I can't live, if living is without EU. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ukip's European Parliament group has collapsed: what does this mean?

Why the collapse of Ukip's EU political group is good news for the UK and Europe.

It was not quite the political earthquake Nigel Farage was hoping for. Yesterday Ukip's group in the European Parliament collapsed after the departure of Latvian MEP Iveta Grigule, which left it bereft of the minimum seven countries needed to qualify as an official parliamentary grouping.

This will not just mean a loss of status. It will result in a major blow to the party's influence, with the loss of millions of euros worth of official funding for support staff and communications, and significantly less legislative influence - although given Ukip's lack of attendance the latter point is rather a moot one. In a personal setback for Nigel Farage, the loss of group status will also mean he will no longer be able to make his long leader's speeches at the European Parliament's monthly sessions in Strasbourg, which he routinely used as a soapbox to insult European leaders and undermine Britain's image abroad.

Given the fact that Ukip's very raison-d'etre is antipathy towards European cooperation, it's perhaps not altogether surprising that its group in the European Parliament has fallen apart. But we should remember that not long ago pundits were predicting that eurosceptic and far-right parties would dominate the new parliament. Many feared that a new alliance of populist and anti-European MEPs could lead to legislative gridlock and block progress on vital EU reforms. As it happens, the MEP group Nigel Farage cobbled together is the shortest-lived in history, narrowly beating the far-right ITS group formed in 2007 by Mussolini's granddaughter.

Ukip's marriage of convenience with MEPs from Italian comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, which was already beginning to fray due to fundamental differences on issues like the environment, now looks unlikely to continue. If he wants to try and resurrect his group, Farage may well have to turn to more extremist allies such as Marine Le Pen's French National Front, who he has already vowed not to get into bed with, and Geert Wilders' Dutch Party for Freedom, whose attempt at forming a far-right grouping failed earlier this year. Far from dominating the European Parliament, it seems that anti-EU parties are more divided than ever.

This should be welcomed by those us who believe in the principle of European cooperation and want to rebuild public faith in the EU. From Ebola through to Ukraine and Islamic State, it's clear that the big challenges facing Britain today are shared by our European neighbours and that we need to work together to address them. Ukip have built support on the back of disillusionment with the current political system, but while they are good at criticising they don't offer a credible alternative. They want to go back to an imaginary past when we need to move forward, radically change and improve the EU and allow it to unleash its full potential.

Across European capitals there is now widespread appetite for substantial changes to the EU to ensure it is more focused on the big issues where it adds real value, such as unleashing economic growth, protecting the environment and fighting organised crime. It is significant that the new European Commission, set to be voted on by MEPs next week in Strasbourg, will include a Vice-President for Better Regulation who will oversee all European legislation to make sure it's fit for purpose. Lord Hill, the UK's next Commissioner, has been put in charge of creating a banking union that will create huge opportunities for the British financial sector - tellingly, Ukip MEPs failed to turn up to a crucial vote on whether to approve him. Moreover, ambitious proposals are on the table to build a single market in energy and the digital sector and help kick-start growth across the EU. We need MEPs who will contribute to this process of reform, not seek to obstruct it. That is why the demise of Ukip's group is both good news for the UK and Europe as a whole.

Catherine Bearder is a Liberal Democrat MEP

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

0800 7318496