Catherine Bearder on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.”

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.