Wednesday 30 April 2014

To see ourselves as broadcasts see us

A vexillological ménage à trois
Okay, so the European Parliament elections don't exactly have a track record of engaging the public in enthusiastic debate. The turnout in the UK was 34%. In Scotland it was even worse: 28.5%. They are often seen as an opportunity for a protest vote or to make a statement about domestic issues. It provides an opportunity for those outside of mainstream politics to shout rather loudly and incoherently without any semblance of actual accountability, to energise the already malcontent. That leads to the election of, at times, questionable and populist (such as UKIP), and in worse cases, overtly racist, representatives (the BNP).

The failure of mainstream political parties to engage the public as a whole with European politics is not a failure which is unique to the UK. It is, nevertheless hugely regrettable, considering the importance the EU has in international relations and on our domestic affairs. The EU is the forum through which we establish complex but economically vital relationships not just within Europe but beyond, with some of the largest and some of the fastest growing export markets in the world. It is the forum through which we bring about unprecedented levels of multilateral cooperation on criminal justice, the environment and globalising industries like financial services. As a coherent whole, it has both the economic and political clout to ensure the influence of the interests of European countries in a world where the big decisions are taken by the US, China, Russia and increasingly India and Brazil. It provides an important counter-balance to US dominance of western interests and without it, European influence would surely suffer.

Alas, the consequence of people failing to make the "positive case" for the EU has meant that our public discourse about it is overwhelmingly negative. A combination of misinformation, apathy and cautiousness on the part of its advocates has created a narrative and a set of terms for debate that make it difficult for mainstream parties to support the EU in a concrete and public way. The EU is always discussed in the context of reforming our relationship with it (usually code for taking powers back) or whether we should be part of it at all. Notwithstanding Tony Blair's proud EU credentials, Labour's relationship with the EU has always been ambivalent, even since the days of the EEC. Wilson's referendum was, let's remember, a get-out-of-jail-free card to prevent a split of the type seen within the Tories since Maastricht. In Scotland, we get a slightly softer narrative about EU hostility, and the SNP have spoken in the past about "independence in Europe" as being part of their vision. The message, however, is always timid and scarcely if ever made with enthusiasm.

With this in mind, I thought the Party Election Broadcasts of Scotland's main four parties ahead of the European Parliament Elections in May were instructive. I found them telling, not just from the perspective of attitudes towards the EU itself, but of Scottish politics more broadly.

Where is Europe?

The first thing I observed is that two parties don't seem to want to talk about the EU at all. In neither the SNP broadcast, nor the Labour broadcasts, were the words "European Union" even uttered. Neither of these parties, both nominally pro-EU, seem to have anything to say about how decisions are made in the elections we have in barely 3 weeks' time. No discussion about climate change. No discussion about our economic relationship with Europe. No discussion about the benefits to us as EU citizens. No discussion about the challenges the EU faces in terms of reform and helping us better to tackle the problems that remain stubbornly immune to borders. They seem to be banking on the inherent apathy people have towards these elections and institutions, in the hope that they won't be asked actually to do anything about it.

All this Referendum Malarkey

The second thing I noticed is that the SNP broadcast just talks about independence and the referendum. It's a rehash of previous general broadcasts they have used to support their raison-d'etre. It was rather light on actual substance in terms of new arguments for independence, repeated some pretty tired themes with which anyone with a television set in the last decade will now be familiar (still bashing on about Tony Blair's illegal war in Iraq, misleading platitudes about university education, ending "rule by Westminster politicians" and the like). If they were looking to use this broadcast as a springboard to winning a 3rd seat in Scotland on 22nd May, this was a pretty uninspiring way to do it, and its lack of freshness probably will not help them noticeably in the independence referendum.

It does, though, prove symptomatic of the one-dimensional outlook they are taking to politics in Scotland at the moment. Everything is seen through the prism of the referendum, and an opportunity to make capital there, while other meaty issues get swept under the carpet. Far from making the case for "independence in Europe" this broadcast was using one poll to affect another, something which others have pointed out may in fact fall foul of OFCOM's rules on Party Election Broadcasts. Rule 18 specifically provides that "the purpose of a PEB must not be to promote any particular outcome of a referendum". Given the only reference to a polling day in the broadcast is 18th September, you have to think they've got a point, albeit it is OFCOM more than the SNP that would have questions to answer.

Where is Scotland?

The third thing I noticed, first and foremost, was that the broadcast last week (23rd April) on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, er, wasn't. It was the generic one put out by Labour across the UK. And, as I pointed out earlier, it has nothing to say about the EU elections. It is a three minute David Morrissey voice-over diatribe about David Cameron and the Tories, and their top-down reorganisation of the NHS with a swipe about the Lib Dems breaking their promises on tuition fees. I point this out because not only was it a London hand-me-down, but it was talking about things that are totally irrelevant to voters in Scotland, where different policies are pursued. It continued to give me the distinct impression that Labour just doesn't get devolution, the long-standing irony given they delivered it.

They don't know whether they like centralisation for solidarity or subsidiarity to allow for genuine difference. It's not just a problem for them in Scotland. When Ed Miliband talks about creating regional ministers in England, that's not a creed of localism. On the contrary it ignores the people and bodies at a more local level who already exist. His solution is not to give Yorkshire a man in Westminster, but Westminster a man in Yorkshire. Labour, in embodying this top-down concept of local power, find themselves institutionally at odds with the EU debate. Their problem is they don't know what the EU is for either. They can't talk about a vision for Europe or what they want to do with the EU, because they don't have a big idea for it. They don't really get the European principle of subsidiarity, so they don't know how to fight for it.

I had thought this was the only offering Labour would give Scotland, but it was brought to my attention that this evening they did in fact release a Scotland specific broadcast. It was much the same story, though. Combining the failures of their UK-wide broadcast with that of the SNP, they managed not to talk about the EU, mutter platitudes about the independence referendum and not say much else. Though not as explicit as the SNP broadcast, this too could arguably fall foul of the OFCOM rules for irrelevancy.

Partial credit for candour

At least the Tories had the courage to talk about the European Union in their broadcasts, both their UK-wide one and their Scottish one. They outlined the broad achievements they believe Cameron has secured in the EU, the broad areas they want to change about our relationship with the organisation, and what their policy is on a future referendum. You can disagree with their policies, but both their UK and their Scottish message actually dealt with EU-issues, and in a way which was at least relatively constructive rather than overtly hostile as we hear from UKIP.

An idea for Europe

Which leaves, among the parties still holding seats in the European Parliament from Scotland, the Liberal Democrats. Now of course I'm biased. But it's not as though the Scottish Lib Dems have an unblemished track record on Election Broadcasts. I still have the occasional nightmare thinking about Tavish Scott's wind-tunnel "Save our Police" disaster in 2011. But the Lib Dem effort this time round is pretty much the only one with a clear, unequivocal, positive message specifically about EU issues and how the EU works for us, pitched to a Scottish audience to deal with our concerns. It talks about trade, growth, employment, education initiatives like Erasmus, environmental standards, cross-border co-operation on crime and raising employment protections across the single market.

Will these broadcasts significantly impact the way people vote on 22nd May, or even if they vote at all? Probably not. But that's surely all the more reason for our political parties to take on the responsibility of using platforms like that to explain to people why they should care and why they should learn about what it is the EU does and how it affects their lives. If we treat the EU elections just as an excuse to propagandise about whatever side of Scottish independence or to ram home the mid-term-blues of the government of the day, is it any wonder the only people who are left caring about Europe are the nutters who want out of it? Scotland isn't as Eurosceptic as the UK as a whole. There is no serious danger of the majority of the Scottish population wanting out of the EU.

But if Scotland's two biggest parties won't make the positive case for the EU, either in its current form or reformed, it is only the cause of international co-operation that suffers. With every election that fails to break 40% turnout, we entrench the apathy without quelling the antipathy, on a popular mandate that withers the further we move away from 1975. If people don't trust or won't support, institutions which benefit them and their children, and their children after them, then our political class have only themselves to blame.

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