Brexit: Labour’s second chance

Brexit: Labour’s second chance

Despite the ‘untidy’ edges, Labour has emerged from its conference with an essential element of its Brexit policy now firmly in place. The commitment to put whatever a withdrawal agreement might be to a public vote is the right approach to the current crisis. Late to the party Labour may be, but still better than not getting there at all.

The facts are clear: the experience and outcomes of the Brexit negotiating process has been at odds with the promises made by the Brexiteers - both during and after the 2016 referendum. Theresa May declared Article 50 with no plan to speak of. She sought a mandate for her ‘hard Brexit’ strategy and the electorate denied her. A politician with antenna for the public mood would have sought consensus. Head she done so there is little doubt that the UK would, by now, have left the Union. Instead Mrs May sought to placate her right flank coalescing with the DUP’s minority view in the north of Ireland. The outcome, given the self-imposed UK Government ‘red lines’, was inevitable, the hunt for unicorns and probable retreat to a ‘single market’ solution buried in the political declaration - or not. An exercise in walking the plank blindfold awaited.

The collapse of Mrs May’s administration took the process even further into the Europhobic vortex with the ludicrous notion that the only ‘true Brexit’ is the complet severing of ties with the EU. No mandate for ‘no deal’ exists. The suggestion that this was the true intent of those supporting the ‘leave’ option in 2016 is absurd in the extreme.

At present these two options are the only outcomes on offer short of cancelling Brexit altogether. As none of the fundamentals have changed any ‘deal’ presented by Mr Johnson’s administration can only be Theresa May’s ‘deal’ in a blonde wig. The notion of revoking Article 50, as espoused by the Liberal Democrats, is seriously problematic. It may make great petition material and it may suit the personal view of a substantial cross-section of the country but it is simply not sustainable as a public policy. The Liberal Democrat’s would contend that they would Revoke Article 50 if they  were to achieve a majority at a General Election - somewhat unlikely. Their real objective is a repeat of their European Election strategy - the harvesting of the firmest supporters of remaining in the EU to their banner. Critically, this divides supporters of remaining in the European Union and dilutes support for putting the real Brexit outcomes to the test. You have seriously to ask yourself whether or not the Liberal Democrats are remotely serious about ‘stopping Brexit’ or whether their real agenda is simply to rebuild their vote.

Mr Johnson for his part would love to exploit this division. The not exactly subtle plan of the shadow PM, Dominic Cummings, was to lose in the Commons and seek a General Election believing that the opposition parties had no option but to follow. Their attempts to bring on a General Election were rightly turned down by Parliament. The priority for Mr Johnson is to squeeze support from the Brexit Party and thus benefit from first past the post to defeat a divided opposition despite diminished Conservative support. While they rightly see their best option as an election following a UK exit, their next best choice is to present to the electorate as the ‘no deal’ party promising to ‘deliver Brexit’. Either way, understand Mr Johnson’s strategy as being about salvaging an electorally viable Conservative Party from the ruins of Brexit - whatever it takes. The problem is that elections are inexact, while a ‘Brexit election’ is all very well it would inevitably become mixed up with issues of leadership, policy and fitness to govern. It is highly debatable if an election will produce a clear mandate.

The question now facing Labour MPs is how to act. The distant prospects of public votes and caretaker governments are less unlikely than before Mr Johnson’s assent and declared intent once again to break the law over a crash out exit in defiance of the will of Parliament. The UK’s constitution of precedent and legal safeguard is being seriously tested. Mr Johnson has been shown too willing to put that settlement at risk. It is almost certain that his removal will be a necessary step.

Though far from ideal, in these circumstances the best tactic for Labour and for the country is a public vote on the Brexit settlement. Messy as this might be there is simply no other way to reconcile the country to accepting the outcome. Even were such a vote to result in another vote to leave it would be better than the present situation where either half the country or before long all of the country will be utterly unreconciled to the outcome. There are risks but the balance leans heavily in favour of injecting accountability into the Brexit process and determining what ‘the will of the people’ might be in 2020.

Nonetheless, desirable as a second vote may be, it may prove democratically impossible to deliver in any satisfactory way. Labour may face an election very soon, before Brexit is resolved and will need to deal with the reality that Brexit will distort all possible outcomes. In those circumstances clarity will matter. To repeat the mistakes of the European Election would be seriously damaging to Labour and disastrous for the country.

Posted by John Howarth
LP Conference: Artifical Intelligence Pop-up Discussion

LP Conference: Artifical Intelligence Pop-up Discussion

No jobs, no skills, no control - how do we challenge the Artificial Intelligence dystopia

Impact of Automation

  • In 2018 PWC argued that AI would create slightly more jobs (7.2m) than it displaced (7m) by boosting economic growth
  • PWC estimated about 20% of jobs would be automated over the next 20 years and no sector would be unaffected
  • The extent to which jobs created by AI would outweigh those lost is disputed
  • Data suggests that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed over the last 140 years
  • Census results in England and Wales since 1871 suggest the use of machines has been a job creator rather than making humans obsolete

Luddites of the 1800s worried about the impact of weaving machines, today taxi drivers are concerned by the emergence of self-driving cars, the overall impact on the jobs market has been progressive. One of the biggest impacts has been to low-skilled workers forcing them to retrain. But the creation of alternative forms of work, the rise in productivity and the boost to the economy that technology brings, provides some compensation.

Case study – Autonomous vehicles (AV)

Research by the University of Oxford and Deloitte predicted more than 850,000 public sector jobs could be lost by 2030 through automation. The manufacturing sector is set to be badly hit, a quarter of current jobs could be lost by 2037, a total of nearly 700,000 jobs.

Driverless vehicles pose specific risk. Estimates show 1.2 million people could lose their jobs to automation. Those affected inlcude taxi drivers, delivery van, lorry, or waste removal truck drivers. In the UK alone, there are 400,000 HGV drivers, over 600,000 couriers, and there almost 300,000 licensed taxi drivers.

While ‘traditional’ driving roles may decline those previously in that role may be able to move into other forms of associated work such as maintenance of vehicles, loading products into vehicles and customer services.

AVs may have positive net economic effects, but close monitoring is required to mitigate negative impacts. The redistribution of employment will disproportionately impact lower-skilled workers.

Displaced workers may spill over to other low-skilled occupations, creating downward pressure on wages, exacerbating inequality.  The European Parliament’s report on Autonomous Driving in European Transport seeks to ensure a just transition for workers whose jobs may be transformed or disappear due to automation, offering them every opportunity, through upskilling and retraining initiatives, to acquire the skills and knowledge they will need, as well as support during labour market transitions.

Utopia or Dystopia?

AVs could transform huge swathes of our society

  • Self-driving cars will drastically reduce the need for car parking, as they will circulate in cities between passengers
  • Multi-storey car parks could be transformed into homes, offices or public spaces
  • Homeowners could convert their garages and driveways into green space or living rooms
  • Out-of-town pubs and restaurants could enjoy a boom
  • Harder to reach places become more accessible
  • AVs could bring the added benefit of increasing transport links to rural areas, shortening lengthy - and expensive - commuter times that are barriers to employment, and regenerating areas that have fallen behind larger cities
  • City and suburban streets could be reclaimed. Streets could be narrowed, no longer needing to accommodate parked cars or provide space for careless drivers
  • Roads could also be free of ugly road signs with lines a thing of the past
  • Cityscape and rural views would be improved. In an automated world, vehicles can drive much closer together, operating in a train mode and exchanging information along the way. This will increase the efficiency of current highways and could also reduce the need to build more roads

There is, however, a much darker side linked to other social changes – the gig economy, ownership vs hire and alternative power sources. The transportation sector has already seen steady growth in ‘non-standard employment’. Instead of being hired full-time, permanently, paid to do a certain job, more and more non-standard positions such as owner-operators (people who are nominally independent but still very much work for an ultimate employer) exist: think Uber and Deliveroo.

At present, this transformation manifests itself in a battle for employment rights or greater regulatory oversight, but disputes between regulators and advocates of the sharing economy could, in the future, be irrelevant.

The safety, regulatory issues and the enormous amount of investment required for infrastructure around AVs means these changes will not occur imminently, but fundamental questions are raised about:

  • the type of world we want to live in
  • how we adapt to the changing nature of society and our economy
  • how we prepare, plan and regulate for the eradication of most driving work
  • how we actively manage the space freed up by a reduction in conventional automobile travel

The answers to these questions are the key to ensuring a ‘just transition’ that ensures those working in jobs that are lost to AI are helped to reskill and find alternative work.

The European Union is a leader in research on robotics and AI. Together we can find the resources for solutions to the social, ethical, legal and economic challenges that these new challenges raise. The EU can legislate on the ownership of vehicles, software and data; ensuring that access to mobility is in the hands of everyone, not just the tech-giants and car manufacturers.

As Progressives we must shape the debate so that humanity is retained, individuals have choice and autonomy over our own lives, collective ownership of the vehicles and democratic decision making over public space is assured.

Posted by John Howarth
How do I fight Brexit now?

How do I fight Brexit now?

Fighting Brexit and especially a No Deal Brexit is the most important challenge for everyone committed to social progress.

We all know that there are huge challenges facing our country in the face of such dreadful incompetence and danger to our economy.  My preference for a way forward would not be for a General Election, which carries huge risks for us, but rather another Referendum and a positive campaign to Remain in the EU.

And everyone can do something to help stop this madness. Sorry if I’m teaching people to suck eggs but not everybody is a whizz on social media for example.

Choose any (or all!) from the actions below:

Join the march for a People’s Vote in London on 19 October

This will be HUGE – it is a great chance to send a very clear message to the government, right after the EU summit, that another referendum is a solution to the chaos. There will be a large left bloc organised by Labour for a Public Vote and Another Europe is Possible amongst others and coaches travelling from many parts of the country.

Talk with your friends and acquaintances

Many people who voted leave have doubts about Brexit - they need to know they are not on their own.  Our membership of the EU covers many complex areas and no-one can be an expert on them all.  But there are some good guides around to make you feel more confident of the facts such as and

Prepare yourself with counter arguments against the major myths and propaganda (lies). The £350 million on the side of the bus isn’t the only promise they have ditched. Also, you can find information about EU spending in your local area here.

Importantly, think about the one or two things that are most important to you about being in the EU. We all talk most passionately about what interests and concerns us most. Share your passion!

Write to your MP expressing your views

Even those hard Brexiteers who are unlikely to change their minds on Brexit, should never be able to say (with honesty!) that their constituents don’t write to them on the subject. Know your target – if your MP has been working to block a No Deal for example, thank them and find some common ground that may help persuade them to support another referendum.  There may be issues that you know your MP cares about personally or will affect a large number of their constituents. Always say how leaving the EU will affect you and people like you.

Keep writing to your MP as events unfold

whether that is to thank them (again!) for voting the right way in parliament or when a news story breaks that is particularly relevant to their constituency.

Write to the letters page of your local paper

They do like and print stories that have a local significance and it is important that any pro-Brexit comments are rebutted. For local newspapers, send the letter a week in advance of publication – it's more likely to get published since newspapers start the letters pages early in the subbing cycle.

Join phone-ins on local and national radio stations

Again, it is important to ensure that airtime is not left to the Brexiteers.

Sign up to pro EU campaigns

The Love Socialism group of MPs are fighting Brexit within Parliament and Labour for a Public Vote
are working hard to influence policy. As well, there is the
Labour Movement for Europe (which is a Labour Party affiliate) Remain Labour and Labour Against Brexit,  also cross-party groups like Another Europe is PossibleBritain for Europe, Best for Britain and the campaign for a People’ Vote who are organising the London rally. It is certainly worth signing up to the People’s Vote daily e-newsletter

Use social media

Keep the conversation going on twitter for example. Use popular # hashtags where people are conversing on a topic. Use @ mentions if you want to direct something to someone’s timeline and which will show up in their notifications eg @BorisJohnson. There is a useful guide here.  Retweeting is simple and quick and you can comment, add hashtags and @mentions to widen the conversation. If you use Facebook make sure you follow relevant groups to gain useful background material and information.

I hope that gives you something you feel able to do. Thanks for wanting to join the fight.

Posted by John Howarth
Tough Choices for the Italian Left

Tough Choices for the Italian Left

In the right wing/populist coalition formed after the Italian general election of 2018 Mateo Salvini’s Lega (formerly the Northern League) held half as many seats as Movimento 5 Stelle. Despite this the major beneficiary or the coalition was Salvini who was appointed home affairs minister in a government headed by independent Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte. Lega rose to around 38% in the polls while M4S fell back to around 18% - more or less swapping places on their general election performance.

16 months after the formation of the coalition Salvini brought the government down on the assumption that fresh elections would return Lega as the largest party and him as head of government. The Italian constitution does not allow for a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, the only alternative to elections was another government with a formal coalition agreement.

M5S chose coalition with Partito Democratico (the Italian Socialist and Democrat party) with Giuseppe Conte continuing as Prime Minister. The tough choice faced by PD was to go into government with a party that has till now been a hostile rival or, despite their own recovery from their poor showing in 2018, force elections that would result in a Salvini led alt-right government. It’s fair to say that there was no good outcome, but PD made the choice of keeping Salvini out and giving themselves the opportunity of eroding Lego’s support before the next election. M5S, who had been Salvini’s ‘useful idiots’ and, in the European Parliament, the enablers of Farage, faced the choice between a ‘left of centre’ alliance around some of their policies or certain defeat at the polls.

The success of the new coalition will be important to the future not just of Italy, but to the whole of Europe. It would be wrong to assume that there is great enthusiasm from PD for the coalition government but no PD MEP is telling us that the prospect of an early election was desirable. The Italian constitution does not allow for a Westminster style ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement so it was a straight choice between a coalition and an election with Salvini/Lega on 45% and therefore a government without any ‘moderating’ influence. While, like me, you may struggle with the notion on Silvio Berlusconi as a ‘moderating influence’ that illustrates just how bad the situation had become.

The conditions set by PD for a coalition made a commitment to Italy’s place in the EU, respect for representative democracy and action on climate change central and, despite predictions of failed talks, brought an agreement with M5S who were given the better desks and higher profile roles. Both the coalition parties have divisions, but M5S has always been a loose alliance held together ultimately by its constitution as a private company that talks a good democracy but is somewhat limited in its internal accountability. Nonetheless, the parties around the conventional centre need to address the state of Italian politics that brought M5S to prominanace. It is hard to argue that the M5S satirist founder Grillo did not have a point about the system when such a high proportion of Italian parliamentarians have criminal convictions of one sort or another. Ironically, this element of the M5S programme prevents Grillo himself from being a candidate.

Nothing in the Italian situation is ideal. One PD member put it thus: “Better PD is in coalition with a party that has been enabling facists than being in opposition to a fascist government”.
What is clear is that there is an opportunity to re-position M5S and move them, and more importantly their supporters, away from Lega. The early indications are that Salvini overreached and has damaged his standing. Lega have fallen back sharply in the polls. In the longer run nobody can say how this will turn out, in the coming months Labour may face choices just as uncomfortable as those that have faced its Italian partners.

Posted by John Howarth
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



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."


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