Douglas Alexander speaks at the Labour conference in Liverpool in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Douglas Alexander's speech on the European Elections: full text

"Labour will not follow the Conservative Party’s approach of first ignoring, then insulting, and then imitating UKIP."

The choice facing the UK

 

The choice on Europe on the 22nd of May is not between the status quo or exit – it is between different priorities for the United Kingdom.

 

Labour’s priority is tackling the cost-of-living crisis and reforming Europe to make it work for working people.

 

Ed Miliband would govern in the national interest and focus on what is best for Britain.

 

The Conservative Party, however, riven by doubt and driven by weakness, has made it clear that its priority is a divisive and deeply damaging debate about whether or not to leave Europe.

 

It is a position forced upon the Prime Minister by his own rebellious backbenchers and his fear of attack from the right by UKIP. 

 

Labour is clear that Europe needs to change.

 

But the real tragedy is that David Cameron seems to be spending more time negotiating with his backbenchers than negotiating with other European leaders.

 

Just two weeks away from the European elections, it is becoming even more obvious that David Cameron's approach depends on him getting unanimous EU support from 27 member states in just 24 months – and the truth is that today he has none.

 

 

A week on from launching our campaign for these elections, Labour is still setting the agenda and dominating the news with our vision for how Britain can do better.

 

Look back at the news from the last seven days and you will see Labour has set out plans for tackling the challenges facing generation-rent, widening the scope of the public-interest test for foreign take-overs and announcing policies to help families deal with the growing cost of childcare.

 

This is a campaign being driven by Labour’s ideas and responding to the public’s concerns - and the Tories and Lib Dems are left trying to play catch up all the way until polling day.

 

Our campaign is driven by our activists, defined by our ideals and being delivered by our candidates.

 

While Labour is running a campaign focused on how we want to change the country, the Lib Dems and Tories are running away from the real questions about how the country is run, and for whom.

 

 

Speak to any British business looking to engage in how Europe works and they will all tell you they need MEPs engaged in the detail of delivering the reforms Europe needs.

 

From our financial services, to our pharmaceutical industries, from our universities, to our manufacturers and they will all tell you Britain needs MEPs that are engaged, at the table and on the side of British families.

 

I know that our Labour MEP candidates are the best people to take this agenda forward.

 

I am proud of the work that our Labour MEPs are doing in Europe - from tackling the dangerous risk-taking culture and big bonuses that contributed to the financial crisis, to championing new initiatives on youth unemployment and consumer protection.

 

Without a strong Labour voice in the EU we would not have successfully cracked down on the marketing of cigarettes to children, or demanded more openness about where our food has come from.

 

So these elections matter. They matter because Labour MEPs are the best champions for change in Europe.

 

Our MEPs are champions not just for Labour, but for Britain.

 

 

In these elections our opponents are not only the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. It is UKIP too.

 

I recognise that UKIP is tapping into a deep sense of discontent.  Millions of families feel they work harder and harder but feel themselves slipping further and further behind. 

 

There are legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration which my own party ignored for too long.  And there is frustration with politics as a whole.

 

That is why Labour’s priority at home is action on jobs, wages and prices, and in Brussels why our MEPs will focus on common economic challenges and anxieties about immigration.

 

We will fight for fairer rules on what happens when people move here from other EU countries, and we would take action to help prevent pay and conditions in the UK from being undercut. 

 

UKIP’s domestic policies are out of date and out of step with the British public – but so too are their naive views about Britain’s place in the modern world, because there is simply nothing splendid about isolation in the twenty first century.

 

I reject a UKIP-style view of foreign policy, with Britain relegated to an economic and diplomatic island – isolated from Europe, irrelevant to America, and invisible to Asia.

I take the challenge that UKIP poses to all political parties seriously.

 

Labour will not follow the Conservative Party’s approach of first ignoring, then insulting, and then imitating UKIP.

 

Where Labour differs from the Conservatives is that we know our approach must not to try to be a better UKIP, but to be the Labour Party at its best.

 

The truth is that voters only know one thing about UKIP. And the more they know, I think the less they will like.

 

Nigel Farage likes to say he is the only politician “keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive”.

 

UKIP’s policies towards working people are more Thatcherite than Lady Thatcher herself.

 

They promise higher taxes for working families and huge giveaways for the rich.

 

UKIP wants bankers’ bonuses to be bigger. They would risk 3.5 million jobs by pulling out of the EU. They think the UK spends far too much money on the NHS.

 

UKIP wants to impose charges for visiting a GP. And scrap basic rights at work like maternity or sick pay.

 

That is why Labour’s message to the voters in this campaign is to say - UKIP don’t share your values.

 

 

And it is no coincidence that as the issue of Europe starts to rise up the agenda here ahead of the European elections, so too do the noises-off in David Cameron’s own party grow louder. 

 

Because ultimately, when it comes to the EU, David Cameron seems willing to simply march along to the banging drum of Tory backbenchers, without even a thought for where he is heading.

 

And the real tragedy is that we now have a Prime Minister willing to let the country sleepwalk towards exit, regardless of the costs to British families, jobs or businesses.

 

Because by forcing Britain to the margins of Europe, the Tories risk permanently downgrading our influence and relevance in capitals across the world.

 

And when it comes to EU reform, David Cameron is either unwilling or simply incapable of setting out any clear priorities, proposals or policies about what he wants to change in Europe. 


So just days away from the European elections, the British public are still none the wiser about what reforms he actually wants, whether he can deliver them and what he will do if he doesn’t.

 

You do not need a crystal ball to predict the consequences of such a state of affairs; you only need to read the history of John Major’s government: an ungovernable Conservative party unable to govern in the national interest which threatens to inflict huge uncertainty on business and undermine Britain’s influence abroad.

 

 

Labour does believe that the EU must be made to work better for Britain.

 

And it is Labour that has been leading the debate, from Opposition, about how the EU can and should change.

 

That’s why our MEPs called for a cut in the EU budget back in 2011; why I delivered a speech in 2012 setting out how to get the EU focused on promoting growth; why Ed Miliband set out Labour’s reform agenda in a speech this year and why only last month Gareth Thomas set out how to improve scrutiny of EU affairs.

 

A drumbeat of EU reforms from Labour, met only by the sound of silence from David Cameron.

 

Because unlike the Tory party, reform of Europe is not an off-limits conversation for Labour.

 

For Labour, being willing to speak up for our place in the Europe, does not mean being deaf to the concerns that some people have about our membership.

 

 

Labour’s reform agenda for the EU is focused on boosting Europe’s competitiveness, ensuring EU migrants coming to the UK contribute to our economy and our society, and avoiding a race to the bottom on skills and wages.

 

First, on the economy, our reforms will help deliver a Europe focused on jobs and growth, not more austerity and rising unemployment.  An EU Commissioner focused on Growth, and an independent audit of the impact of any new piece of EU legislation on growth, would be key to helping re-focusing the Union on this key task.

 

Second, our reforms will help ensure that EU citizens seeking work here are expected to contribute to our economy, and to our society. So we will extend the period of time that people from new member states have to wait before being able to come to the UK to look for work. We will work to stop the payment of benefits to those not resident in this country, will consult on changing the rules on deporting someone who receives a custodial sentence shortly after arriving in the UK, and have called on the government to double the time that an EU migrant has to wait before being able to claim the basic Job Seekers Allowance.

 

Any agenda for change in Europe must also address people’s concerns about how power is exercised at a European level. Labour does not support a drive towards an ‘ever closer union’.

 

Labour has called for national parliaments to have a greater role in EU decision making by being able to ‘red-card’ any new EU legislation before it comes into force; for serious reform of the EU Commission; and a zero based review of expenditure by EU agencies to help ensure that any overlap, duplication or waste is addressed and tackled.

 

We also need to change the way in which our Parliament here considers and scrutinises EU issues, which is why Labour has suggested a range of reforms to increase our Parliament’s influence over EU decision making. From the reinstatement of allocated debating time in Parliament for MPs to discuss the agenda before critical EU Council meetings, to a dedicated EU Select Committee and radically changing the process for appointing the UK’s EU Commissioner by giving Parliament more of a say.

 

 

Labour does not support more powers going from Britain to Brussels.

 

 

But given the uncertainty about precisely what a changing Europe and further integration in the eurozone might involve, Ed Miliband has acknowledged that a further transfer of powers remains unlikely, but possible. 

 

That is why he announced that a Labour government will legislate for a new lock: there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. 

 

This would not just be a referendum to ratify a decision on powers, because as we saw in other countries, referendums of this kind are too easy for governments to ignore.

 

Instead, it would have to be an in/out referendum, with a clear choice for the public to make on our membership of the EU.

 

 

Labour are clear that Britain’s future lies in Europe.

 

Because those opposed to our membership of the EU, today advocating exit, are not just on the wrong side of the political divide, but on the wrong side of history.

 

The modern world provides both the rationale for Europe, and reinforces the need for real reform and change within the EU.

 

Because in an era of billion-person countries and trillion dollar economies, the EU gives us influence collectively that when we act alone, we lack - and it does so at a time in our history when this has arguably never been more important.

 

If mechanisms for cooperation at a European level did not exist today, I believe that they would need to be invented.

 

So the stakes at these European elections are very high - for our national interest, for our economy, and for our place in the world.

 

And at a time when the game changing trade deal between America and Europe is within reach - Britain should be focussed on securing those jobs and investment rather putting our place in Europe at risk.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.