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We need more than 'Eurotrash'

Labour failed to put its case for Europe, argues Carole Tongue, unseated as an MEP in the Euro poll.

As one of those who failed to be re-elected on June 10th, I may have more reasons than most to regard the Euro-elections as a missed opportunity. Yet that is what they were even for those who have not suddenly lost their jobs in Strasbourg.

It remains to be seen if the Tories' success is illusory. They actually received fewer voters than in their 1994 disaster - only 10% of the electorate. Their nationalism may be a sign of desperation that will come to symbolise a hastening Conservative decline rather than the turning point that William Hague desires. In the meantime however, we must recognise that new Tory nationalism is a potentially potent (if cheap) line of attack.

If we fail to expose the obvious contradictions embodied in being "in Europe, but not run by Europe," they may continue to have a card up their sleeves whenever the polls look doubtful. In the cold light of reason, they are highly vulnerable.

They will spend the next five years being isolated and undermined in the European Parliament. But we will not be able to pull the rug from under Mr Hague's feet as long as we are frightened of a public that has been widely deceived about Europe by the media. It is hardly surprising that our campaign team don't know which question to ask when the answer will always be misinformed. The main reason that Labour's voice was muffled during the Euro elections was because we haven't addressed Britain's limited cultural outlook.

Part of the explanation for Labour's heavy defeat was undoubtedly our failure to address the phobia and disinformation that has characterised British discussion of the European project. My experience on the doorstep was not of hostility to the Euro, but ambivalence. There was an understandable objection to political change that has not been explained. In failing to put the case, we were, in part, responsible for the humiliating turn-out in these elections.

In concentrating mainly on economic benefits, we have let many of the real issues go by default. In this election, we should have engaged in a broad range of poitical, cultural and social issues. In two years, the new Labour government working with Labour MEPs have achieved much that was hitherto blocked by the Tories. This should have been exploited more effectively.

The voters were not asked to endorse our achievements - so why should they then have voted for us? In the public eye, the European Parliament is widely seen as, at best, an ineffective talking shop - yet my original selection speech from 1983 now reads like a checklist of our victories.

With youthful idealism, I told local Party members that I would campaign on women's issues - pro-rata rights for part time workers and improved parental leave. I demanded European Works Councils for the employees of multinationals, better health and safety legislation, action to counter racism and xenophobia as well as air and water pollution. I called for international standards of consumer protection and European action to help the most deprived parts of Europe. All of these have been achieved.

The social successes were cemented when the new government finally signed the Social Chapter that Labour MEPs had helped to draft. As a concrete example of this, 150,000 Londoners in the catering industry alone now enjoy mandatory holidays for the first time thanks to MEPs. While the British Labour Party was in opposition, many of our reforms were won in the teeth of Tory resistance. Lobbyists know that MEPs have important powers to formulate and amend EU legislation, yet we allowed the media to go unchallenged in downplaying the powers of the Parliament and the importance of the election.

As party strategists pick over the electoral disaster, fears are starting to circulate about our ability to coax a suspicious public into Euroland. The absence of Labour's core vote is positive proof that we have underestimated this task to date.

Yet behind the daunting odds lies a prize that is at the heart of our objectives: The Euro is central to the task of making Britain a modern competitive democracy. We must not assume that this ideal is too dense to sell to the people - or that the people are too dense to understand. The real problem is a lack of familiarity rather than of complexity. European structures are, after all, far more straightforward than Britain's creaking patchwork.

We have failed to make Europe familiar to the British people. Along with the US, the British are unique in their unwillingness to engage with other cultures - to watch imported world films and TV programmes or to follow current affairs beyond the anglophone universe. The closest our broadcasters have come to fostering empathy with our fellow citizens is 'Eurotrash'.

Our media must become part of the solution, not the root of the problem. Surveys have shown that we have the most distrusted press in Europe - and even Eurosceptics on the doorstep are irritated by the obvious lies. It is the stunted canvass of British public life that makes it possible for sensible people to believe in mythical regulations about the shape of fruit - or the teams of European inspectors that will allegedly cull British bulldogs.

By contrast, our broadcasters enjoy a high level of public esteem. The journalistic standards of public service television means that 'Euro-myths' are largely absent. But laudable news values are not enough. Following intense demands from commercial channels, the popular News at Ten was rescheduled. On a wider level, this is a symptom of the way that increasing commercialisation has diminished broadcasters willingness to educate and inform viewers. If this mandate is being sidestepped, the government has it within its power to ensure that this trend is reversed.

Government needs to address British cultural insularity urgently. We need to set targets to improve public understanding of all aspects of our neighbours' lives - and we can start this process in a measurable way by insisting that broadcasters offer more European films on TV, more European originated documentary, and effective current affairs coverage including a weekly European news programme on the BBC. We must ensure that children's channels and schedules include programmes with European content, and we need to pay more attention to the European dimension in all areas of the school curriculum.

But we cannot just blame the media. It is time for the government to stoke up the debate. Cabinet members have enormous power to set the political agenda - and serious coverage will happen when politicians seriously engage in the arguments. We must not fear a dialogue.

Even Labour Eurosceptics acknowledge that rejection of the Euro must not be based upon ignorance. Insularity is bad for Britain in every sense - it is a form of institutionalised racism. We cannot hope to persuade the public to accept the Euro by simply pointing to economic benefits. If we treat this as a 'single issue campaign', we will lose. We have to recognise that our currency DOES define our place in the world. Until a sense of European citizenship is developed , a common currency will always be resented.

As politicians, we need to be clear about the reasons for co-operation in Europe. It is time to stress our distinct European culture and our unique social and political values - fair social settlements, political pluralism and cultural diversity.

We have a shared history and a shared future. The lesson of Bosnia and Kosovo is that we need a coherent and humane European response to problems on our own continent. The government believes this - it is now time to start saying it.