I came into politics to defend the Europe that I believe is possible, a Europe for people founded on principles of peace, democracy, tolerance and mutual respect. I consider myself to be British, European and a global citizen, so when Theresa May said at the Tory party conference last year, “If you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere,“ she effectively made me a refugee. My ancestors were in fact French Huguenot refugees who fled religious persecution in the late 18th century. They arrived in Britain with their textile skills and a determination to contribute to society. They helped to establish the lace trade in Nottingham where they eventually settled. To this date there is still a Lace Market in the city and I am proud that my refugee forebears contributed to the wealth and unique identity of the city. This was the first large refugee wave that arrived on our shores, introducing the very word into our vocabulary.
The xenophobic zeal of the current Conservative government is deeply worrying, especially for refugees, asylum seekers and the millions of people who have migrated from other countries to make their home here, setting up businesses, working hard in our NHS and other public services, volunteering in our communities, and so on. Many of our BME communities have been here for decades, some for centuries. They are British and like my grandfather‘s generation, they also fought against the fascists in two bloody world wars.
As a peace campaigner I believe that our membership of the EU is about much more than trade deals. It is about learning to live together as neighbours in an increasingly fragile world with diminishing natural resources. Only together can we truly tackle the huge challenges that face us, such as climate change, inequality, extreme poverty, corruption, corporate greed, violence, extremism, and so on.
Prior to standing for political office in the 2014 European elections I had spent 30 years working with children and young people, and it is their future which will be most impacted by Brexit. I have therefore spent my time since the referendum campaigning for their voice to be heard in the Brexit negotiations along with that of other marginalised groups such as women, disabled people, LGBTI people, Roma, EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU 27. I abhor the way that people are being used as bargaining chips by both sides in the negotiations, and I remain deeply concerned about the terrible racism that has blighted our country since the referendum campaign began, resulting in violent attacks, and even deaths.
Words have consequences. When Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Nigel Farage and others blame migrants for government failure to tackle years of wage stagnation and under-investment in public services, the right wing media have a field day, amplifying the underlying racism of a Conservative government that is dancing to the tune of a UKIP rump. The murder of Jo Cox by a white radicalised racist was, in part, the consequence of an unregulated press in hoc with their Tory friends, using the smokescreen of terrorist threats to promote fortress Britain and keep out foreigners.
We all know and recognise that we must now navigate the most significant political shift in Britain’s global position since the Second World War, and it will affect the lives of citizens for generations, far beyond my lifetime, and the lives of the generation who voted for it in their millions. It is therefore hugely important for those of us concerned about the future to speak out, frankly and forcefully if need be, and state the facts as we experience and understand them. Being a hard-working Labour MEP means that, along with my colleagues, I am in a unique position to gauge the substance and tone of the negotiations and the response of the EU 27 to the chaotic Tory approach.
What has become clear is that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, i.e. a hard Brexit, would damage the economy in the immediate future, and most probably for years to come. This is simply because if we stay in the Single Market as members, we will be able to keep the existing trading and regulatory structures, citizens would continue to enjoy their rights on both sides of the channel, and businesses‘ would continue to have access to the European market.
Leaving the Single Market would throw all this up in the air, and will only be resolved following a CETA-style trade deal, which will probably take years to negotiate, potentially lowering standards and ceding power to large corporates. Leaving the Customs Union would mean having to negotiate more than 50 trade deals simultaneously with the rest of the world, including negotiating WTO membership. Committing to a hard Brexit without a clear understanding of this is extremely dangerous. I was pleased, therefore, to be one of the signatories to Chuka Umunna MP’s call to reject a hard right Brexit, and for us to remain in the single market.
The economic upheaval that will follow a hard Brexit would mean more unemployment, greater inflation, falling wages, and reduced government revenue. In simple terms, this means more austerity in yet another form, a further drop in living standards, and less money to implement Labour’s manifesto commitments. This would hit the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly, the disabled, women, children and young people, and we simply cannot afford to do this.
Free movement should form an integral part of our Brexit negotiations. That’s why I am proud to be an initial signatory of the Labour Campaign for Freedom of Movement, as we rely heavily on migrant labour in crucial sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, caring professions, the creative and cultural industries. Freedom of movement is also very important to young people. Our campaign is committed to "defending and extending" free movement of people "in the context of the debate around Brexit". I am very passionate about this. Labour must stand up for freedom of movement, for a pluralistic society, and for the rights of EU nationals who live, study and work in the UK, and who and pay into our tax economy. We must never cede greater benefits for capital and goods than we do for people.
I am determined to use every opportunity possible to hold the government to account, and to protect the rights of citizens during this traumatic time. I have been listening to a wide range of stakeholders and I will continue to raise their concerns and speak up for those who don't have a voice, especially children and young people. Having met with the British Medical Association, Universities UK, people from the Creative Industries, disability rights groups and many others, I am concerned that no-one is left behind or impoverished during or after the withdrawal process.
It is heart-warming to see the strong opposition that my Labour colleagues are now showing in Parliament against the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. They are working to defeat a bill that unamended would let government ministers grab powers from parliament to slash peoples rights at work and reduce protection for consumers and the environment. Parliament has already voted to begin the process to leave the European Union, but the government‘s EU withdrawal bill will allow Conservative Ministers to set vital terms almost on a whim, without democratic scrutiny.
We should all remember that nobody voted in last year’s referendum to give this Conservative government sweeping powers to change laws through the back door. The slogans of the Leave Campaign were all about people taking back control and restoring powers to Parliament, but this Tory power grab would do just the opposite.
Whilst I welcome the recent announcement by Sir Keir Starmer MP, Labour‘s Shadow Brexit Secretary, that Labour would support Britain remaining part of the single market and customs unions during the Brexit transition, I would want Britain to remain indefinitely, and continue to allow Freedom of Movement, because it is in our long-term interest to do so and because that is what young people want and it is their future which is at stake. I will continue to campaign for this, and also to expose the lies and myths of the LEAVE campaign and the dark dodgy dealings that allowed the referendum to be hi-jacked by far-right and populist forces who used data-harvesting and social media to spread mis-information and manipulate voters. For more information about this emerging scandal please read the investigative work of Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr.
If you are coming to Labour Party conference in Brighton I am hosting a fringe event alongside the New Europeans on Citizenship & Bargaining Chips: The Battle for EU Citizenship. This will be held in the Holiday Inn outside of the conference zone, more information can be found here.
I am also speaking at various events across the the Labour Party Conference and The World Transformed, see where I am speaking here -
5:30pm - Youth Voice in Post-Brexit Britain, Youth Zone, Brighton Centre
6pm - Children Right's Roundtable, Hall 7, Tyne - Hilton Brighton
7pm - 100 Years Since Balfour: An Ethical Foreign Policy For Labour In The Middle East?, Palestine Solidarity Campaign - Jury's Inn Waterfront
1pm - Meeting Brexit Head On, Komedia Studio, 44-47 Gardner St, Brighton, BN1 1UN
6pm - Building Bridges, how do we create a cohesive society in a divided time? - Friends Meeting House, BN1 1AF
7:30pm - Why we must support Free Movement - Durham Hall, 7 Kielder, Hilton Brighton
3:50pm - What's a truly Left vision for the arts/culture? - Buddies Cafe Bar, 46-48 King's Road, BN1 1NA
7pm - Making Votes Matter - Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform - St Nicholas Church, Church St, BN1 3LJ
I will also be attending some of the other fantastic events across the conference, I hope to see you there!
I came into politics to defend the Europe that I believe is possible, a Europe for people founded on principles of peace, democracy, tolerance and mutual respect. I consider myself...