The Guardian: We need a public education project about what it means to be European

An article which appeared in The Guardian as part of their Women in Leadership series on 6th May 2016.

How did you get your job?

When the coalition government was elected in 2010 I could see that arts, libraries, the youth service and everything else I cared about was going to be cut and so I joined the Labour Party as I wanted to stand up for social justice. I had been running European youth exchange projects and somehow I got onto the list to stand as an MEP. I was elected in May 2014.

What’s a typical day?

Four days a week, I work in the European parliament, and then from Friday to Sunday I work in my constituency. In the parliament, I go in very early, for example I’m involved with the European Internet Forum, working on issues such as child safety, so I might have a breakfast meeting about those concerns. After that, there’s more meetings with staff, colleagues, trade unions, business leaders, members of civil society and so on. I might spend time contributing to policy papers such as our current LGBTI strategy, and then there will be committee meetings. I’m on three committees and the meetings are generally three sessions over two days, each three hours long. In the parliament we have very direct contact with people who come to give testimonies about some of the crises we’re experiencing, such as the refugee crisis. It’s pretty much walking, talking, eating, policy-making. It’s a lot of peanuts, olives and crisps, and missed lunch breaks.

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What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best is being able to be a voice for people who have no voice - I choose to do a lot of work on human rights, especially women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of people with disabilities. When I was selected, no-one knew who I was, but I have committed to being an accessible public servant. I’m very reachable in real life and on social media. I also love working with people from 28 different countries and finding common ground through consensus politics. This is grown-up politics. It’s very energising.

The worst is seeing the ‘grandstanding’ that happens in the plenary. A lot of MEPs who don’t believe in the European project love being on film. They make sure they speak in the parliament and then they tweet that out as though this is the real job of a parliamentarian, but actually the real work is done in the committees and the Eurosceptics hardly ever attend the committees. The next worst thing is that you can’t get a decent cup of tea in Brussels. I’ve given up drinking tea there.

Can you give us examples of any common stereotypes and misunderstandings?

One of the stereotypes of an MEP is that we are remote and distant. I’m trying to change that. When I’m not at the parliament in Europe, I’m often in my constituency. I spoke on a platform with Jeremy Corbyn on May Day in Burnley, for instance, and the day before that I spent four hours knocking on doors in the rain, ahead of local elections.

In the UK we have neglected to tell the true story about Europe, about how and why the EU was created to maintain peace after the carnage of two world wars. Yes the EU is a trading bloc but you can’t trade with people if you are fighting them so trade ensures peaceful relations. We are ambassadors for our regions and help bring jobs and investment to the areas that need it most.

We need a big public education project about what it means to be European. Getting artists and entertainers to make a song and dance about the EU, is probably the best solution as people need to fall in love with the European Project again.

Did you have any expectations about life as an MEP which have changed since you’ve been elected?

I thought I would be able to go home regularly but that isn’t possible when you represent a huge constituency like mine which stretches from Crewe to Carlisle. I have a little house in a tiny village high up in the North Pennine hills with no public transport nearby so I can only manage about one night at home every 3 weeks. I also do a lot of international work which I did not expect, meeting parliamentarians from other countries outside the EU. For example I have some responsibilities for relations with Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo, and last year I spoke in the French Senate on behalf of Rwandan genocide victims. The biggest surprise was all the human rights work that has come my way. I was able to get a Bahraini blogger released from prison because of my actions and have criticised other governments that are closing down civil society.

How do we get more women into the field?

European politics is grownup and female-friendly. Over half the Labour MEPs are women and we have a female leader, Glenis Willmott. So I think Europe is where it’s at for women, because consensus politics is modern, progressive, courteous, peaceful and pragmatic politics, absolutely concerned with finding common ground rather than with differences. I wish we had a similar system in the UK. I think that the male-dominated, braying, shouty, adversarial style of politics in the UK is very off-putting for women, so we need to challenge the actual culture of the political class.