A day of MP meetings, media interviews, and flag waving
My meeting with Caroline Flint, how I (almost literally) bumped into Ed Miliband, my mortifyingly embarassing moment in Central Lobby, and more!
Wednesday 13th February was an eventful day. I travelled to London with representatives from 10 Yorkshire Pro-EU groups (see press release) to meet MPs supporting a People’s Vote and hand them letters for all 54 Yorkshire MPs on behalf of all our grassroots campaign groups. Arrangements had been made for us to meet the media at 2.30pm with the MPs (Angela Smith, Mary Creagh, Barry Sheerman, Alex Sobel) and we knew the media crews were on a tight timetable to get the news segments edited and ready for the early evening news. We arrived in central London with minutes to spare, only to find there was a blockade by black cab drivers on the roads around the Houses of Parliament, so we hopped out of the minibus and ran (I know!) to get there in time.
All went well and the MPs were wonderfully supportive. They – and we – did some interviews, then after a brief tour of the Palace of Westminster kindly guided by Will from Mary Creagh’s office, we joined the valiant SODEM campaigners for some hearty flag waving! Ah, but before I forget, during our brief tour, as we were walking up the stairs from Westminster Hall to Central Lobby, Ed Miliband walked past. I don’t know what possessed me, but I just shouted, very excitedly “Ed!”. He looked rather startled but was absolutely lovely as I introduced myself, and we agreed to arrange a meeting in Doncaster to discuss the Brexit situation and our Brexitometers, and that of course some of his constituents, who are members of Best for Doncaster, would attend the meeting. It was shortly after this chance encounter, and definitely not because of it, that, while walking across Central Lobby, I managed to embarrass myself in spectacular fashion by tripping over my own feet and faceplanting in the middle of the round carpet in the centre of Central Lobby! My pride definitely suffered the biggest bruise, though my poor left knee took the brunt of my not insubstantial weight landing on it with a hefty thud…ouch!
Outside, the atmosphere at the SODEM demonstration was wonderful and we were delighted to meet the wonderful Steve Bray and the rest of the team! I know we all felt proud to be doing our bit to support them, as they are out there every day that Parliament sits, in all weathers, often starting before the sun comes up and staying late into the night on the many nights of crucial Parliamentary votes.
At this point, I need to back up a little and explain that late the night before (I had been ill for a week and hadn’t known until the last minute whether I’d be well enough to attend this event), I had e-mailed the offices of all three Doncaster MPs, asking if it would be possible to have a meeting while I was in Westminster. Rosie Winterton was unfortunately tied up in meetings all day but asked us to arrange to meet her again in Doncaster, I’ve already told you about my encounter with Ed, and Caroline Flint kindly agreed to meet me after an afternoon committee meeting at 5pm. So come 4.30pm, I trotted back across the road, back through the Cromwell entrance security procedures, and made my way to Central Lobby again – this time without falling over, I’m glad to say!
My meeting with Caroline Flint
Caroline had clearly had a long day – she got held up in her committee meeting but made sure that someone from her office came and updated me on likely timescales – and I appreciated her making the time to meet me at such short notice.
We talked for a long time – about 45 minutes, I think! Caroline had a great deal to say and, although I found it difficult at times to interject or ask follow-up questions, I found her to be friendly and our talk to be productive and informative. We certainly didn’t see eye to eye on many points, and definitely not on the issue of a People’s Vote, but then I don’t think either of us was expecting that to be any different! We did, however, find that we could speak about our concerns and our views openly and in the spirit of keeping dialogue open.
One of the first things Caroline mentioned was EU citizens’ rights, as she is aware that I am Italian and German and have previously mentioned my concerns to her regarding my status here in the UK. Whilst I am less optimistic than Caroline about the overall safeguarding of EU citizens’ rights that a departure from the EU with a deal would entail, I was heartened that Caroline shared some of my concerns about the lack of physical evidence available for those who obtain Settled Status.
One fundamental point on which Caroline and I agree is that the UK must avoid leaving the EU without a deal. Caroline reiterated that she would always vote for a deal where there is a choice between that deal or no deal. I asked her why, if she is as convinced as I am that we must avoid a ‘no deal’ situation, she voted against the Cooper and Reeves amendments on 29th January. Caroline told me she felt these amendments were not going to be effective but rather were another way to prolong uncertainty by kicking the can down the road. On this point, our opinions will continue to diverge. One point of agreement, however, was that when Parliament does eventually get to vote on Theresa May’s deal again, it should be a free vote.
Caroline believes that a deal will be reached eventually, and she would not object to a brief extension to Article 50 if this happened so late in the day that more time was required to pass necessary legislation in Parliament to ensure we are not left with legislative gaps. She firmly believes that a deal will be reached, and that a GOOD deal can be reached, and that with safeguards being put in place for employment rights, leaving the EU would not pose a threat to the UK or Doncaster, but could present opportunities. She feels that many of her constituents haven’t felt the benefits of local EU investment. She also talked about depression of wages being caused by EU citizens coming to work in low-skilled jobs for less money than UK citizens. I mentioned that there is legislation to prevent that and Caroline talked about how that was limited and hadn’t been properly enforced. Again, we will remain in disagreement about whether this is a UK issue or an EU issue. I, and the many campaigners I stand side-by-side with regularly, feel that too much is being blamed on the EU when it is actually the UK government that is failing its own people. Ironically enough, one point Caroline and I do agree on is that if Brexit does go ahead, in whatever form, UK governments will no longer be able to blame the EU for their own shortcomings!
On the matter of a People’s Vote, unsurprisingly, we had the longest discussion and strongest disagreement. Caroline feels that not only there shouldn’t be one, but that there won’t be one. I stated, as I have done many times, that this would’t be a re-run of the 2016 referendum; the referendum asked people about whether they wanted to leave. Now that we know what leaving might look like, it seems only fair to ask people whether they agree with the deal or whether, on balance, they’d rather keep the deal we already have and remain in the EU. I mentioned that there are no credible reports that show that any version of Brexit will be good for the UK, and that every government report shows the country will be poorer.
I also told Caroline that, as an MP, I believe it is her responsibility to do what she believes is best for her constituents, not to simply do what they tell her to do, as she is not their delegate. I asked her what’s changed, given that she campaigned for ‘remain’ in 2016, so must have felt that Brexit would not be best for the UK and for her constituents. Caroline told me that although she campaigned for ‘remain’, she is pragmatic about the EU and sees a number of issues with its institutions, including the way MPs are elected (on this note, she and I shared a concern about the rise of far right parties that are potentially going to take more seats in the European Parliament, but we differed in our views of the UK’s role – I feel that the UK could take the opportunity to be a voice of reason and continued democracy against this rise of the far right, educating the British public to the benefits and importance of voting in European Parliamentary elections to try and stem the tide, but Caroline feels that this is not the UK’s role or responsibility).
Caroline doesn’t feel that a good Brexit deal will result in people being poorer. When I said that voters were promised sunlit uplands and now the best we hear is “we’ll manage”, she said she is convinced we will more than manage. She told me she speaks to many constituents and that if there was another referendum, they would “roar again”, as they did in 2016, and that she is concerned that some who finally felt, in 2016, that their voice would be heard and their vote would matter as much as anybody else’s, would never vote again if they were now told their vote didn’t matter after all. My view, as I told Caroline, is that their voice should absolutely be heard on this crucial matter – they should get to express their views on the deal that is available, that it’s only fair, and that this is their chance to reinforce their viewpoint to Westminster if they so wish. I also stressed that we talk to many people when we hold Brexitometer events, and that overwhelmingly we find that, even amongst those who voted leave and who still strongly feel we should leave the EU (and I made it clear I don’t believe Doncaster is suddenly a remain-supporting town, even though a number of people have told us they have changed their minds), our Brexitometers consistently show that there is support for a People’s Vote with the option to remain, because voters no longer trust politicians. I invited her, again, to join us on a Brexitometer, but Caroline told me she has not encountered this view when talking to her constituents and feels that her methodology for interacting with constituents is more robust than ours. We will continue to disagree on this and Best for Doncaster will continue to hold Brexitometer events to gauge the Doncaster public’s views.
I expressed that one of my concerns is that, if Britain does leave the EU, Brexit won’t go away and neither will the uncertainty. There will be years of trade deal discussions (which she agrees of course will be the case for at least the duration of a transition period if there is a Brexit deal), during which other important matters, such as addressing issues of poverty and neglect of many areas of the country, will continue to be ignored. Parliament and government, I believe, will have its hands tied by Brexit for a very long time if it does go ahead, in whatever form.
Although Caroline and I will continue to diverge on the crucial matter of a People’s Vote and a few other points, as outlined above, we left on friendly terms, agreeing to meet again and discuss matters further as events unfold. One thing is certain, the next few weeks will not be boring by a long stretch, and we’re in for a bumpy white-knuckle ride, whatever the outcome! I look forward to catching up with Caroline either here in Doncaster, or the next time I travel down to Westminster for a day of action – and I will endeavour to give her a little more notice when asking her to meet with me.