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What UK-EU relations do we want and what is the 'good society'?

An interview with Catherine West, MP, secretary and co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on UK-EU Relations, scrutinising Brexit negotiations and pushing for a progressive relationship with our European neighbours.

Catherine West M, April 2015. Wikicommons, Giuseppe Sollazzo. Some rights reserved.Rosemary Bechler and Alex Sakalis, openDemocracy ( oD): We run the Can Europe make it? section on openDemocracy, and post-Brexit, we are particularly interested in how UK citizens will cultivate relations with their fellow Europeans, so we thought it would be good to talk to you about this, since you have just become secretary and co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on UK-EU Relations. The whole process of BREXIT, including very untransparent negotiations on the UK’s behalf, seems far from democratic – do you agree?

Catherine West MP (Catherine):  Unfortunately, having promised this vote, I think David Cameron did have to go through with it once he had won the 2015 election. However, what’s clear is that it is not a very good way of making decisions, because on all referenda different people have very different views as to what that one very bald question means.

And as you know, in the Commons we debated trying to get 16 - 18 year olds the vote on this, because once this relationship changes, they will be the young adults having to cope with all the consequences of it. It would have been great to have younger people voting, and it might have helped to change that result.

However, we are where we are, and I think the role of all parliamentarians, regardless of party really, is to try and call for as soft a landing as possible… I have colleagues who have just been abroad on the Treasury Select Committee to Berlin and Rome and European partners are not very happy with us. We have to bear in mind that we are negotiating with partners who don’t share our approach, but equally the thing to do is to be careful not just about jobs and economic growth and maintaining that balance, but also crucially the social chapter, workers’ rights, the environmental concerns which we have seen receive a very positive push from the European Union.

We need to maintain our values and focus on these throughout the scrutiny process.

oD: Do you think it’s fair to say that we always seem very preoccupied with British national interests, but that perhaps we also have to be concerned about European interests in these negotiations, since we are still very close?

Catherine: Well we are, and while I was out on the stumps for Remain, I said that I thought the most important thing the European Union has given us is a sense of common purpose around peace and stability; and not necessarily in the shorter term but in the longer term, I feel that is what is now most at risk. Those 16 or 17 year olds who unfortunately were not allowed to vote, they are the ones who are going to have to make some very difficult decisions about war and peace in the future. Those 16 or 17 year olds... are the ones who are going to have to make some very difficult decisions about war and peace in the future.

You can see with the proxy war that is happening in Syria, that there are some very serious questions to be asked about what we are doing in the Middle East, the role of Europe and the humanitarian push, and we want to be with one voice on that, not all going our separate ways. I feel that the whole peace and stability consensus we have had since the second world war is at risk with this vote.

oD: You mentioned a Swedish businesswoman constituent of yours who is in a huge dilemma about her and her employees’ future now, and we have heard rumours that care work in the UK will be under a huge strain as a result of BREXIT. But shouldn’t we have heard more from all these voices before the vote? Has the media done its job?

Catherine: We see this with the whole progress of Trump. Such a lot of emphasis goes on training the media to be fair and even-handed – which is correct –  but that doesn’t mean they should be spending so much time promoting an approach which is questionable when it comes to facts.

So for example, all those images of the bus advertising the £350 million that was going to go to the NHS have now been roundly discredited, and yet during the build-up to the vote, when all those direct mails and letters were going out to people, there wasn’t enough scrutiny – not just from obvious people like Remain politicians, like me – but from different sections of the economy and the society saying that this was wrong.

In fact, what we do know is that it will be even worse for the NHS because of the recruitment crisis that we will be facing, once it is more difficult – potentially at least, though we don’t know the exact shape of that – for labour to come from Europe.

I know quite a lot about the construction industry as a result of having been involved in the newbuild of social homes. 49% of some of those companies have European labour running those companies which is why these days projects end to budget and they end on time.

That will be really difficult to manage after Britain leaves the EU, because the whole concept of freedom of movement is entwined with the European Union and the concept of the one economy. I know that people don’t experience the immigration question equally, so that in some communities there are large numbers of migrants and people feel very worried about that. Equally, that is why we have managed to keep our economy going, despite the massive impact of the global financial crash. It is part of the reason for why we have been able to bounce back, because we have had this supply of very skilled labour at all levels within the economy. It is part of the reason for why we have been able to bounce back, because we have had this supply of very skilled labour at all levels within the economy.

oD: Yes it’s odd that we are only beginning to get a clearer picture of that now, isn’t it? Does the Labour Party have a position on the status of EU nationals, post-BREXIT?

Catherine: We’ve been very outspoken in Parliament, encouraging the Government to just regularise people’s status now, because EU nationals living in the UK before June 23 must be able to claim their British passports.

We have just been rebuffed on every occasion. We have had two or three question times on it.

In my constituency we do have a large number of people who have been living in the UK for a long time – it’s their home – and there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty for them. It is not just the paperwork side of things, because hopefully we will get a deal on that. But it is also the sentiment involved. I have had people crying on my shoulder in the shop because they felt people were thinking or saying things that were unkind, making them feel that the UK wasn’t their home. One woman told me someone said, “Well, I suppose you’ll have to go now.” And when she said, “I grew up in Germany but this is my home, so why do you say that?”, she was told, “Well, I voted Leave because they cut my benefits”.

I thought that was quite a good snapshot of different people coming at the referendum vote from entirely different positions; and how difficult it is to win these arguments at multiple levels. From a Labour Party point of view, I like to think had we been in government after 2010 we would not have given that person such a difficult time. She felt , “well there is no more money for me because of all those migrants who are getting it”  – while the other person was very much a net contributor to the UK economy anyway!

That negative campaigning just adds to the anger people feel who think that maybe they are not getting their ‘fair share’. They don’t see the complexity of how the free market works and how our country has managed to stay afloat in part because of that.  It has been hard to explain to people what has happened since 2008 with the general financial crisis, and how we have to understand things in that light, not just in the context of the Brexit vote.

oD: Where the issues have become so politicised, do you feel the Labour party debate on how to move forward on Brexit is able to chew over these very challenging aspects of information and education?

Catherine: The important thing is that the Labour movement is very concerned about workers’ rights and fairness, and I think that is not a bad position to start from. Certainly that is something shared right across the party.

There are debates to be had about the financial markets and whether complete openness is the right principle to pursue. You will be aware that there is a strong ant-TTIP movement within Labour. We have been debating that for two to three years, and people feel that the free market in some ways hasn’t been to the benefit of public services. So there is something we need to talk about there. The best starting point is fairness within the workplace and the Social Chapter, equalities, and the environment.

That’s why the best starting point is fairness within the workplace and the Social Chapter, equalities, and the environment. If Labour can make that primary case, a second strand can be around the City of London, the passporting issue, and so on. Because there are going to be a lot of people in the City Corporation of London who are going to make an eloquent case for financial services and the impact they have on the wider society in creating jobs. But those two will work well together if Labour talk about what we talk about best.

It is a little bit like going back to the difficulty of winning the argument during the referendum. Because we have been out of power for six years now. People forget this but perhaps our voices were more faint. People were inclined to say, “Well, look at me. You have been saying the same things for years and I haven’t had a pay rise for so long.” It’s difficult to win the argument because it is difficult to demonstrate something when you have not been in power. That’s a challenge that engages us all. 

oD: So these are the strands of the argument that you will be taking into your All-Party Parliamentary Group on UK-EU Relations. How did that arise?

Catherine: Those of us in constituencies who had a 75% vote for Remain felt that we needed an all-party parliamentary group that really reflected that voice. It’s partly on the policy themes that we have spoken about, but it is also about some of the cultural debates about what it means to live in a diverse society. Those of us in constituencies who had a 75% vote for Remain felt that we needed an all-party parliamentary group that really reflected that voice.

Because very close to the vote we were getting some pretty nasty racist attacks, and we were also experiencing a sort of divisiveness which many of us in the Labour Party feel is not what we came into politics for. Many of us came into politics because we wanted to oppose that kind of divisiveness and within our all-party group, we want to maintain the argument that living in a diverse society is a good thing, that freedom of movement has had a lot of positives, that EU nationals have rights, and that we need to hang onto the values of the Social Chapter, workers’ rights, the peace and stability argument, the environment – all those things that have been good about being a part of the European Union, and really part of the liberal consensus since 1945. We just need to keep repeating those. People already talk as if we have left Europe. But we haven’t.

We know the Government have already withdrawn, or accepted resignation from Lord Hill as the UK’s EU Commissioner, our voice in Europe. But we are calling for him to be replaced as soon as possible. Part of our role as non-Government MP’s is to insist that we need to have that voice in Europe, so that we can work together to try and get the best solutions.  It doesn’t help to have certain elements of the press trying to stir up a false ‘sovereignty argument’ about taking back control, as though we didn’t always have votes in our own Parliament on European issues. There is a big piece of education to be done on that as well.

oD: Do people from the other parties agree with you on these priorities?

Catherine: Certainly the Vice Chairs of the parties do. My office is providing the Secretariat for the group: we have Caroline Lucas from the Green Party, the SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed Sheik, Plaid Cymru, Tory members as well from within the David Cameron/ George Osborne strand of the party who were very pro-Remain. Since the new government has come in, it is interesting to see where the dividing line is in the Tory Party on other issues such as grammar schools, immigration for example. There is quite a strong wing of the Tory Party that doesn’t just want to throw out the whole of the Remain argument either. We have to work across all those parties to make a very strong case for our values.

That is why I believe that we can’t just accept what the Government says when they say we can’t have a vote in parliament on the Brexit negotiations. I believe we do have to have some kind of vote. I believe we do have to have some kind of vote. Another referendum vote seems very unlikely. But we should have some kind of vote and certainly the next general election will be about our basic values. That’s a very important election, the one which is coming up. 

oD: Should we have a general election on this before any triggering of Article 50?

Catherine: That would certainly be my preference. As one member of parliament on the front bench of the opposition, I can have some influence, but I’m not really a decision-maker. However, it is very important that we don’t dismiss talk of an election in which we could have some of these arguments again, but more forcefully this time.

There is a sense that on June 23, the arguments only really began to emerge almost on the day itself. When colleagues of Turkish descent who are canvassing are abused on the streets of Tottenham and told to ‘go home’ when they grew up in Wood Green, this really is at the heart of the debate about what kind of society we want to live in, and one we should have in the context of a general election.

This is the groundwork debate that is taking place across the country, and this time we need to win it. I think we can do that. We need to get ourselves more organised on the Labour side, and speak more with one voice - we can do that too. But equally,  there are many other forces who share those views, and they are well represented on my EU group.

oD: Did the pro-European march that coincided with the setting up of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on UK-EU Relations help your efforts?

Catherine: There are two things – firstly, the emotional reaction. We had an event in the constituency the week after the vote,  an extra advice surgery for those who wanted to pop along and consult their MP, thinking that we would probably have a few European constituents who were worried. 500 people turned up and we had to move the room. That was partly an emotional reaction, I think, by people asking themselves, “How could the rest of the country have voted like this?” This is really the heart of the debate, nationally and the debate we have to win – which is about a socially just society.

But as the months have gone by and people have explained how they felt and really ‘come out’ as Leave voters – so we have seen divided families and communities. This is really the heart of the debate, nationally and the debate we have to win – which is about a socially just society, a society where human rights matter, where the workers’ rights that all those trade unions fought for over all those years are crucial, including proper wages, conditions, international conventions on the workplace, the equalities debate, the way that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has been very much setting the tone and changing the culture on the way services are provided for the elderly and for people with disabilities – all the good things in the European Union that we don’t now want to lose.

There have been really interesting test cases where couples have been placed into care homes because the ECHR fought their corner on the way things should go, and that really changed the culture of the way that individual local councils did their social care assessments. These achievements and values run like a dye through all our public services, and we need finally to have an informed debate about that: do we really want to take a backward step because we think those things don’t matter?

It was a really bald question about the European Union. But what it took with it was the consensus that has been built up since 1945 about ‘the good society’. That’s what I feel we have really got to fight for.

oD: When given the chance, British people frequently ask for more information, a better grasp of the European Union in all its complexities – can your All-Party Group help?

Catherine:  This raises the question of how our education is run, and the rather exclusive focus on English and Maths. You can start education on geography at a very early age. We do start very early talking about the world wars, don’t we? But it isn’t just the loss of life, the Somme and 1916, we want to commemorate: it is about why we fought those wars, what consensus did we build up after those wars containing our vision of a fairer Europe, a continent where human rights matter and where we can draw on our proud tradition for welcoming people from all over the world?

We can educate people about how societies are stronger where they have diversity, where you have basic standards in the workplace, where the environment is protected. We know that climate change is an imminent threat, and had we not had the European Union bringing countries together around that challenge in the various agreements we have had, we know that we would be miles behind where we are now. We can educate people about how societies are stronger where they have diversity.

All of those developments need to be talked about and explained, in school as well. And outside school, we need to use the media we have, whether on television or Facebook, to help in this. There is an issue about functional literacy. When I walk around at lunchtime, I see a lot of people with their mobile phones. How could we use these media to promote positive images of the consensus I have talked about, so that it is digested and fully understood.

The painful process we have just been through could well lead to loss of jobs, a less healthy economy, loss of funding for public services. We know people feel that things have not been run well, and that their views have not been well represented. But do we really have to learn our lesson that way?

So how do we work harder, not least in better showing the benefits that we have had from the EU, and how successful the liberal consensus has been for our society since 1945 in many ways. Many of us parliamentarians who were on the side of Remain, are still talking about how we can develop the ideas and planning public forums. People need to know this, and that we are being briefed ourselves in detail, so that we can answer the important questions around the equalities, the environment, and all the other key aspects of these UK-EU negotiations.

About the authors

Catherine West, MP for the London constituency, Hornsey and Wood Green, and the Labour Party's Shadow Foreign Minister, a position which she has held since September 2015.

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy.


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