Today’s Ham & High has my latest newspaper column:
Judgement day! Today we go to the polls to vote in European MEPs – and whilst the Euro election is never the nation’s hottest, must vote election, never before will people voting be voting less on European issues – if they vote at all.
The expenses scandal has engaged people in a way that we haven’t seen before – and not necessarily in the way one might have wanted – but engaged all the same. To have the fall of the body politic and the constitutional crisis played out against the backdrop of such an election has increased the pressure on Labour and Tories to accept that the old ways are dead. The old school, the gentlemen’s club, is finally at an end. But look what it has taken.
Normally, by mid-May political parties can look to punt difficult issues into the long grass – hoping that the combination of Parliament not sitting during the summer and so many people, politicians and public alike, going on holiday, will mean heads of steam and pressure will dissipate in the summer sunshine. And then in the autumn – the political establishment can return to business as usual. But this year, with elections in June – that option has not been there.
The threat of ballot box retribution from the public has instead kept eyes most firmly focused on the need to change and to change soon. Well – most eyes, because despite all the power and privilege and opportunity of his position as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown seems to have been moving all mightily slowly.
Quite what message the public decide to send today we won’t know fully until Sunday. Some local elections count tonight (Thursday), some tomorrow (Friday) and then there are the Euro results on Sunday evening.
Whatever they bring, it was very heartening to read the leader in The Observer last weekend, which finished with a line that I felt, just for once, gave Liberal Democrats our due: “It is a moment to reward the principled consistency of the Liberal Democrats’.
I hope so. As the article says we have a, “decent record of taking minority stands that are then vindicated” – and goes on to describe our lead on the environment, on civil liberties and on the debt bubble where it says we were, “quietly but consistently ahead of the Westminster curve”. Likewise on transparency about MPs and their expenses – where the Lib Dems opposed the Conservative/Labour stitch-up in 2007 to attempt to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. Oh how different the world would be if they’d got away with keeping all those expenses secret!
It’s great in a way to see the Conservatives – and many Labour cabinet ministers – scramble now to say how much they are in favour of reform. They may have done little in the past – even when offered the opportunity in the voting lobbies in Parliament – but now taking up long-standing Liberal Democrat policies is very much this summer’s fashion!
As for the European elections themselves – our jobs, our safety and our environment depend on a strong Europe. Business crosses borders. Pollution crosses borders. Criminals flee across borders. Our ways of governing need to cross borders too – and that’s why the European Union is so important. That importance is why I want an in/out referendum on Europe, so we can settle for another generation that festering question. I may be older enough to have voted in the 1970s referendum – alas! – but many weren’t, and anyway – that was a different world. So let’s have a vote on the heart of the issue – not the details of one treaty or another, but the big question of in or out – and settle the issue for our times.
It’s been a good few months for the Liberal Democrats – as with leading the way on campaigning for a fair deal for Gurkhas who have put their lives at risk for this country. For a long time we have watched both Labour and Tories take our ideas, move onto our territory, espouse and adopt our policies. And whilst it is satisfying to be able to say – we told you so – I would much prefer that to translate into votes for Liberal Democrats. More votes, more elected Lib Dems, more Lib Dem policies carried out. Our political system is in flux and our economy in dire need of radical change – now’s the time to seize the chance for real change.