As I walk into The Greyson, a pub-come-arts-and-community-centre in Lancaster, Cat Smith is at the bar buying a round for a group of campaigners. She turns to me, “you’ve come at the right time, I’m just buying the drinks!” They have been going door to door to talk to people about the EU. “It was interesting this afternoon because we had people who were passionately pro-EU. I think Lancaster’s got more of them than other places.”
“The one thing that I will say, as someone who’s literally just come off the doorsteps of ordinary Lancastrians about this, is that people want facts. People feel ill-informed. People feel very overwhelmed by the choice. They are aware it’s a huge decision and it could have huge consequences, but they don’t know what those consequences might be, and none of us do.”
Elected last May to represent Lancaster and Fleetwood, Smith has become known as an early and impassioned backer of now Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Today I’m here to talk to her about the EU. Corbyn has a well-documented history of hostility towards the EU, though he now publicly supports Britain’s continued membership of the organization, a position Smith shares. “For me, it’s [about] workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental protection.”
“Whilst acknowledging that the Europe that I want isn’t the Europe that we have, there are many things I’d like to do to change Europe, but we can only change it by being in it.” If we leave, Smith says, we will still have to play by EU rules, but we will not have a say on what those rules are.
The Labour party have consistently argued that workers rights, and indeed human rights, are better protected if we remain in the EU. Smith agrees, “I think the European Union has been really fundamental in pushing [human rights].” I point out that the European Convention on Human Rights and by way of implication the European Court of Human Rights are not European Union institutions, we will still be part of them if we leave (unless Home Secretary Theresa May gets her way). The Convention has, so far, been much more effective at protecting rights than European Union legislation. Article 11 protects trade union rights, for example. Does the EU really lead on rights and protects them beyond the other existing frameworks and norms?
“As a woman, our maternity rights in the work place were won through EU legislation. A lot of the changes to maternity law happened under a government that didn’t particularly want to – at that point it was a Tory government in the UK – and the EU basically forced the UK government to have a system where we have paid maternity leave. A Labour government then got elected and increased it massively. It’s like a safety net, being in the EU.”
“Our rights are better than the EU minimum guarantees, but then we won them by being a member of the EU. You need to know that whichever government gets elected there are some worker’s rights and human rights.”
Aside from this, one of the major, and arguably most successful, of the policy areas adopted by the EU is on environmental issues. “I’ll be honest. A few years ago I’d probably be what you’d call a Eurosceptic. I didn’t really rate the EU. I saw it as being something that was set up in the interests of capitalism and big business. I wasn’t a big fan of the EU at all. But I went to the European Parliament and spoke to a load of MEPs about what they did, and the one thing for me was about the environmental protections. You can do things through the EU that has a much better and frankly much quicker impact on the climate than doing it nation by nation.”
“I’d say climate change [is the biggest threat facing us right now]. If you think about Lancaster, floods, changing climate. Those are the threats to Lancaster’s economy as a city. We should be working with our European neighbours to find solutions to rising river levels.”
Despite the successes in furthering rights and fostering international co-operation on environmental issues, Smith is less impressed with other EU policies. “I’m not someone who would describe myself as being very unconditionally, passionately pro-EU. There’s lots of criticisms that I have about the EU, things like TTIP I feel very strongly about.” TTIP is the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade deal between the United States and the European Union which is currently being negotiated. It has garnered controversy for the lack of transparency surrounding the deal.
“I don’t believe in trade deals being negotiated in secret, and when you have rumours that aren’t denied like the privatisation of the NHS, that’s a real concern for me. However, the reasons that I believe we should be in the EU, even if things like TTIP are happening at the moment, is because we would still have to have a trade deal with the US. We wouldn’t have an EU trade deal with the US, but we’d have a UK trade deal with the US. Our current government could negotiate something far worse than TTIP. I think we are safer working with other European countries. We get a better deal. It is about collective bargaining. I was brought up to believe that if we work together we can achieve better deals. Whatever it is, you have more power if there’s more of you.”
The euro, too, is not something the Lancaster and Fleetwood MP believes in. “I have never supported the euro. From the pure and basic economics, you cannot have a single currency unless you have political control over that currency. We don’t, and that’s always going to make the euro weak. The example is the difference between the euro in Germany and the euro in Greece. I don’t think the euro can work. It probably could’ve worked if you kept it within very similar economies, but you can’t have a joint currency in countries where you’ve got very different economies. I think one of the smartest decisions of Gordon Brown was not to join the euro. You know, I’m not some Little Englander, who’s on my island and who’s trying to push away from the rest of Europe. It’s just pure economics.” Though she urges, there is no political will whatsoever for Britain to join, “we will never go into the euro now.”
I ask her, as an anti-austerity candidate, about the financial crisis facing Greece and the subsequent austerity measures, largely determined by the EU and not the Greek government. “I think the Greek people have been treated really badly by the European Union. The solutions that the Eurozone has forced upon Greece will not solve the crisis, and exacerbates and makes things worse. I mean, it’s a difficult decision but possibly the best option will be to write off the debt and let them go back to the drachma. Again, the Greek economy doesn’t fit into the euro. That’s my worry with the expansion of the Eurozone, bringing more economies into the euro that just don’t fit it.”
Overall, however, Smith believes that the advantages of membership outweigh the disadvantages. “When people say they’re anti-EU, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, because I’ve been there. The more I learn about it, the more I realise… You know, the Europe that we have isn’t the Europe I’d have chosen. But if it wasn’t there, I’d build it. I want to change it, but if we’re going to change it we’ve got to be in it. I’d like to see more of a focus on the environmental issues. We’ve got to be in Europe for the future of the planet, frankly. It might seem a very extreme thing to say, but climate change is a real threat, and it’s not going away.”
“You can talk all you want about business and trade and Schengen and euros and all the rest of it and they’re a distraction from the real issue that is facing all our countries, whether you’re Greece or Germany. Yes, you’re very different economies, and your experience in the euro is very different, but you both face climate change. For the UK, the Committee on Climate Change Report 2013 was absolutely crystal clear, the biggest threat to the UK from climate change is flooding. I do not want Lancaster to go through what happened in December last year again.”
As for the referendum result? “I don’t make political predictions! I stopped making political predictions on the 7th May. No one saw that coming. I don’t know what the turnout will be and I don’t know what the result will be, and I’m not going to seek to predict it. I’m going to work as hard as I can to campaign for a yes vote for Europe.”
The referendum will be taking place on the 23rd June. Term finishes on the 24th. Wherever you will be, make sure you are registered to vote. To register, visit: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.