Put three UK Euro candidates with three Danish MEP candidates and what do you get? A massive contrast on the centre-right for starters.
I went along to the Danish Church (Den Danske Kirke) in London to this small but interesting hustings with Karen Melchior, a friend of mine who is standing in Denmark for the Radikal Venstre at the European Parliament elections later in May. The panel was as follows: (with Twitter links as appropriate)
- Mr Andrea Biondi – Labour, UK
- Giles Goodall – Liberal Democrats, UK
- Sheila Lawlor – Conservatives, UK
- Christine Sidenius – SF, DK
- Catja Gaebel – Konservative Folkeparti, DK
- Karen Melchior – Radikale Venstre, DK
Tory Sheila Lawlor didn’t wait long to tear into her Lib Dem opponent
Although it was nominally 3 UK vs 3 Danish candidates, the presence of Andrea Biondi who is originally from Italy meant that we had an additional perspective to the debate. At the same time, there was only one of the six panelists that showed the mindset of a Westminster PMQs/BBC Question Time debate. That was Conservative London candidate and former Cambridge University academic Sheila Lawlor. She runs this think tank too. I got the sense that her Lib Dem colleague/opponent didn’t see the firestorm coming, and seemed a little taken aback at coming under a sustained attack over the Liberal Democrats’ position on Europe.
Now, I try to follow politics fairly closely, and instinctively like to fact-check any statement made by a speaker when the issue is more than a little bit controversial. So when Ms Lawlor in her opening remarks mentioned ‘benefit tourism’, my eyes widened. Something in my mind recalled this myth being comprehensively busted by a number of organisations – see an example here by the BBC’s Dominic Casciani. The EU has problems, but ‘benefit tourism’ definitely isn’t one of the big ones.
What Ms Lawlor then followed this up with were a series of accusations against the Liberal Democrats about misusing statistics, and taking them out of context and using them to scare-monger people. Which was unfortunate given that the previous day, the Work and Pensions Select Committee released a report (see here) about the work of the department – scroll down to the end of this page…pots and kettles anyone? Or take your pick with this lot from the UK Statistics Authority.
Ms Lawlor also stated that Whitehall spends most of its time negotiating with Brussels – by which time I was now laughing, because in all my years inside the civil service – albeit in one that didn’t have a huge amount of EU-facing (bar my time in climate change policy), this was anything but the case. Argue for a smaller Whitehall by all means, but for the director of a think tank to come out with a statement like that does her a great disservice.
“Yeah – why are you picking on Sheila?”
Actually, it was Ms Lawlor that did much of the talking – at times dominating the panel that was more softly-spoken, considered and thoughtful in their remarks. What I found interesting was that Ms Lawlor’s Conservative ally from Denmark, Catja Gaebel came across as much more reasonable and pragmatic alongside her. If you look at Ms Gaebel’s profile in the previous link, you’ll see a very interesting career profile. Going by first impressions alone, if I were someone senior in the Conservative Party in the UK, I’d be rolling out the red carpet for someone like her if she decided Danish politics was not her thing.
The thing is, if you are going to try and dominate proceedings in the way that Ms Lawlor did, you make yourself a target. In comparison, some of the other candidates seemed ‘drowned out’ by her aggressive approach – which may have been the point. The problem with this approach is that more and more people are finding it puts people off politics in general. Furthermore, as we move into an era where more people are live-tweeting, livestreaming or posting videos of events, and blogging about them, it becomes easier to find and pick holes. In Ms Lawlors arguments, there was a sieve-load of them. And that’s what disappointed me. For someone with an academic training at Cambridge and being the director of a think-tank that has cross-party input, I was expecting arguments of the calibre that Conservative MEP Vicky Ford (see here when she sparred with Puffles) put forward in her recent talk in Cambridge.
“So…what question did you ask the panel?”
Given the spat on statistics Ms Lawler had with Mr Goodall of the Lib Dems, I knew that going in with my own quoted figures from the live fact-checking I was doing would simply have no impact. This is the problem with current political discourse. Everyone has their favourite institutions to quote – and after all, how transparent are your think tanks? It feels all too easy for some wealthy interests to set up their own partisan think tanks to come out with ‘independent’ reports that politicians can then quote to back up their own views. So much for evidence-based policy eh?
“No really – what did you ask?”
Given it was an all-White panel, I started off with:
“My family: Four generations born in three continents. Where am I from?”
The reason being that the panel picked up on the issue of migration. My question caught the lot of them off-guard – given that I went down panellist by panellist. I then focused in on the record of the UK mainstream media, the rhetoric of politicians in her own party and the impact that this can have on people that happen to look like me. The only panellist I felt that did not pick up on the point I was making was Ms Lawlor.
‘What does an illegal immigrant look like? Does he look like me?’
Hence when the latter panellists said they would see me as a British Citizen, I followed it up with whether the average person on the street having not met or heard me, would they see me as an immigrant or a British Citizen who was born and brought up here? Very similar to the point made to Conservative MP Mark Reckless when asked on Channel 4 News what an illegal immigrant looks like. (See here from 0.45). You could sense the tension in the atmosphere as we had the exchanges before Ms Sidenius of the Danish Green/Left said, consistent with her opening remarks that politicians across the EU had to show leadership and challenge the inflammatory rhetoric because failure to do gives space for the rise of extremists.
“What did the other panellists have to say?”
It was less what they said, but more how they said it. I didn’t detect much difference between the other pairs of political allies. I get the sense that with Denmark having a much smaller population (smaller than that of Greater London), the relationship between government and citizens is much closer. Speaking to several Danish people at the event, they said that Danish politicians come across as being much more sincere and much less distant than UK politicians. How much of that is to do with institutions vs national cultures I don’t know.
What do future EU parliament elections look like?
It’s not an impossibility, but this could be the last EU election I vote in. Think of this scenario. Scotland wins the independence referendum and secedes from Westminster. The Conservatives win the 2015 election either outright or in coalition with UKIP. The EU in/out referendum goes ahead and the rump of England, Wales and Northern Ireland vote to leave the EU. By the time the 2020 EU Parliament elections come round, we may not have the vote.
The above was a scenario that Karen put to Ms Lawlor, pressing repeatedly the line about what the UK leaving the EU would mean practically for UK-Irish relations. Ms Lawlor continually dodged the question despite Karen’s best efforts, saying that Cameron wanted to see if renegotiation was successful or not.
Mr Biondi then put a series of questions from a different angle. One thing Cameron has not done is stated the following regarding renegotiation:
- What is his starting position regarding renegotiations?
- What are his desired goals?
- What areas is he prepared to concede ground on?
- What are his red lines in the ground?
Mr Biondi picked flaws in the arguments around a whole series of these, asking in particular what repatriation of powers meant in practice when so many different issues – in particular around cross-border crime – required international co-operation. This also chimed with a number of points Ms Gaebel made around institutions. Her point was that it is people that create institutions, and that it is up to people to change the institutions that are not working properly.
Common party branding across the EU?
This was something I discussed with Karen and have debated with a number of other people given the example of the European Greens, who came to visit Puffles not so long ago. (See here). This is where the Greens have a ***massive*** advantage of branding. For a start, their brand is a one syllable word – that is a real word in the English language. Not only is it a word, it is a colour. Not only is it a colour, it is a colour that in the mind of many people is associated with the values of a wider movement.
In the case of the European Greens, the nature of their cross-EU open primaries to select their lead candidates (Ska Keller from Germany and Jose Bove from France) for the post President of the European Commission – which now has a much stronger EU Parliament oversight.
The impact of social and digital media users
I think this is only going to grow. The questions are at what pace, and how equal that spread will be in different demographics. As I mentioned before, I feel that it will be harder for politicians to use the tactics that Ms Lawlor used this evening. The simple fact is that at such debates, it’s not just the people in the room you have to try and convince, it’s the people following online outside of it too. And their numbers are likely to grow as election day comes closer.
Different people, different generations?
Labour had another EU candidate for London in the room – Lucy Anderson – who also focused in on Ms Lawlor’s claims about what the people of the UK will be pushing for in the election. One of the things Ms Lawlor had in her favour was that she was that what she said would clearly resonate with a specific audience – older, Eurosceptic, fearful of the pace of change. In that sense, Ms Lawlor has been selected for the wrong constituency. Chances are she would fare better in a less metropolitan/cosmopolitan constituency than London, where she is listed 6th of 9. Ms Anderson’s point was that ‘the people’ that Ms Lawlor seemed to be describing bore little resemblance to the London that Ms Anderson knew – particularly young people.
Young people again?
This sort of comes back to the migration debate. When the A10 ascension countries joined the EU in 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden relaxed their controls on immigration and employment. As a result, many people from Eastern Europe came to work and settle – in particular in the UK as the economy was booming. Those people had families and children – children that went through British state schools. Many of the children from migrant families will have made friends with children here. I saw a display at a local secondary school featuring artwork from children of migrant families describing their feelings and experiences of moving to the UK from another country.
My point is that, despite the comparatively low voter turnout of young people, the first generation of children that went to school with the children of migrants from the A10 ascension countries now have the vote. It’s not gone unnoticed in some circles (see here) – who are now encouraging EU Citizens from continental Europe to register to vote & make their voice heard. See here if you are an EU Citizen from outside the UK that wants to vote in the UK for the European Parliament Elections. My point being that for younger generations, the rhetoric from the Conservative right and UKIP may well not resonate with younger audiences who see politicians using negative terms to describe their friends – and even families.
“Sheila Lawlor has strong Cambridge University credentials – could you see her standing for the general election 2015 in Cambridge?”
Not impossible – but going on her performance at this event, I can’t see Ms Lawlor gaining more than the core Conservative vote. As I mentioned a month before in this blogpost, to have any chance of reaching beyond their core vote, I think the Conservatives need someone from a small business background who is less tribal. The current incumbent Julian Huppert would, following 5 years in the Commons be able to deal with the rhetoric and be more than up-to-speed on most things to unpick most of it anyway. Labour’s PPC Daniel Zeichner I’m sure would relish the chance of going head-to-head with Ms Lawlor (and vice-versa) in what would probably turn out to be a much more traditional left-vs-right political ding-dong verbal boxing match. But would the winner of such a head-to-head between the two be enough to force out Julian Huppert at the same time?
Food for thought.