Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Being on the European campaign trail brought out the worst of us – and the best

I’ve been an MEP candidate for four weeks. Some of it has been exhausting. Most of it has been fun, writes Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler attends the launch of Change UK Getty
Gavin Esler attends the launch of Change UK Getty

The interviewer on a London radio station turned to ask his first question. “You used to be an interviewer on radio and TV,” he said to me. “So what question would you ask yourself now you are standing for election as a candidate for the European Parliament?”

One obvious question came to mind.

“Why?” I said. By which I meant I imagined people would be wondering: “Why would anyone jump into the seething pit which British politics has become?"

“And your answer?” he said. Ah, that takes a bit longer.

Some people enter political struggles because they have a dream. I have a nightmare. Britain is a great country but we are destroying ourselves over Brexit. For 40 years the governing Conservative party has been arguing with itself about Europe. Their failure to agree has led the party to unseat five prime ministers – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and now Theresa May.

The Conservative party is at it again, staging a leadership fight while Britain staggers zombie-like towards another Brexit deadline. Watching the state of my country today is like watching a much-loved friend about to carry out an act of self-harm. If someone you love was about to fall off a cliff or jump in front of a speeding truck, what would you do? I joined a new political party, Change UK, in the hope of stopping the self-harm, because traditional British political parties seemed more part of the problem than the solution.

I’ve been an MEP candidate for four weeks. Some of it has been exhausting. Most of it has been fun. I have loved being in packed halls debating with other candidates. I’ve enjoyed radio phone-ins, debates and TV discussions. But the biggest and best surprises have been on the streets of London. Londoners are busy people. We walk fast, talk fast and avoid conversations or eye-contact on the Tube or buses. For me, the best surprises have been the countless people who have stopped to chat, to complain about the state of British politics, to give me a thumbs-up sign, or to ask usually well-informed questions about what we can do to stop Brexit. Some offer handshakes and hugs. Could this be the supposedly reticent British? Forget it. Brexit has brought out some of the best of us, not just the worst.

In the European elections, Change UK took 117,000 votes in London, although not enough to win a seat. The good news is that the latest figures show clear pro-Remain parties took more than 5.5 million votes across the UK while the parties that advocated crashing out of the EU with no deal took fewer than 4.9m. Britain has effectively become a Remain country after three years of arguments. The real battle to save Britain from Brexit through obtaining a People’s Vote or second referendum is about to begin.

There were some dispiriting moments in the campaign. The worst was a young woman in central London who told me she would be voting for the right-wing Brexit Party of Nigel Farage because 'the European Union is totally undemocratic'

Politics has changed. In my last TV campaign debate, I finished quickly and left the TV studio to get in a taxi to go home. In the 10 minutes it took to start my journey a rival political party had clipped part of the interview and put it on Twitter in the hope of boosting their candidate. This kind of instant response on social media demands big money and a large organisation – which unfortunately my party does not yet have. What also strikes me is how creaky the British way of doing politics looks right now. The Conservative party – which used to be the party of business with a reputation for competence – appears to be having some kind of permanent psychodrama. Conservative MPs have changed their minds again and want to vote on their third new leader in three years, while denying ordinary British citizens the right to change their mind about leaving the EU. Fewer than 120,000 Conservative members, with an average age of 70 – the equivalent of 0.27 per cent of the population – will decide who our next prime minister will be.

Even the way we vote looks like something from the 19th century. Most European countries vote at weekends, when people have time off work. Britain votes on Thursdays, a working day. There are various disputed explanations for this but the impact is clear. Our voting places are schools and on voting days, those schools have to be closed. This month there have been two separate elections on Thursdays, meaning two days off school, plus two Mondays off as public holidays. Young children therefore have had a whole month of four days a week schooling instead of five. This is crazy.

We have strict 20th century laws intended to ensure fairness on TV and radio broadcasts. But most voters nowadays get political news from websites, blogs, Tweets, Facebook and other 21st century conveniences. How long will it take for our voting procedures to catch up? Is there any reason why I trust online banking but we do not yet have online voting? There were some dispiriting moments in the campaign. The worst was a young woman in central London who told me she would be voting for the right-wing Brexit Party of Nigel Farage because “the European Union is totally undemocratic”.

I pointed out to her that she was voting in the European Union elections for the European Parliament, because the EU is based on a series of democratic institutions – the European Council of democratically elected leaders of 28 states, and a European Parliament in which Britain has 73 democratically elected members. There was a long silence between us.

“Oh,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author, presenter and a European parliamentary candidate for the Change UK party

Updated: May 27, 2019 03:05 PM

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