The European Parliament's hand-out to the far-right

The decision to award money to anti-semitic parties shows where the EU is going wrong.

The fight against anti-semitism has just got a whole lot more difficult. The Conservatives, Socialists and Liberals in the European Parliament have just decided to extend a massive subsidy to promote political anti-semitism. €289,266 of taxpayers' money will now be given to openly anti-Jewish parties like Hungary's Jobbik, whose MEPs tried to take their seats in Strasbourg wearing the uniform of the anti-Jewish Hungarian Guard. Krisztina Moravi headed the Jobbik list in the last European Parliament elections and declared she "would be glad if the so-called Hungarian Jews went back to playing with their tiny circumcised dicks instead of vilifying me."

Another beneficiary is the British National Party, whose leader and senior MEP, Nick Griffin, has denied the holocaust and whose only lengthy publication, Who are the Mindbenders?, accused Jewish journalists of forming a secret lobby to control the media. Griffin has moved on to plough the more politically profitable furrows of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia but across the European far-right the threnody of a disappeared national identity lost of Jewish influence remains strong.

Predictably, le grandpère of anti-semitic parliamentary politics, Jean Marie Le Pen, who is still an MEP at the age of 83 after decades of anti-Jewish sneers, will also benefit from the handout. The European Parliament grant has been given to the European Alliance of National Movements, (EANM) a grouping of 13 far-right parties. Only three of them have MEPs - eight in total from Britain's BNP, France's Front National, and Hungary's Jobbik.

The grant is to the EANM, even though European Parliament rules stipulate that any political group in Strasbourg should have at least 25 members and have MEPs from at least seven member states. The hurdle is not that high and Britain's Conservatives were able to forge their own alliance with fellow Eurosceptic parties after the 2009 Strasbourg election. But under no interpretation of the European Parliament's rules is there any justification for giving thousands of Euros to extremist anti-democratic parties that do not even have the support to win the odd seat in the Strasbourg assembly under its lax proportional representation electoral system.

Instead this is a fix within a fix. Once elected, MEPs operate an Ottoman system of divvying up the spoils of office between themselves. In the closed corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg, the leaders of the Socialists, Conservatives, Liberal-Democrats, Greens, Communists and Christian Democrats decide who will be president of the European Parliament and who will chair all the key committees. The votes are pure formalities as the deals are decided by a handful of top MEPs without any reference to their colleagues, to their parties, still less to voters.

It is the depressingly undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the European Parliament that has led more and more pro-Europeans like Germany's former Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, France ex-president, Valéry Giscard D'Estaing and myself, to call for reform of the European Parliament so that is has some connection to European citizens.

The scandal of handing out cash to Europe's anti-semites and to parties without even an MEP to their name might encourage governments, who ultimately vote this money, to think harder about overdue reform of the European Parliament. Ever since David Cameron quit the mainstream centre-right grouping in the European Parliament to build links with Latvian defenders of the Waffen SS or the clericalist, nationalist Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Conservatives have had an unhappy relationship with the European Parliament. Their best-known MEP, Edward MacMillan Scott defected to the Liberal Democratic group in 2009 and last week, the Tories' best-known Midlands MEP, Roger Helmer, defected to UKIP.

But Labour and the Lib Dems are scarcely in better shape. UKIP and BNP MEPs outnumber Labour MEPs as the European Parliament allows the election of extreme or fringe candidates who have little real purchase in national politics in terms of parliamentary or local elections. The three decades of the European Parliament's existence has seen ever-decreasing participation in its elections. National parliaments feel utterly excluded from oversight of EU decision-making. The decision to award money to anti-semitic parties should be the occasion for a major re-think about the role and purpose of the European Parliament.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe Minister

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.