Machine? It was just us volunteers

Machine? It was just us volunteers
Bristol Post 31/05/16

In a Post article “George Ferguson: I would be surprised if I win Bristol mayoral election” 6/5/16) the former mayor complained: “I have had the huge Labour juggernaut to deal with.”

I fell about laughing when I read that quote because on that particular day the “Labour Juggernaut” described consisted solely of myself as election agent and our PCC candidate, Kerry Barker, at the declaration in Bath.

Mr Ferguson now rails that “Independents won’t beat party machine again” (BP 24/5/16).

Let me explain what he means.


A “party machine” is a large collection of volunteers who give up their weekends and evenings for several months to deliver as many leaflets and knock on as many doors as possible.

Leaflets are written by the same volunteers and paid for out of membership subscriptions and personal donations.

Many candidates use half of their annual holiday allowance to work on the campaign full-time for the final two weeks.

People join a party because they share common values and understand the need for teamwork.

Voters expect certain things when they choose between Labour, Tory or Liberal. With an Independent, who knows what you are going to get? A politician with no roots.

I often see bright new members get selected for a ward and expect ‘the party machine’ to crank in to gear and win it for them.

That’s the problem with machines though: you have to build them and maintain them.

It’s a lot more reliable to do this when you are inspired by policies and not a personality.

EU referendum is too important to be left to politicians

I strongly welcome the honesty, clarity and courage of Airbus’s letter about the overwhelming case for staying in the European Union.

As a former election candidate I have visited Airbus a number of times and have always been impressed by its contribution to the city region and its openness to engage with local stakeholders. The fact that the company has put pen to paper and set out the facts – that it is better for Bristolians to remain in the EU – is to be commended.

The debate is too important to be left to politicians so it is good to see that Airbus is willing to have a sensible discussion with its workforce.

Letter in The Bristol Post
Letter in The Bristol Post

Despite guarantees that the company will remain ‘fully committed to its operations in the UK and to its employees [in Bristol]’, it is obvious that a successful local company with European reach would find it difficult to make the case for further investment in an isolated Britain going through a messy exit.

Many ‘Outers’ argue that if the UK left the EU, we could be like Norway, or Switzerland or Canada and get a new deal. Not only is this completely hypothetical, it is extremely unlikely we would get a better deal than the one we have now (I am paraphrasing the Prime Minister here).

We could just be like Britain, leading the way for reform.

They will also argue that the company ‘doesn’t have a vote’ and is therefore not allowed a say (much like President Obama from the US and President Hollande from France who both want to see the UK remain).

On the contrary, as a local business and major Bristol trademark, we should give a lot of weight to its view. This is a very important intervention to our local debate.

Britain in the driving seat

The EU as we know it began with the aim to bind France and Germany together and that Franco-German motor has driven European integration through to the present day. That relationship has gone from strength to strength; it has been the one constant theme in European politics at a time of drastic and unpredictable change.

This is particularly true of France. Her first two decades were characterised by a troubled and short-lived Fourth Republic that was divided and then collapsed under the pressure of Algerian War. Yet no matter who occupied the Elysée, the special relationship remained. Konrad Adenauer was the only politician ever to be invited to (that grand old nationalist) Charles de Gaulle’s private home in Colombey-les-deux-églises. Similarly, the sight of the first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, holding hands with Helmut Kohl as they visited a war memorial remains an important memory for reconciliation. Even today, despite the relationship becoming less equal as the French economy looks weaker and weaker while the German economy powers ahead, we observed a relationship so close we started to call the two leaders Merkozy.

I say ‘we observed’ because that has been the closest we have come to a coherent position. Britain’s attitude to Europe, in contrast to the French and Germans, has waxed and waned vivaciously. The coming and going of British governments chopped and changed between taking little interest in the continent, half-hearted attempts to join, half-hearted attempts to leave, trying to dismantle the whole project and then trying to lead the way. The Conservatives wanted in, Labour wanted out; the Conservatives wanted out, then Labour wanted in. Margaret Thatcher took a great step towards the EU by signing the Single European Act, then recoiled in horror at the ‘Socialist monster’ she had helped to create. Tony Blair began his time in office building bridges with other Europeans, but he ended it as pro-American in the Bush years as Thatcher was in the Reagan years.

I do not easily recall any ‘friendship moments’ between Britain and France, nor Britain and Germany. Blair and Schroeder got on well as they launched the Third Way, but the moments of animosity (Macmillan vs de Gaulle, Thatcher vs Mitterrand) far more memorable.

This is why it is so difficult for us to credibly claim a leadership role in Europe. There is a sense of entitlement without having put in the work. Our off-moments have meant that the EU as it is, with its roots in the Treaty of Rome, is far more ‘continental’ than it would have been had we engaged at the beginning and remained committed ever since.

However, Britain’s role is a pivotal one, not a leadership one, for we cannot lead from the fringes. The Benelux countries argued as strongly for our membership of the Common Market as we did because they were frightened of being steamrolled by France.

Putting the odd diplomatic tiff aside, Britain has worked remarkably well with France over the last few years. An adventurous France has become bored with stay-at-home Germany and now chooses to cooperate with us. We launched a joint operation in Libya, together; we now share an aircraft carrier between us, and cooperate specially in almost every sphere.

Meanwhile, Britain and German businesses work well together through a shared though varied country. I am currently unable to source this due to no internet access, but I believe British Influence or the European Movement states that the UK does more business with the northern Lander (region) of Germany than it does with the BRICs combined. Working in the translation industry, I can testify there is so much work between the two languages as German businesses try to break through to international markets. Yet, Germany is growing impatient at having to lead the crisis and would be grateful of an ally from the ‘productive north’.

Ultimately, Britain cannot expect to play a leadership role in the EU from its peripheral position. There could be a new Anglo-French axis or an Anglo-German one in Brussels, but not until we have shown that we reserve it. Britain does have like-minded allies who are keen to drive through reform in the EU. It does enjoy good relations in Paris and Berlin. It is not alone in its desire to build a more efficient and effective EU. But our friends cannot help Britain solves its own existential problems.

This piece was written for British Influence.

Let’s talk about EU policy, not a pointless neverendum

Those in Labour arguing for a referendum on EU membership risk undermining us when we need to answer tough questions, and are damaging our reputation abroad by calling our commitment to Europe into question.

European Commission President Barroso recently gave his annual State of the European Union address. He called on MEPs to make the case for a stronger Europe, encouraged the eurozone to press on towards a banking union, railed against unemployment, and urged the EU to fight for growth.

But instead of championing (or even criticising) these ideas, the only EU-related article in the Labour blogosphere came from Labour for a Referendum: ‘Labour needs a referendum on Europe, now more than ever’. Its arguments put polling over principle and short-term politics over serious policy.

The LFR article argued that an in-out referendum would help us win the 2015 general election (forgetting the European parliamentary elections in 2014, which will make the difference between a headstart and falling at the first hurdle), reconnect with our traditional working-class support, and, somehow, prevent leftwing Eurosceptics from forming their own UKIP while simultaneously securing Britain’s future in the EU.

In contrast, Progress, and British Influence, have led the way in the real discussions the we should be having in Europe. Are we ready for a banking union? Do we support deeper integration? How best to deliver the financial transaction tax?

The greatest criticism I hear of our party is that we ‘don’t have any policies’ and that people ‘don’t know what we stand for’. If we are to regain and strengthen our traditional working-class support, we have to show that we are we are ready and willing to fight for them on an EU level. An in-out EU referendum will take us, at best, back to square one, and we will be all the poorer in time and energy.

Over the last few years, I have campaigned with our European friends in elections in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia and, this week, in Germany. In all of these countries I have discussed and debated European policy. We never felt the need to discuss whether or not we should begin to discuss something.

That is the problem with our party, and more broadly our country, when it comes to Europe. Ever since 1945, we have ducked and dived and dithered over the big important questions in favour of tearing ourselves apart over the unimportant ones. Then, when others have made their decisions, we find ourselves scrambling to catch up and unhappy with the results. The Anglo-Saxon hare sleeps while the continental tortoise plods on.

I want people ‘to have a say’ on Europe – a real say. The choice I want to give voters in 2014 is not ‘in’ versus ‘out’; it will be a choice between measures that promote jobs and growth versus ones that promote austerity.

So here is the question we have to answer ourselves before we go to the country: is Labour ready to make the monumental European policy choices ahead, or will we shy away and let ourselves get bogged down a pointless internal debate about the neverendum?

This piece was written for and originally published by Progress. See here.

Labour must more pro-European

Here is the video and text of my speech to the Labour Party Conference in Manchester on the subject of Europe:

Our party needs to be more pro-European, and our party needs to be more proud to be pro-European.

It is foolish to think that Britain is not part of Europe. The question is about Britain’s role in Europe, and what role Labour has to play.

Labour doesn’t share the Tory vision of an isolated Britain. Relegated, forgotten, abandoned, ignored. Our Britain is one that is listened to, trusted and respected across the continent.

The problem with the other parties is that they think that Europe is a zero-sum game. That’s not just pathetically shortsighted; it’s deeply destructive too.

We must not let ourselves be dragged to the Right by Tory, UKIP and tabloid lies about the European Union.

However, Conference, I don’t know whether you’ve had time to browse this. This is the National Policy Forum report. It weighs in at an impressive 115 pages, but only two of them discuss Europe.

Europe is too important to try and just wish away.

If we do, we will be caught off guard when the debate begins and be on the defensive, in 2014, when the European elections arrive.

Let’s not forget that the current difficulties were not created by Europe itself.

Those responsible include the financial sector, of course. There are the economic and moral shortcomings of the banks. And then there are the unfair and ineffective austerity measures that have been pursued over the past few years.

Europe is not the problem here; the problem comes from the Right-wing Governments, including our own, that dominate it.

Labour must have the confidence to reaffirm our commitment to Europe.

We must have the confidence to stand up to those who want to pull Britain out so that we can drown alone in the Atlantic.

And we must have the confidence to say that Britain is better off in Europe.

Open to Europe, active in Europe. That’s our way.