Labour launched its European election campaign last week in Derbyshire. What are your hopes for Labour in Europe during the next term?
We’ll probably find that the Tories leave the EPP, leaving Labour as the main party of the mainstream. That leaves us with a particular responsibility and a range of things to work on. Climate change is one of the main things on the agenda and there’ll be much more on Human Rights. Plus, we’ll be working on improving access to digital communications, where there’s currently a huge disparity across the EU. We’ve already secured a reduction on mobile roaming charges across member states and on costs for mobile internet.
You mentioned the Tories leaving the EPP. How will that be reflected in the nature of what they do in Europe, and the nature of Labour’s response?
I think it will make a huge difference. Either they know the effect it will have and they don’t care, or they don’t understand the consequences and are being very stupid. In the end it comes down to the fact that they are going to be out of the mainstream. At the moment they’re part of the largest group in the European Parliament, which gives them considerable influence: they have committee chairs, they have positions within the top groups and they are part of a well-supported, well-funded organisation. So they will lose all of that influence as they haven’t yet been able to put a new alliance together. As far as we can tell they are looking at making an alliance with parties such as the Polish Law Justice Party, which is an extreme right party and very unpleasant. That’s also a good indication of what the Tories are like here: they are a party seemingly at ease doing business with one of the most right-wing parties in Europe.
Do you think leaving the mainstream in Europe may be a first step toward withdrawing from the EU?
The Tories always say they don’t want to withdraw, but I think that’s rubbish. A lot of what they do in Europe is seemingly building towards withdrawal – they’re amazingly Euro-sceptic. Over here, Cameron likes to forward this image that he’s a good, reasonable guy. But the Tories in Europe – with a few honourable exceptions – are simply not like that. They’re not nice and they’re not cuddly. They’re hard right Euro-sceptics. Many Tory MEPs are climate change deniers, who don’t think climate change is manmade or that we can do anything about it. I think that shows what Cameron is all about and how a future Conservative government in this country is likely to act. Its also significant that – because the Tories don’t like Europe – they have a policy of not voting for European legislation. They either vote against it or they abstain, on virtually everything. For instance, they voted against a report from the development committee that contained commitments against rape in marriage. It’s an extraordinarily irresponsible way of doing what is a very responsible job.
So when you meet people on the doorstep who say Europe has taken away our autonomy, how do you try and convince people that the EU is a good thing for Britain?
First of all, people have this perception that Europe is distant – but we are elected just as MPs are, and it’s our job to make accountability stronger, not belittle it. We also need to remember that we’ve actually been in the EU – the common market as it was when we first joined – for more than 30 years. Coming out would be hugely counter-productive. We would have to dismantle everything that’s been put in place during that time. The overwhelming majority of Britain’s exports go to the EU. We are part of the single market, and if we were to remove ourselves we would lose a significant amount of that trade. In tough economic times, we’d be faced with going it alone – I just don’t think that’s an option. And don’t forget it was actually Margaret Thatcher who took us into the single market!
You are involved in a tough fight against the BNP in the European elections. They’ve got a plausible marketing campaign, but if you look at their views and their policies they are clearly still the same horrible, racist party. Their leader said, “Defend rights for whites with boots and fists…non-whites have no place in Britain… we will not rest until every last one has left our land”.
The BNP is a racist party; it’s as simple as that. They would carry out the sort of policies that no reasonable person in this country wants – deporting people who have been here three or four generations and talking about mixed race people as genetic mutations. It’s racist and it’s appalling and they are not the sorts of views that the majority of people will accept. So within the Labour Party, particularly in London, we are mobilising the people who would be most affected by the BNP – black and ethnic minority groups. But it’s a matter for everybody: if we want a reasonable country where people live together, we’ve got to defeat the BNP.
The BNP’s views really don’t bear scrutiny – aside from the hateful, bigoted nature of them, this is an isolated island that has always been built on immigration.
Exactly, and we’ve produced campaign literature that says exactly that. It would be disastrous if they got a seat in the European Parliament, particularly representing a multi-cultural city like London. They unfortunately already have a member on the GLA, which is a platform that we should have stopped them gaining. But we just can’t afford the BNP to get any more votes and gain any more credibility. So we need blogs to expose them and help spread the message, especially since the BNP is so active online.
But there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics at the moment and people might be inclined to think a vote for the BNP is nothing more sinister than a protest vote. The danger is that they can propel themselves from council to GLA to the European Parliament to Westminster.
That’s how new political parties gain credibility and gain strength, by getting elected to public bodies. We’ve allowed them to go too far already. There was a school of thought that said we shouldn’t give the BNP publicity, but I think we’ve gone way beyond that now and we have to counter them strongly and proactively.
You’ve previously been outspoken on the mixing of religion and politics, but the way some developing regions of the world are set up, you have to use the existing religious structures to enact political change – the two are often inseparable.
I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, though I would caution against seeing it as the only way. We tend to do that in this country with some of the minority communities – working with religious leaders to access isolated communities. However, we do have to be careful that this is not the only thing we’re doing, as sometimes religious leaders are not wholly representative of their communities – the vast majority are men, for example. Also, not everyone in this country who belongs to a particular ethnic group is religious, so by working with religious leaders you might be missing a lot of people. It’s different in other parts of the world. When you’re dealing with countries like Afghanistan – countries that are practically theocracies – you have to deal with religious leaders, because those same people are also the political leaders. So inter-faith dialogue is a positive as long as it’s not the only option.
You touched on women’s representation there and even before you were a member of the Euro parliament, you were active for years on women’s rights. Which achievements are you most proud of on that issue?
There’s been a huge change in a generation. When I first got involved in the Labour Party in the 70s it wasn’t unusual to be the only woman at the meetings. Access to university was nothing like as good as it is now. We’re now used to quotas for women, but when I was at school, there were quotas for young boys. They maintained the disproportionate male representation through these hidden quotas.
Looking forward, how do you think Labour will do in the European Elections and the general election a year from now?
It’s always difficult to predict the European elections because it’s done on proportional representation, so opinion polls don’t accurately reflect the distribution of the votes. Because of PR, though, changes often only occur within existing parameters, so I predict very little movement. The difficulties over MPs and expenses will affect all three major parties – all three have been implicated – so I think that will work against us and we’ll see more votes going to the smaller parties. But that was a pre-existing trend – last time UKIP and the greens picked up new votes.
Since you mention expenses, I get the impression the Telegraph is not being as even handed on this as it first appeared. Of course it’s in the public interest that these figures are published – that goes without saying – but there’s no question this is also a mercenery and partisan project, too.
Absolutely it is, I honestly believe that. The Telegraph came by this information by dubious means and has been complicit in harming our system of government and bringing the whole body into disrepute without balance. We’re a democracy and in a democracy you have to have political parties and politicians representing those parties in parliament. It doesn’t do democracy in this country any good to have those people debased in this way – and the media should be as accountable to that as our MPs.
Mary Honeyball is Labour MEP for London. She blogs at The Honeyball Buzz.