Catherine Bearder on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
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The last Liberal Democrat: meet Europe's lonely liberal

Last month’s defeat for the Liberal Democrats was bad, but their defeat in last year’s European elections was even worse. One year on, Catherine Bearder is struggling with her role as the lone voice of British liberalism in Europe.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the European Parliament in Brussels, and a group of students visiting from the University of Winchester is listening to a mild-mannered 66-year-old MEP named Catherine Bearder.

“I’m the last Liberal Democrat left in the European Parliament,” she tells the students with a touch of melancholy. “But I’m the lucky one, at least I’m still here.”

From her face, it seems Bearder is not entirely sure how lucky she is. The Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, considered by many to be the most influential British delegation in the previous term, was almost completely annihilated in last May’s European Parliament election. Their count of 12 MEPs dropped to just one.

It is the peculiarity of the UK’s electoral system that thrust Bearder, a largely unknown MEP, into this pivotal role. While most member states have one national party list, the UK votes in 12 individual constituencies, each with their own candidate list. Bearder found herself at the number one spot on the Liberals’ list in the UK’s Southeast region, the country’s largest, after Sharon Bowles decided not to stand for another term.

The 11 other sitting MEPs from other constituencies weren’t so lucky. The Liberal Democrats lost their Brussels heavyweights like Graham Watson, Andrew Duff and Ed McMillan-Scott.  If the UK had national party lists like most other European countries, the one MEP returned to the Parliament would have likely been Watson, who now leads the pan-European liberal party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.

Bearder recalls the bittersweet moment in May 2014 when she learned she had been re-elected. “I had us down as probably four coming back,” she says. She watched as, one by one, her colleagues were eliminated. For a moment it looked as if the party could be completely wiped out. And then late in the night Bearder got the call. She had just squeaked by with a victory, and would be the only one returning.

“It wasn’t survivor’s guilt that I felt,” she recalls. “It was huge relief, but also I was feeling desperately sorry to lose all those years of experience. And then it dawned on me - this is going to be a completely different job than I thought.”

“I had thought that when I came back I would concentrate on environment and human trafficking issues,” she says. “I realised, I’m going to have to change the office, to make sure we cover all the committees. Plus we were in government so they needed me to be flagging up to them what was happening. It was a bit terrifying really.”

No time for wildlife

Having long been involved in local politics in Oxfordshire, Bearder entered the European Parliament in 2009. During her first term she concentrated on her two pet issues – wildlife conservation and human trafficking. She is married to a zoologist and spent many years in Africa studying hyenas.

But now that Bearder is the sole representative of the Liberal Democrats in the EU institutions, she can no longer afford to dedicate herself to her pet projects.

“I thought I was going to come back and concentrate on the environment and trafficking, but that keeps getting pushed out of the way really,” she says. “That’s frustrating. All the local parties will want me to come and do the dinner circuit in the Autumn. And because there’s only one of me I have to cover the whole country. So it will pull me away from here I suspect.”

At the start of the new term in July 2014, Bearder inherited what was left of the Liberal Democrats infrastructure in Brussels. Parliamentary civil servant posts are doled out based on the size of national delegations, which means that 90% of Liberal British employees in the European Parliament got the axe last year. Those that are left are walking Bearder through the big issues. She now finds herself issuing press releases on every EU development even when she is not expert in the subject, from banking reform to migration to the FIFA scandal.

This has led to some tension between Bearder and the Liberal Democrat machine in Brussels. They want her to focus on the big issues, but she wants to spend more time on wildlife conservation.

“A lot of us are helping her out on a voluntary basis, not just her staff at the Parliament,” says one Liberal Democrat who works outside the Parliament in Brussels. “She’s only one person and she can’t do everything…but there are people who want her to focus more on the big issues.”

Bearder’s busy schedule is compounded by the fact that she was also elected as a qaestor, something akin to the ways and means committee in the Westminster parliament. She is the only British MEP in this bureau, which sets the rules and administrative procedure for the Parliament. This election came much to her own surprise, but with the plurality of the British delegation largely uninterested in the administration of the European Parliament, she was one of the few Brits who put herself forward for the role.

One woman, 12 jobs

Bearders concentration on wildlife and trafficking in the previous term was typical for the role of an MEP within a large delegation, where each person usually takes on a niche issue on which to devote their issues. With her 11 former colleagues now out of the Parliament, Bearder’s office receives many calls from former MEPs who want to tell Bearder how to use the Liberal Democrats’ one vote.

McMillan Scott, voted out last year, wants Bearder to continue his work on the ending the Parliament’s so-called “travelling circus” of holding sessions in Strasbourg, France once a month.

“I single-handedly resurrected the campaign for a single seat in the European Parliament,” he notes. “I rather shamelessly used my position as a vice-president, where you can be more impartial, and formed a cross-party group. The campaign moved the issue from silence to 78% of members voting to scrap the Strasbourg seat in the last term.”

Without McMillan-Scott’s leadership the single seat campaign has largely gone silent in the new term, and Bearder hasn’t yet had time to get involved in trying to revive it. Such has been the fate of many issues which Liberal Democrats had championed.

“There were some big personalities in our delegation,” says McMillan-Scott. “Andrew Duff with his hard federalism, Sharon Bowles who was chairman of the economics committee, Sarah Ludford who was a vice-president of the Parliament. I sympathise with Catherine that she has to carry all these burdens on her own.”

“They’re always on the other end of the phone,” Bearder says of her former colleagues. She notes that former MEP Chris Davies, instrumental in reforming the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, is helping her with fisheries issues. Ludford now sits in the House of Lords and is a crucial lifeline to Westminster. Bowles is now a director at the London Stock Exchange.

Comparing the situation to a national parliament, it is notable that the MEPs who were the most successful in the European Parliament were the ones voted out, while an MEP without much legislative achievement was re-elected. But this is the reality of the European elections, which are fought almost entirely on national issues rather than European ones, particularly in the UK.

“That’s the world we live in,” notes one former Liberal Democrat official. “The other MEPs got a lot done in the European Parliament, but Catherine has always been very good at local politics and she was in her constituency often. That’s where she excels, she’s very personable. But it seems that the more successful work you do in Brussels and Strasbourg, the less likely you are to be re-elected.”

A transformed pan-European group

The Liberal Democrats aren’t alone in their misfortune. In the previous term they and their liberal colleagues from the German FDP party were the two largest parties in the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. Both were decimated in last year’s European election – the FDP fell from 12 seats to three. The pan-European liberal group is now made up of a motley crew of small parties. The largest party is now EDP, the liberal alliance of France, with seven MEPs.

“The fact that we were decimated was an important feature in changing the character of the ALDE group,” says former MEP Andrew Duff. “The group is now composed of quite a large number of small parties from small countries. It makes the cohesion of the group rather more problematic than it had been previously.”

With the cacophony of voices now in the pan-European liberal group, it has fallen to Bearder alone to represent British liberalism. “In the group, I’m the spokesman for all the Brits,” says Bearder. “When I speak now, people do listen, wheras before if you have heavyweights like Andrew and Graham in the party, you can just sit back and relax.”

There is concern within the liberal democrat ranks that Bearder may not have the stamina to occupy such a demanding role for the full five-year term. However Duff believes that with the help of the Liberal Democrat infrastructure in Brussels, she can hold the fort.

“One ought not to underestimate the problems that we face, but having said that, Catherine has got broad shoulders, and we are preparing to recuperate from this electoral disaster,” he says. “But I’m not certain it can be done in a great hurry.”

Bearder believes that Britain’s upcoming in-out EU referendum will give the Liberal Democrats more visibility, as the most pro-European British party. It will fall to her to do much of the campaigning for the yes vote.

“We need to concentrate on selling our values, the things that make us Lib Dems,” she says. “The voters need to see that there is a reason to vote for us.”

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.