s 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
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
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
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.