Today, the UK goes to the polls to elect 73 Members of the European Parliament. This might sound boring, remote or irrelevant. But it’s actually a lot more important than that for a few reasons.
First, young people don’t vote. It does not take a genius to see that the burden of spending cuts has fallen disproportionately on younger people. Tuition fees have gone up, maintenance loans have been frozen, EMA has been abolished, and the government is seriously talking about taking away all benefits from the under-25s. On the other hand, spending on pensions and perks such as winter fuel allowances and free bus passes has been unaffected. This is not a coincidence. In fact, it’s a vicious circle: if politics doesn’t seem to matter because politicians don’t care about young people, staying away will only make them more reliant on the elderly. Old people vote, young people don’t; that’s why we don’t get things our own way.
Second, in today’s world Britain can’t afford to shut itself out. It is true that this country was once a global superpower. Those days are gone, and they aren’t coming back. The only way for the great powers of Europe – Britain, France and Germany – to have any say in world affairs is to work together. Europe is a continent of 500 million people split into dozens of small countries. Regulation of big business, environmental protection, trade, security and law and order are all issues that know no borders, and our responses to them shouldn’t either. The European Parliament is the democratic voice of European citizens in the EU. In the seventy years since the end of the Second World War we’ve got richer, safer and more peaceful by working together. Just because you might not hear about what MEPs do as much, their work is just as important as what goes on in Westminster, so take these elections seriously.
Third, there is a real risk from the radical right in this election. Many opinion polls have the UK Independence Party in the lead, and given that our MEPs represent us in Europe and are our representatives when dealing with our friends on the continent, a victory for UKIP would be incredibly embarrassing and counterproductive. Let’s not forget, these people don’t just want to leave the EU, they are also xenophobic at best and racist at worst, don’t think LGBT people should be able to get married, don’t think women should get equal pay and rights, and deny climate change. If that’s not enough, they would further privatise the National Health Service, raise taxes on the poor to give to the rich, and scores of their candidates seem to believe that Islam is evil and Eastern Europeans are thieves. They say they would abolish tuition fees, but they’d do this by drastically slashing the number of people going to university. If you don’t vote because you can’t be bothered or feel uninspired by the other parties, UKIP’s supporters, determined to vote for this sort of fear-based politics, will have their vote magnified by your acquiescence. Don’t run the risk.
Now, who should you vote for? This depends on where you think the EU is going. To my mind, the gains in peace and prosperity that the European project has provided have been seriously undermined in the last five years, with the European Commission imposing ruthless austerity packages that would make George Osborne blush, seriously damaging the economies of many southern European countries, and in Italy and Greece, shockingly deposing elected governments in favour of right-wing technocrats. This democratic deficit is also a worry, with the Parliament not having enough power over the Commission, and too many decisions being made without the people’s consent. So whilst I have concerns over the EU’s distribution of wealth, and the way in which its decisions are made, the fact that it is where we generate much of our wealth means that we must try and reform it. We can’t leave, and that is another reason why you shouldn’t vote UKIP.
Conversely, that’s also why you shouldn’t vote for the Liberal Democrats either. The EU is a liberal project, and the liberal group in Europe show remarkable disdain for democracy and an unfettered love for free markets and austerity. The Lib Dems and their allies are hell-bent on forming a federal political union, with free-market economics locked in, whether the people like it or not. Federalism might not be such a bad idea if we got a vote on it. But the Lib Dems want Europe to be more economically liberal and less democratic. That’s not the Europe I want to see.
The Conservatives do seem to worry about the lack of democracy in the EU, and due to being at seemingly perpetual civil war over the issue of Europe, are promising an in/out referendum in 2017 if they were to win next year’s general election. This would come after a period of ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership. So, prepared to play Russian roulette with Britain’s prosperity, the Tories want to negotiate away all the things that are good about Europe. They say they don’t think the Social Chapter, which includes such crucial workers’ rights as adequate breaks and holiday pay, should be an issue for Europe to consider. You’d be a fool to think they’d legislate for it at Westminster. Recently, Osborne has been desperately trying to protect the City of London from mild regulation. The last remnants of ‘social Europe’ stripped away, protecting bankers but not workers and then a dangerous gamble on a referendum: hardly the right priorities, and not a platform worthy of your vote.
In proportional elections like this, and with the Lib Dems long since abandoned as the protest vote for disaffected lefties, it is becoming fashionable to vote for the Green Party. They will have you believe that they are the real deal: pure socialists with a radical manifesto that isn’t watered down to appeal to anyone. Don’t buy it. They also don’t have a record in government to defend; governing the country is hard, and any party will make mistakes, so choosing a party just because they pass some sort of virginity test is childish in the extreme. Moreover, the Greens don’t really care about working people. Their last manifesto said they would end trade unions donating to political parties, likening this to big business doing the same. This is insulting and wrong. Linking ordinary people to politics is crucial and is in no way similar to plutocrats buying influence. When in local government in Brighton, they severely cut the wages of poorly paid refuse workers, causing industrial action and rubbish in the streets. They also don’t want to solve the housing crisis: millions of ordinary people can’t find a place to buy or rent for a decent price, but the ‘mango’ half of the Greens (so called because they’re Lib Dem yellow at heart) are often middle-class NIMBYs who care more about their own property prices than allowing people to live decently. Their reliance on renewable energy alone is daft and counter-productive: we cannot generate all our power this way just yet and the German Greens managed to get Germany’s perfectly safe nuclear power plants closed, the gap being plugged by, you guessed it, fossil fuels that will do much more damage. It’s easy to be pious and pure. It doesn’t mean it’s right.
So, and this will come as no great surprise to some of you, I think you should vote Labour tomorrow. Labour takes a sensible position on Europe, summed up by the phrase ‘we’re pro-Europe but not pro-everything Europe does’, which basically means we want to see reforms to make Europe less focused on market dogmatism and more on workers’ rights and tolerance. We want to see a Europe that fulfils its promise and shares prosperity more widely, with better education, training, less austerity and less reliance on big finance. We want more democracy at every level, local, national and continental. Yes, Labour made big mistakes in power, from invading Iraq, to not regulating the banks enough, to not supporting civil liberties and failing to tackle inequality. But since 2010 we’ve moved on and learnt our lessons. Sure, having a chequered past might not be fun or convenient. But the only party that has ever delivered for ordinary people, and the only one placed to make a difference, is Labour and it always will be. We introduced the welfare state, comprehensive education, equal rights and the minimum wage, and we’re not finished there. We want Europe to be better as we want Britain to be better.
Europe is a wonderful continent, diverse, free and democratic, and most importantly, peaceful. We can always do better, and we can get closer to building the sort of continent we all want to live in. Voting is how you decide what you want to change. It could not be more important. So vote – and vote Labour.
Will Tucker is a Warwick Labour executive committee member.