements of which I am most proud, because they are the embodiment of social changes that last. Now I find myself deeply ashamed of the mire into which my Party has slid.

For Labour to once again become credible as a party of government it must address the contamination of its politics by anti-Semitic tendencies and the failures of leadership that have destroyed our credibility over this issue.

The new anti-Semitism

Everything takes place in a wider social context. Eighty years after the holocaust the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Europe is once again apparent. In this alarming climate, we need a Labour Party credible in fighting anti-Semitism - at present it is not.

Nothing stays the same, while crass vandalism against synagogues and graveyards occur again and anti-Jewish graffiti appears, the new manifestations of anti-Semitism are often less blatant, more insidious, more difficult to identify. In an excellent report launched at a conference in the European Parliament during my first term by Austrian S&D MEP Josef Wiesenhalter set out the features of this new anti-Semitism and the conclusions should be taken seriously by all democrats. In the case of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem a key element has been the conflation of the actions of the government and state apparatus of Israel in relation to the Palestinian people with Jewish people and individual Jews. Unless we make this simple but fundamental distinction, we slide very quickly into dangerous territory. It is quite simple to oppose the injustices inflicted on Palestinians without doing so in an antisemitic way.

However too many on the left have failed in this respect. The dubious maxim of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has too often led individuals on the left to make the wrong decisions in associating with reactionary regimes and extremist organisations. The failure to criticise or distance themselves from unacceptable language and forms of political action have undermined the ability of Labour leaders to deal with instances of anti-Semitism. Cloaks of anonymity in the online world have enabled antisemitic individuals to place themselves within currents of the left formerly well beyond the Labour mainstream and to spread hatred. These, I still believe, are the actions of the few and are not representative of ‘the left’ but inaction by ‘the left’ has unfortunately been seen as acceptance.

Failure to act

When the problems surfaced Labour’s leaders failed to meet the test. The response had to go beyond process - it required strong individual action, high profile direct opposition to online anti-Semitism that said ‘not in my name’ but it didn’t happen. A history of keeping the wrong company made that difficult but it should not have made it impossible. As politicians we appear in lots of photographs and we attend lots of events without control or knowledge of other attendees - it happens, but when it happens regularly and systematically it’s a true sign of a problem. Politics also necessitates talking to ‘the wrong people’ - but there are ways and means of going about it. None of this should have been a barrier to stamping out the problem early on - the failure to do so, and instead the production of a report commonly seen as a whitewash, instead gave the impression of not wanting to address the problem clearly or firmly and that the view that ‘there are no enemies on the left’ prevails at the highest level. The suspension of NEC member Pete Willsman following an outburst meeting the definition of anti-Semitism now accepted by Labour after a self-harming process of delay and indecision would confirm this failure. Mr Willsman was supported by the Momentum organisation in his successful election to the NEC despite a similar outburst in a move that signaled tolerance of anti-Semitism and manifest double standards.

Moving beyond the climate of fear

Travelling around South East England in the recent election campaign and talking to hundreds of Labour activists it is clear that a climate of fear now exists within Labour. The notion of Labour as a ‘broad church’ is self-evidently under threat and does not form part of the thinking of many who see themselves as supporting the current leadership. Whether it is online trolling, threats of politically motivated deselection of hard-working representatives or spiteful removal of long standing lay activists in CLP posts the message is clear - comply with the regime or face the consequences. Long standing members appalled by the anti-Semitic acts of the very few. The EHRC investigation must have evidence and must be seen to call to account the failure to act as well as direct involvement. To fail to act is a failure of leadership and that means on a local level too. It is in the clear interests of the current Labour leadership for the EHRC investigation to produce clear and decisive conclusions that enable Labour to move on from this untenable position. I will be submitting a statement to the investigation from a European and regional perspective. If individuals in the CLPs of South East England have evidence that they wish to submit but feel intimidated I would urge them to supply material through my office.

 

Posted by John Howarth
What now for Brexit?

What now for Brexit?

The pending resignation of Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party and, subsequently as Prime Minister is a key event in the Brexit process.

While any attempt to revive her long dead ‘deal’ and drive it through the Commons had only stood a chance of success in her own irrational thinking, her resignation effectively ended that process, at least for now. The fact remains, however, that the ‘deal’ represents the only offer that the EU27 are likely to make given the ‘red lines’ put in place by the UK Government. The coming to office of a new Prime Minister of itself changes nothing. The EU remains a rules-based organisation, the ‘red lines’ define what is possible within those rules and the land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland is a conundrum that will continue whatever decision the Conservative Party makes.

So what might happen from here on in? First there is the question of timetables (I've been banging on about this to whoever might care to listen since the latest extension was announced). Ever since it became clear that the UK would be unable to make an orderly exit from the European Union on 29 March it has been clear that the period that would follow was fraught with difficulties for any new negotiation based on different pre-conditions (for it is evident to all but the foolish that no other circumstances merit a renegotiation). The 8th Legislature of the European Parliament finished its session on 19 April in Strasbourg mean that there was no practical mechanism for the ratification of any withdrawal agreement and necessitating European Parliament Elections. This also represented the practical conclusion of the current European Commission’s term in office. The President of the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ these days being effectively elected by the voters in the European Elections and the remainder being subject to ratification hearings by the new Parliament in September and possibly October. Though the mandate for Brexit negotiations is strictly a matter for the Council (the member states) the difficulty during the EU’s transition process is obvious. The Conservative Party, having concluded it’s member ballot in July (and it doesn’t look as if it will simply be a matter of acclimation this time), the will remain little or no time for a new Prime Minister to engage with the EU27 negotiators before Brussels begins its summer recess and the UK conference season is upon us following which October is upon us.

The impracticality of the timeframe leads many to speculate that a Prime Minister elected on a ‘no deal’ prospectus will have to do precisely nothing to succeed in ‘crashing’ the UK out of the EU on 31 October. While in theory this is possible and the UK Parliament would, again in theory, have no binding method of preventing such a course, it should be born in mind that same Parliament has decisively voted against a ‘no deal’ exit and any Prime Minister would be risking losing a vote of confidence by defying the will of the House and The Speaker has already indicated that it is inconceivable the Commons would not express its view on the matter once again.

Predictions of what, exactly, will happen are therefore as foolish as ever, but there are a number of possibilities:

The new Conservative leader is a Brexiteer who seeks to crash out the UK and succeeds. The future course of UK politics in these circumstances is unclear but the probable disruption to domestic life renders an early election less likely.

The new Conservative leader, despite being a Brexiteer, is thwarted by the House of Commons and is forced to seek a new extension to Article 50 from the EU27.

or

The new Conservative leader favours an orderly exit but is forced to seek a further extension either simply because of the practicalities of the timetable or to facilitate a new negotiation on different pre-conditions.

In either case there is now considerable doubt over whether a further extension would be granted by the EU27. Much would depend on the position taken by the President Macron who, without an election in the offing, may choose a more conciliatory approach. Either way the most likely extension date would be 31 December 2020. This has always been the practical option for the EU27 as it brings the UK to the end of the current seven year budget (MFF) period (the rationale for the end of the formerly proposed ‘transition’). If this is the course of action agreed an early election is once again, given the volatile state of the polls, a less likely option.

Finally, there is the possibility that the newly chosen Prime Minister succeeds where Mrs May failed and gets some cosmetic variation of the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons either through the fear of the political consequences of not doing so, the fear of crashing out or on the promise of ripping up the political declaration and unilaterally negating the backstop arrangement for the border in Ireland (and in the process violating the Good Friday Agreement). Should this be achieved the new Conservative leader would undoubtedly go to the country as soon as the dust had settled.

For what it’s worth, which is probably not very much, I regard these three scenarios as more or less equally likely. What I believe, sadly, has become much less likely, though not impossible, as a result of the dynamic of the European Elections, is a public vote on a final deal (the position I favour and for which I will continue to campaign). This would effectively be a subset of the second option – a further extension. While it still represents a practical route out of the mire and it necessary to gain acceptance within the UK of any outcome, the use of the vote as a political weapon in the European Parliament Election campaign was a major strategic error that will result in more intractable positions by key players in the two large Westminster parties who may now be inclined to back any orderly exit.

The waters of Brexit are as muddy as ever and with every test of public opinion the political stakes are raised further. The elections may be over for now by Brexit will remain unfinished business until the Autumn and would continue to dominate the public discourse well beyond any potential exit.

Posted by John Howarth
Thank you and sorry …

Thank you and sorry …

Following the close of poll and prior to the count for the European Elections on Sunday 26 May 2019 I wrote the following letter to Labour Party members in South East England thanking them for their roll and support during the campaign and addressing a number of important political issues that had arisen over the previous month.

Numerous members had raised questions about the conduct of the campaign during visits and in correspondence that I felt it inappropriate to go into in any depth during the election but who I felt were owed an explanation – at least as far as I could give one.

The reaction I had from members was largely positive across different currents of thought in the Labour Party. A sizable minority did not agree with my view, nor seemingly my right to express a view at all. Of them I would ask, if the worst Labour result in 100 years is not the right time to raise questions about the conduct of a campaign then when, exactly, is?

Rational readers will note the wording in paragraph 5 below and the reference to ‘leaderships’ of various political shades (1). Equally, the response from some to the point in paragraph 8 about the peddling of falsehoods was to peddle further falsehoods.

If Labour is now so fragile that it cannot tolerate criticism, then many of my points below are entirely proven.

Photo: above, campaigning in Brighton with No2 candidate, Cathy Shutt.

 

Thank you ...

First let me, on behalf of all ten of us on the South East England list for yesterday’s European Elections, say thank you for the hard work and support we received from Labour Party members across the region. Members do not have to work in elections, they are volunteers who do it because they believe it to be right. So thank you.

Second let me personally thank the other candidates on the list for their support, loyalty and enthusiasm in the face of very difficult circumstances. Your support was invaluable and you gave 100%. I very much hope the experience will reward you in years to come.

... and Sorry

Unfortunately, both the other Labour candidates and party members deserved better in this election. They all deserve an apology.

Had Labour’s ‘high command’ set out to lose an election they could not have gone about it in a more convincing way. These elections were there to be won, that victory was squandered and a key opportunity to stake a claim as the party of government in waiting was lost.

Time after time Labour has approached elections to the European Parliament as an inconvenience and, in an approach symptomatic of the UK’s dysfunctional relationship with the EU, sought to fight on domestic issues - ‘vote Labour for the European Parliament to put more bobbies on the beat/save the NHS’, or some such implausible rot. This is nothing new. It happened under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and now the current regime - in every case it was an insult to the intelligence of the voters and below par results followed as night follows day. It is simply not possible to fight a different election to the election on the ballot paper.

Labour’s NEC had plenty of warning, from MEPs, from polling data, from evidence of the last general election and from the local election results only three weeks ago, of the likely consequences of adopting an equivocal policy on Brexit not based on seeking to remain in the EU (2). Nonetheless come the NEC meeting to determine our election policy, what should have been a discussion about what were the best tactics to win an election became a skirmish in Labour’s internal war that ‘the leadership’ could not be seen to ‘lose’. From that point the die was cast. I and other Labour MEPs and MPs continued to receive right up to polling day messages from Labour members and supporters who intended to support other parties on 23 May. I received several hundred such messages - a lower proportion than many of my colleagues, but alarming nonetheless (I attempted to reply to everyone with a reasoned argument as to why this was a mistake - some I talked round, others not. I also received messages from some supporting ‘leave’ - but very few).

It isn’t that Labour’s message of ‘bringing the country together’ isn’t needed, simply that the country doesn’t seem ready to come together - Brexit is unfinished business. As such it was either phenomenally naive or utterly mendacious to put in place a policy that would knowingly lose votes in remarkable numbers.

From there on the party machine sought to close down any deviation for the suicidal central message. In an unprecedented decision the General Secretary was appointed agent for the entire country (1). At all other EU election since regional lists were introduced Regional Directors have been agents. They managed the desire of CLPs to promote candidates and help win the elections. The spending limits for these elections are huge, easily capable of accommodating local activity aimed at enhancing the campaign. This time spurious legal grounds were used to clamp down on local activity and even additional union assistance. The much derided nationally produced leaflets which carried no mention of a ‘confirmatory vote’ were presented to MEPs as a fait accompli that was “already at print” - this turned out to be untrue but it shows how the campaign was run. The eventual product was no better. While it was frustrating to be fighting an election with hands and feet bound and with Labour staff in apparent opposition it is not the fault of junior staff or middle managers - responsibility lies elsewhere.

Where from here?

Labour has lost a great opportunity and, over the past year, a great many members. By failing to listen to its supporters in the country who are ever more heavily ‘remain’, to the overwhelming bulk of its members, to the majority of its MPs and MEPs the Party has brought on itself an electoral humiliation at a time when the Conservative party is woefully divided and manifestly incompetent in Government. An open goal has been missed.

The absurd aspect of this is that Labour failed to capitalise on the credit it would otherwise have been due for fighting off May’s awful deal and backing a public vote with a whip and 84% of its MPs that it would otherwise have been given.

Sadly for many local parties who had spent time and effort since the days of the coalition removing the LibDems from their towns this campaign has allowed them back - not just into Conservative heartlands but to ours too - in particular to those ‘new’ heartland that produced such great numbers of Labour votes in 2017.

It is unclear how Labour will move on and recover from this position. Whether or not we retain Labour representation in the European Parliament for South East England is far from clear. As for a General Election - I would say, not for the first time, be careful what you wish for.

So once again I say thank you for the support I have received over the past two years. And apologies that you did not get the message or the campaign you deserved - it was not for the want of trying.

I hope I will be able to continue to serve.

All the best

John Howarth MEP.

 

(1) I wonder, from the tone of some replies, if they had read the original letter at all. It is fair to say that the HuffPost reporting of my words was considerably more sensational than the original.

(2) I and a number of others wrote to members of the NEC putting the case for a clarification of Labour's policy for the elections and the likely consequences of taking any other course. For information my representation is reproduced here:

(3) It is only fair to point out, as I had forgotten, that while the GS had not before acted as Agent for the whole UK , in the 1999 elections Alan Barnard, the then Head of Elections, did so. So perhaps not entirely without precedent, however, Mr Barnard described this as “the single most stupid decision I made while working for Labour”. It is also fair to add that in 1999 local parties had considerable latitude in helping promote candidates. It remains Labour’s best result under proportional representation.

 

Posted by John Howarth