Sion Simon is Labour MEP for the West Midlands and also Labour candidate for West Midlands mayor. He has launched his campaign to win the elections on 4 May and he was able to find time in his busy schedule to come to Brussels Labour and talk about his vision for renewing local government.
Regional devolution has been long overdue. The previous Labour government took bold steps to devolve the UK along national lines but regional devolution in England was not a priority. As a result, the UK remains the most centralised country in the industrialised world.
Only 19% of public spending is determined at regional level in the UK, compared to 50% in Germany. Most UK cities have a GDP per capita under the national average. Cities are centres of decay and inequality. Brexit makes reform all the more important because of the economic uncertainty and the need to attract investment.
A regional devolution process has been launched by the government, but it is quite gradual. Whereas the 1999 national devolution package established a complete framework with clear division of powers, the current process is open ended and starts with a bidding phase this May.
What powers and budget will the new Mayors have ? This is as yet undefined because the first question is what do we need to do ? We need to develop a vision about where do we need to get to in eleven years from now. Then we infer what powers should be devolved as a function of those goals. The first term of the new Mayors will be essentially spent on consultations but by the second term we should have a defined set of policies, in particular as regards housing; development planning; transport; health and social care.
As regards budgets, Sion Simon argued that the Barnet formula allocates substantial per capita grants to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Birmingham has a lot higher unemployment and lower living standards so there is no quantitative argument to spend less on the West Midlands region.
However, the election challenge in 2017 will be to raise awareness in the electorate because the regional devolution process is unknown. The real test will be in 2020. However there is a need to deliver real change in the meantime. Areas where it should be possible to make a difference in the short term include transport ticketing; lowering rents on private housing; improving mental health care.
In the discussion that followed Sion clarified his position that whilst this government’s approach is insufficient, nonetheless he believed that it was an opportunity that had to be seized. Chancellor Osborne had realized that the regional economic imbalances were too great and that the South East was buckling. The new devolution had many flaws but was still an opportunity “to run our place”.
This devolution is based around the main connorbations and the West Midlands electorate comprises 2 million voters.
The new framework has a lot in common with the County Councils which were established in the 1970s and then abolished by Thatcher. In effect the Tories took away our manufacturing base and then took away our means to build it back.
Sion believed that England did have regional identities e.g. the Northeast but we didn’t have a tradition of regional government or a language to express our regional identities. The West Midlands has an identity linked to manufacturing, from steam engines and spitfires to electric cars. It is a creative engineering identity. A big part of the job of Mayor will be to articulate that identity, make it real and create a sense of pride.
He concluded by saying that the HS2 high speed rail link will be good for the West Midlands. The project itself will create jobs and in the longer term a 4% spike in growth is expected from the rail link to London. But Mayors will not have any say in the project, all power is in the hands of the HS2 company. There has not been enough local consultation and there is a risk of highly congested roads for decade to come during the building works as the local train service will be disrupted.
The next Brussels Labour Branch meeting will take place on Wednesday 25 January at 19:30 with Sion Simon MEP, at the Foundation for Progressive Studies (FEPS), Rue Montoyer 40, Brussels.
Sion Simon is an MEP for West Midlands and Labour’s candidate in the upcoming election for West Midlands Mayor.
The 2016 Memorial Lecture was held in remembrance of John Fitzmaurice and Mike Ridgeway. Mike passed away earlier this year and had participated in Brussels Labour for many years, including as auditor of our accounts. We warmly welcomed Françoise, Mike’s partner, to the meeting.
His fellow auditor, Peter Wragg, told us how Mike was well known in Brussels circles and was also an active member of the Belgian Parti Socialiste. He was quite a private person with a dry sense of humour but who was fiercely loyal to Labour and, today, would have called strongly for party unity. Peter had known well Mike and John and he was moved to remember how they had both been discreet but selfless and learned comrades.
Also on this occasion, Labour International was pleased to give Frazer Clarke an award in recognition of his services as Treasurer.
Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East led a Delegation of MPs and gave the keynote speech. Emma had been Shadow Minister for Europe, as well as a former Treasurer of Brussels Labour ! She was delighted to see many old friends and had come to Brussels to discuss the situation in her new role as a representative on the Brexit Committee in the House of Commons.
She recalled the first ever John Fitzmaurice lecture given by Neil Kinnock. In those days Socialists were in power in 11 countries across Europe and there was a sense of a world full of possibilities. Never would we have imagined what was happening today.
However, Emma went on to say that today we needed to accept the situation. Working people did feel that they were neglected and were worried about their livelihoods. The Theresa May government seemed to put migration above all other issues, to the extent that it seemed to put UKIP into power without being in office. A hard Brexit was possible but it posed huge questions.
The recent High Court ruling clarified that since Parliament voted for the European Communities Act when the UK joined the EU, then only Parliament could repeal it. Labour MPs are pressing for a transitional free trade arrangement to fill the gap between the end of the Article 50 exit procedure and the conclusion of a full free trade agreement in compliance with Article 218. Otherwise there was the risk of less favourable WTO rules coming into force.
Emma outlined her principles for an exit settlement. We should defend progressive rights and avoid race to bottom. We should also ensure the closest possible relations with the EU and reform free movement. There was a spectrum between all or no free movement and a debate was needed to convince voters that we had a fair system.
UK financial expertise and the role of the City of London were valuable to Europe as well as to the UK it was in our mutual interest to preserve this. Furthermore, it was in all our interests to have a new relationship with Europe including British participation to deal with strategic issues such as security.
In the discussion that followed several friends questioned whether Labour should support Brexit following a referendum based on misinformation and which risked leaving the UK worse off. Emma underlined that in her view it was necessary to respect the result of the referendum, where 17 million people had voted to leave the EU. It was fundamentally important to respect democracy.
Theresa May was apparently intent on leaving the single market and therefore Labour had to focus on setting its own objectives for the Brexit process. We needed to say that European cooperation was still valuable and have the softest Brexit possible.
Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, spoke about how Brexit and the Trump victory pointed to a new post-liberal age where popular opinion had shifted. Labour had a choice between continuing to fight for existing policies, and risk perpetual defeat, or engaging with this new mood.
Other comments included that the softest Brexit will leave Britain worse off than what we have now with no Schengen and the budgetary rebate; the need to be pragmatic if the Brexit negotiations revealed that the Leave promises were unattainable and public opinion changed; the need to ensure reciprocal rights for EU and UK workers and respect acquired rights.
Click here to read Emma’s speech in full.
The annual Brussels Labour pub quiz will take place on Wednesday 16 November at 19:30 at Café Place de Londres: 1050 Ixelles.
Please register your team of 4 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Entry is 5 euro per team member (20 euro per team) – please pay on the night.
The quiz is open to Brussels Labour members and non-members alike. Teams can also be signed up on the night.
There will also be a raffle, and the net proceeds of the event will be donated to the Jo Cox Fund.
Do come along, have some fun and support a good cause.
Look forward to seeing you there!
The 2016 Brussels Labour Annual Memorial Lecture will take place on:
Wednesday 9 November
Venue: The Press Club Rue Froissart 95, Brussels
Guest Speaker: Emma Reynolds MP
Further details to follow
Brussels Labour Extra-Ordinary General Meeting will take place on Wednesday 19th October to elect a new member of the Executive Committee and a new Branch Auditor following the sad loss of Mike Ridgeway.
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Communication: ‘[name] Subscription [year]’
Rates are €25 standard membership and €5 for stagiaires.
The Brussels Labour Constitution and Standing Orders can be downloaded here
We look forward to seeing you at the EGM on 19 October.
Brussels Labour hosted a meeting with socialist sister parties in September. Our comrades across Europe have naturally been very concerned by the Brexit referendum and its consequences for Britain, Europe and global affairs. Therefore we called a meeting, in a spirit of solidarity, to exchange views on the political situation. We were happy to welcome the Partito Democratico (IT), the Partij van de Arbeid (NL) and the Socialistische Partij Anders (BE) to the debate.
BLPG Chair, Jo Wood, opened the evening saying that each member of Brussels Labour was personally affected by the referendum result. We have chosen to live and work in Brussels, have built a life here with family, friends and commitments and whatever happens we will be directly affected. However, Brussels Labour intends to carry on being active to support the closest relationship possible with Europe. In particular, we would take up the cause of Brits living and working in the EU. Emily Thornberry, Shadow Minister for Brexit, had recently visited Brussels and had invited us to provide the Labour Party with briefings and inputs during the unprecedented negotiations which lay ahead.
I summarized the political situation in Britain, which had been shaken by the referendum. The new Conservative government was trying to give an impression of decisiveness but in fact everything was “in the air” pending the start of Article 50 negotiations. The country remained divided along the lines of the referendum, by nation, region and generation, in a debate that was described as “post-truth”, such was it driven by negative emotions and myths. Jeremy Corbyn, recently confirmed Labour leader, has said that the referendum should be respected but also that a Labour government would not seek to reduce immigration.
Jo explained how in Scotland there was little appetite for a second referendum on independence and Scottish Labour was opposing it, so as not to destabilize the situation further. Paul Hagan showed how, in Northern Ireland, the main issue was the border with the Republic of Ireland, which could become an external border of the EU.
Kier Fitch presented a number of difficult policy issues that would be thrown up by Brexit. Trade with Europe was not affected so much by tariffs but by non-tariff barriers. How would Britain retain meaningful access to the single market without regulatory alignment ? How would British researchers, scientists and students participate in their European programmes and networks ? Moreover, the ongoing court case on the invocation of Article 50 was critical because it would determine if the government would be able to bypass Parliament in negotiating the terms of Brexit.
In the discussion there were diverse views. Some friends thought that, as regrettable as it was, the referendum result had to be respected and there was no point in trying to avoid exit. Others felt that it was best to move quickly to conclude the terms of the exit and then decide on an informed basis whether they were acceptable. Another view was that there seemed to be no real “soft exit” option between becoming an ordinary third country like Canada and remaining in the EU: we should not leave the EU at any cost to working people’s livelihoods and rights.
Friends from sister parties asked what Labour’s approach to the negotiations would be. The need for a strategic approach was necessary, but had been forgotten during the referendum campaign. The Labour perspective on the EU as a way of managing globalization and international capital had not been articulated. However, with no overarching vision it would be difficult to have a coherent approach.