North-West Euro Hustings
This weekend, I headed down to the Timperley Taverners (the Liberal club next to the Metrolink station) for a hustings event for the North-West Lib Dem Euro list. There was a fairly standard format – each candidate doing a speech, followed by a Q&A session. This is a write up of my notes, as verbatim as I can make it. Bear in mind that I haven’t had my ballot paper issued yet so I’m writing everything including people’s names from scribbled notes.
Of the 11 candidates, three were absent (Aladdin Ayesh didn’t show, Stjepan Krizanaec sent apologies, Qassim Afzal at a Federal Exec meeting), and Neil Christian couldn’t stay for the Q&A session due to having to get to Cambridge for a wedding that evening. This is what 8 of the candidates had to say about themselves.
Neil Christian is a barrister, which makes him a good debater, and he specialises in European law. He’s been involved in the Britain In Europe movement for a long time, and been a Lib Dem campaigner first in York and more recently in Chester. He’s been to lots of training sessions at Conference. He thinks it’s important as a Euro candidate to get local parties reinvigorated and working together across constituency boundaries.
Jane Brophy is a local councillor in Timperley, and an experienced campaigner. She is particularly interested in health and environmental issues. She thinks that we need a credible, inspiring and dedicated Euro team with a multi-year regional action plan which supports candidates in local elections and builds up to the General Election in 2015. She thinks that we need to make a positive Euro case including the environment, trade, crime, diversity and human rights, but also to make the case for reform.
Sue McGuire is a councillor and former chair of the Regional Party. She was involved in the cross-party European movement and joined the Lib Dems after meeting the likes of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg. This has given her experience debating with Eurosceptics, who are getting bolder. She feels she can hold her own against them. She thinks that the focus for the North-West region should be manufacturing, based on the work that Gordon Birtwhistle MP has done in Burnley. Our Euro campaign should be on how Europe can bring manufacturing jobs to the North-West, both in terms of the common market and Euro funded partnership working between SMEs and academics. She has experience in industrial supply-chain management. Her other big issue is shale gas /fracking where she’s recognised by several eco groups. This will be a big issue for the Greens and Tories in 2014, and we need to have a strong and credible campaign position to back our regional party’s policy for a moratorium and tight regulations. She has a record of winning in Southport, and of building strong teams. “Bring it on!”
Helen Foster-Grimes started her speech in Russian, to point out that if your message isn’t right, then even if people hear your words they won’t listen or understand. She knows the region well and says that people on the doorstep are concerned about jobs. The EU can and does bring jobs to the North-West – we export £6.8bn a year to the EU. She’s worked for big multinationals across the EU member states and Russian Federation. This gives her skills in negotiation and consensus building which will be important once elected. She was the #2 candidate in 2009 and has been a leading campaigner for the last 5 years. She says that we need to rebut UKIP harder – they don’t care about ordinary NW people and their concerns, just their single-issue agenda which would harm the region. She said that so close to Remembrance Sunday we need to fight for a united, peaceful Europe to honour the war dead.
Peter Hirst is a passionate believer in the EU as the way for the UK to influence the world, particularly on issues such as the environment, trafficking and trade. He thinks we need to work with local communities and build our way up from there. We need to be resilient and press on with campaigning despite current unpopularity. Europe is built on cordial negotiation and we need people who can fight to achieve the most possible rather than people who generate ill feeling through brinkmanship and fail to get results. He’s good at working to deadlines, and graceful under pressure. As a business planner, he want SMART goals for the EU. He will repay the faith of NW voters if elected by working hard for them.
Chris Davies has experience as an MP who worked hard after being elected in a by-election. He got good stories for his Focus leaflets but got little achieved. As our sitting MEP he’s been much more effective in the collaborative atmosphere of the European Parliament. The expenses scandal completely overshadowed the 2009 European elections in the media; to maximise our vote in 2014 we need a solid ground campaign to get out the Lib Dem vote. We need to tackle Europhobia and UKIP by asking them what we could achieve outside the EU that we can’t achieve inside it. We already have UK-specific trade agreements with other countries. The 4 EU policies disliked by the Tories in a 5 hour debate were the Working Time Directive (which Lib Dems opposed), the Agency Workers Directive (which Chris likes), the Common Fisheries Policy (which the UK is taking the lead on reforming) and the Common Agricultural Policy (but they’re not telling their rural supporters that they want to cut UK farm subsidies). An “In or Out” referendum is unclear – what does “Out” mean? moving from the EU to the EEA like Norway? They are required to implement European regulations they have no say over, in order to stay in the trading bloc, and contribute 70% of what they would as a full member. By 2030, no single European nation will be a member of the G8, but the EU as a whole will. We need some arrangement for Governments in Europe to work together to solve common problems. He thinks the EU needs a vision, and a figure such as a President to deliver that vision, and suggests the start of the Lisbon treaty as the vision to turn into reality: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”
Gordon Lishmann is a long-standing party member and President of the North-West Region. He says that we need to talk about Europe during the Euro elections, since it may be the last chance for us to put our case before a referendum which could be the most damaging political event for half a century. Even if the critics are right and the EU does stupid things and interferes, this is an argument for reform not abolition – as Lib Dems want to do with our UK systems of government. The EU stops wars and improves democracy in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal and the former Iron Curtain countries. The 1930s depression which led to WW2 was caused by protectionism; free trade lets countries get rich off each other. It is central to the Liberal mission to take the lead and talk about Europe, fighting the case against UKIP, the Tories and much of Labour, for the benefit of future generations. We need to get people involved by being distinctive and strong willed. Gordon knows about how regional economies work worldwide, and observes that there’s a greater difference between London and South Wales than between Shanghai and the poorest rural Chinese districts. Gordon has worked within Europe advising ministers, and has both experience and achievement.
Jo Crotty is chair of the North-West region. She joined the party in 2003 over Iraq having been involved in various peace campaigns. She stood in Warrington South, a target seat, and had a strong campaign with good momentum when it looked like there’d be a 2008 General Election; by 2010 the Tories had the momentum and she’d lost Neil Trafford, and she didn’t win. She took a year off and came back having re-examined her reasons for getting involved in the party. She is particularly interested in civil liberties, womens’ rights and the environment. Specific to the North-West, she’s pro-HS2 and opening up direct train routes from the North-West to Europe. She also wants improvements on the M6 instead of focussing on the M25. She can build a strong campaign team and hopes that luck will be on our side.
After these statements came the Q&A and I got to ask the first question: “Imagine you’ve managed as a candidate to get a front-page headline in a national or regional newspaper. What would you want that headline to be, in around 8 words?”
Jane Brophy: “Lib Dem Health and Environment Campaigner Makes It to Europe”
Sue McGuire: “North-West Manufacturing Gains From Europe”
Helen Foster-Grime: “Liberal Helen says North-West Gains from Europe”
Peter Hirst: “Peter Hirst says Europe Can Work For You”
Chris Davies: “Davies’ Campaign for Your Town Wins Massive Support”
Gordon Lishmann: “Lib Dems Sweep North-West”
Jo Crotty: “Lib Dem MEP secures HS2 for Manchester”
The next question was about the swing away from democracy in EU countries like Hungary and the rise of the right wing.
Chris Davies: The Council of Europe can take away member states’ voting rights if they’re not democratic, but is not keen to push that. The European Parliament can keep up pressure on countries like Hungary. The EU is lacking strong defences against member states abandoning domestic democratic principles once they join the Union.
Gordon Lishmann: When far right parties win elections, they tend to peak, fragment and fall apart. Popularists are far more concerning than the true far right. We should use EU infrastructure and powers against fascists and anti-democrats, and work with other parties across Europe to advance liberalism, such as setting up a new liberal party in Hungary.
Jane Brophy: People turn to the right wing and to authoritarians when they feel insecure. We need to tackle that insecurity with positive messages on the doorstep.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We need to tackle infringement of civil liberties and the rise of the far right in the UK first. The BNP are still on the rise. Their success comes from fear over employment, and we need to stress that Europe can provide jobs.
Jo Crotty: There are problems with democracy in the Eurozone with imposed austerity measures reducing national sovereignty. People lean to authority in a crisis, but eventually realised that enough is enough, such as recent demonstrations against Putin in Russia. We must have faith in the citizens of the EU to resist anti-democratic authoritarianism.
Sue McGuire: The EU needs to support and encourage new forms of communication to help EU citizens organise against authoritarian governments, such as social media.
Peter Hirst: Dissent from the far right is a challenge but also a democratic strength, if they can express their opinion without violence. We need better education, and awareness that democracy is merely the least worst system we can envisage.
The next question was: 75% of this hustings time was dedicated to speeches. What will you do to make sure you’re talking about what the electorate wants to talk about, when the candidates are a middle-class clique?
Jo Crotty: 75% was the wrong balance. As a party, we’ve been hurt by taking the correct decision to enter Coalition. As a result we’re scared to knock on people’s doors and listen to people’s concerns. We need to get out here surveying and canvassing and listening.
Sue McGuire: We need to get our messages across, but also get feedback and refine our messages.
Chris Davies: There’s a balance between blindly presenting pro European arguments, and telling people what they want to hear. Telling people that we already surrendered sovereignty by joining NATO isn’t what they want to hear; Federal Europe doesn’t work on the doorstep. Talking about fixing problems in the EU so the UK can be more powerful does work. We need to be controversial to get noticed.
Peter Hirst: Coaching is 70-80% listening, not talking. We need to acknowledge people’s concerns even if we don’t share them, and ask open questions to get to the heart of people’s worries.
Gordon Lishmann: Politics by class or by focus group is illiberal and leads to “Tell us your prejudice and we’ll agree”. Talk to people about the things they care about – the economy, pensions and family – and show them how being in Europe makes these things better.
Jane Brophy: Liberalism is about helping people to achieve their potential regardless of class or background. We need to reach out and listen on the doorstep.
Helen Foster-Grimes: I’m working class and proud. We need to make Europe relevant to the working class by talking about jobs.
The next question asked about losing jobs to Europe, e.g. Siemens winning train contracts over Bombadier.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We’ve had plenty of wins, and the NW exports £6.8bn to the EU.
Gordon Lishmann: We need to look at the big picture – new jobs are less newsworthy than factory closures. The NW is a manufacturing region and is better off with a bigger market to sell to.
Peter Hirst: We need to recognise the emotional impact of job losses. The UK needs to gold-plate less EU anti-protectionism legislation since we lose out to other member states which don’t. It’s important to people in the UK to buy UK goods. We need an industrial policy, especially around renewable energy technologies.
Sue McGuire: Passionate about manufacturing. There’s a potential £3bn supply chain market in automotive parts which the NW needs to go after and she will work with Gordon Birtwhistle MP and the Lib Dem manufacturing campaign to promote this. Worries about the UK’s membership of the EU is scaring potential manufacturing jobs and investors from the country.
Jo Crotty: Our industrial policy has been mad for 25 years. We’ve lost home grown industry in nuclear power, jet aviation etc. We need policy on renewable technology and to take a holistic view of the jobs and skills and industries we can lose. Other countries ignore EU rules.
Jane Brophy: We need to articulate how the EU benefits the UK jobs market, especially in renewable energy.
Chris Davies: The Bombardier contract was lost because Siemens were more credit-worthy and could borrow the money they’d need to invest in building and maintaining the trains – the EU had nothing to do with it. As it turns out this hasn’t happened and the trains may not be available by the time the Manchester-Liverpool line is electrified; the contract may revert to Bombadier . The European Commission needs to be tougher on trade barriers in member states, but the fundamental argument on the single market is that Britain can sell easily to the EU. If we weren’t in the EU we’d have no powers to push the Commission to open up markets for us.
The next question was about how to fix the EU economy.
Jane Brophy: Climate change will hugely impact the European Union and its economy and make the problem worse and it must be tackled. People are starting to talk about more investment and less austerity.
Jo Crotty: There is no silver bullet. The UK’s currency flexibility and cuts mean we can borrow at 2.5%. Many EU countries have imposed austerity measures and are being propped up by Germany. It’s likely Merkel will lose her seat and there will be a Euro default. Some economies, which lied about the state of their finances to join the Euro, will have to go.
Chris Davies: The Euro won’t go. Countries which are in debt and borrowing more to cover interest payments have less sovereignty. Greek restructuring has led to a rise in exports and drop in imports, but all countries need growth. Japan’s debts are much greater than the combined EU debts, but Japan can borrow at much lower rates. This is because there’s less trust of the EU since nobody is in charge. The Eurozone is rapidly evolving new institutions to oversee the Euro and gain that trust, and the UK needs to be a part of that.
Helen Foster-Grimes: The Eurozone crisis is all over the media. The UK must keep up the pressure to keep interest rates low. We must encourage bank lending to businesses and R&D. The EU supports trading between countries.
Sue McGuire: There’s a balance to be struck between cutting public spending and encouraging growth. We should learn from Japan and the US who have solved this problem in different ways. The Coalition took action to satisfy the financial markets, and the Eurozone must do the same.
Peter Hirst: Green jobs are a strong way forward for Europe as the UK. We are competing with Asian markets like China and Korea with a stronger work ethic, and our education may not be suitable. We need to think about job skills and retraining, and also work (such as carers) which doesn’t directly contribute to GDP.
Gordon Lishmann: The “European economy” is the sum of multiple relationships between producers and consumers etc. It’s like wallpaper bubbles – you need to work out where to push to get the bubble where you want it. Greece’s financial problems date from the 1940s civil war settlement; Germany fears 1920s hyperinflation and we need to help them realise this won’t happen again. We need a voice in the Euro supporting the Germans, encouraging banking union and Euro bonds.
The next question was on how the EU can extend liberalism beyond Europe.
Gordon Lishmann: Peace, freedom, democracy and human rights are part of the economic benefits of the EU. We no longer have a 1st/2nd/3rd world relationships, but billions of rich people supporting billions of poor people.
Chris Davies: The EU is the world’s largest buyer from developing nations, and has no trade barriers from them. It is a moral imperative for the EU to tear down trade barriers through bodies like the WTO.
Peter Hirst: We need to use social media and petitions to push for liberalism worldwide.
Sue McGuire: Microdonations and microloans can get people involved in foreign aid and liberalism, through social media.
Jane Brophy: We are citizens of the world and political issues often don’t have national boundaries. We need to promote our liberal values through the UN and other bodies.
Jo Crotty: The EU can promote microloans and social business for huge job creation worldwide.
Helen Foster-Grimes: We are all internationalists. We must concentrate on eradicating landmines, and trade tariffs so people can help themselves.
The final question asked whether the candidates are experienced in taking the message to the public with street stalls.
Peter Hirst: Used street stalls in Stroud town centre as parliamentary candidate in 2005.
Sue McGuire: Holds street corner surgeries constantly in her ward.
Joe Crotty: Held monthly street stalls in Warrington in run-up to 2010 General Election, has fortnightly stalls in her ward.
Helen Foster-Grimes: Has a big reputation for street surgeries.
Chris Davies: Was leafletting in Manchester City Centre a few weeks back as part of the Manchester Central by-election, but prefers a street table and discussion.
Gordon Lishmann: Burnley was won by a street stall every Saturday morning. We need a new way to have constructive political discourse; social media just encourages people to shout slogans at each other.
Jane Brophy: Street surgeries are her life blood as a local councillor, including some street stalls, but most ly getting out there.
If you’ve made it to the end, I hope you find this interesting and useful!