European Elections: On the campaign trail with the Lib Dems

What is it like to be a Europhile in a nation of isolationists?

May 21, 2014
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Sir Graham Watson (right) with Liberal Democrat peer Baronness Scott (centre) and prospective parliamentary candidate Sarah Yong (left). © Josh Lowe

The Liberal Democrat activists are excited. They only came in to Yatton railway station’s Strawberry Line Cafe for a quick cuppa, but one eagle-eyed team member has spotted the plaque on the wall proclaiming it to be EU funded. “We have to tweet it,” one says. Another snaps a shot of the sign, which identifies the cafe as a beneficiary of the “Rural Development Programme for England 2007-2013.” “I don’t think we even realised,” he tells me quickly, possibly worried that I think he set this up.

I am in Somerset to join Sir Graham Watson, Liberal Democrat MEP for the south west of England and Gibraltar (he was the party’s first MEP back in 1994), on the European election campaign trail. I’m hoping to learn what it’s like to try and win votes for a pro-European party at a time when, polls suggest, British people are turning away from Europe in general and the Lib Dems in particular.

Graham himself arrives, pulling up in a dusty beige Ford Fiesta driven by his Case Worker. A slight, upright man, Graham greets local supporters with a firm handshake and politely poses for a team photo.

And then we’re off. If Graham has a ticket on the Brussels gravy train, he must have left it at home. He and each of the 14 party activists (seven who arrived with Graham's Press Officer in the minivan he refers to as their “battlebus,” plus the seven locals) have been given a map with target houses marked on it. The goal is to cram leaflets through letterboxes in as little time possible; the team target is to deliver around 5,000 pamphlets a day. This has been Graham’s primary activity for the past four and a half weeks. It’s hard, unglamorous, selfie-free work.

The leaflets, styled like a local paper called The Clarion, major on hard issues: jobs and crime are both prominent on the front page. Graham looks serious in a hard hat in a picture captioned “IN Europe. IN work.” A frontpage teaser accuses the Conservatives and Ukip of going “soft on criminals.” The corresponding story focuses on Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May’s skepticism about the European arrest warrant (EAW) (May was last year persuaded to keep Britain in the Europe-wide extradition arrangement following negotiations with the Liberal Democrats). Graham considers his piloting of the scheme through the European Parliament to be one of his proudest achievements. He points out that without EAW it would have been much harder to work with French authorities to capture and return to Britain Jeremy Forrest, the teacher who absconded to France with a schoolgirl in 2012.

As we make our way through a deserted housing estate, we talk about Thursday’s election. Graham is realistic about his party’s chances, but dismisses the suggestion that they might be left with no MEPs. He points out that in the South East, for example, which sends 10 MEPs to the European Parliament, the party only needs to poll 7 per cent per cent of the vote to get one MEP (they took 14.1 per cent last time). He suspects they will end up with four MEPs “on a not terribly good day,” six to eight if they fare better. He cautions that to deliver effectively for British interests, a party needs “at least five or six.” And him? If the party is riding at 7 per cent nationally he wouldn’t rate his chances. 10 per cent and he should be OK (at the time of writing, YouGov’s polling has them at 10).

What about the implications of Thursday’s result for next year’s general election? Like his party’s leader, Graham concedes that time in government has damaged the party’s standing with voters. But he counters that, in the UK, there are far more pro-Europeans than there are current Lib Dem voters (43 per cent of the population and 11 per cent of the population respectively, according to YouGov). It’s possible that, shocked by a Ukip tidal wave this Thursday and repelled by the Conservative party’s inevitable pro-referendum General Election campaign, more of these might turn to the only proud “party of in.” Nick Clegg highlighted the party’s commitment to Europe in a speech on Tuesday, arguing that his party is best placed to reform Britain’s relationship with Brussels precisely because they are free from internal disputes about our continued membership of the union.

So pro-European votes are important, but equally important are the ones you know will be Eurosceptic. At one point on our walk Graham stops to note down the address of a house displaying an “I’m voting Ukip” sign; he’ll put it into the computer system at the constituency office as an address to avoid in future mailing campaigns. This seems sensible—it’s hard to imagine any floating voters will float all the way to Graham’s “party of IN” from Farage’s party of out at all costs. Graham’s disdain for Ukip is measured but palpable. Later, he explains that while parties often disagree on all aspects of EU business, Labour, Lib Dem and Tory MEPs have in the past been known to band together and lobby commissioners about issues facing their constituency. In his experience the same cannot be said of Ukippers.

I see these party divisions for myself at our next stop. Clustered in the BBC Bristol green room before a pre-record of a European elections debate, Graham and his Tory and Labour opponents bear delighted witness to the explosive anger of the Earl of Dartmouth, one of Ukip’s South West MEPs. Dartmouth is to be asked in the debate about the fact that that some land he once transferred to a relative could be used for wind turbines, a form of renewable energy which he opposes (Dartmouth later makes it clear on the programme that the transfer happened some time ago so it isn’t his land, that the application for the turbines isn’t his, and that he wouldn’t benefit financially if it were successful).

The furious Earl is having none of it. An expansive man with a haughty centurion’s nose, he waves his arms about as he bellows his refusal at Barltrop. “This isn’t even an interview,” cries Dartmouth at one point, “but it’s over.” He dashes into the car park, slamming the door behind him in a vain attempt to keep the dogged BBC hack at bay. The other candidates grin at the floor, stealing glances at each other like wedding guests enjoying a juicy family bust-up. Later, on the show, they’ll be at each other’s throats, but here they share a brief moment of respite from the Ukip onslaught. The respite is indeed brief, though—during the debate itself Dartmouth recovers his composure.

Polls vary but most put Ukip at or near the top of the running in these elections. Across the continent, Euroscepticism is rife. Parties preaching greater independence are set to do well, from Greece’s far-left Syriza to France’s right-wing National Front. Graham predicts European initiatives to combat climate change, such as drives to increase the use of low-carbon energy, would likely be an early casualty of an influx of right-wing, Eurosceptic opinion to the Parliament.

As for Graham, doesn’t he feel disappointed by this souring of public opinion towards the European project? “I’m not a hugely emotional person,” he says, “maybe I’ve been around too long.” But shouldn’t he and his fellow pro-Europe MEPs take some of the blame for the dramatic anti-EU turn in public opinion? Graham isn’t sure. Had he not ended up with such challenging and time-consuming roles on the continent, "I would probably have spent more time tilting at windmills and trying to change things,” he says. “But,” he adds with resignation, “I think I would have been disappointed.”

Graham is conscious of the obstacles ranged against him in the British media. As he points out, a good chunk of the national newspapers take a broadly anti-European stance. But he is deeply critical, also, of the BBC: “when it comes to European coverage, the BBC fails to live up to the commitment in its charter to educate and inform the public,” he says. It isn't an easy time to be a supporter of the Union: the party feels increasingly like a voice calling in the wilderness. But it’s clear that if Graham goes, it won’t be without a fight.