The Tories are putting their anti-European ideology over the interests of the British people

By giving people something to vote for at the European Elections - not only to vote against - Labour can progress.

The following are edited extracts from the keynote speech of East of England Labour MEP Richard Howitt to the Labour East Regional Conference taking place today (Saturday 23 November 2013) in Luton

When David Cameron says he wants to renegotiate in the EU on behalf of Britain’s position he should realise that that’s what Labour MEPs do all day, every day.

When he claimed he tried to limit the budget, it didn’t even convince his own MEPs, who voted against the deal.

Through negotiation Labour MEPs have made a huge difference just in the last year. We won an end to the obscene practice of dead fish discards, as part of reforming the Common Fisheries Policy, proving you win reforms by persuasion not by threatening to walk away. With the Trussell Trust, I personally led the fight to get European funding for Britain’s foodbanks.

I am deeply proud that we succeeded in getting £22 million European money to help them. But our government refuses to claim the money, because they put their anti-European ideology over the needs of the most deprived and destitute people in our society.

Meanwhile, as Tory Eurosceptics try to make false political capital about the European accounts, the truth is that all European regional aid to England is suspended at present because they – the Tory-led government – have failed to pass the audit.

Since the government sucked control of EU funding away from the regions, and in to the centre, errors have been identified in the way the government spends 12 per cent of EU funds. Millions will be lost to Britain by Tory incompetence.

And in a European Election where we will defeat the two BNP Members of the European Parliament, it is not so straight-forward for UKIP and right-wing Tories to distance themselves from the far-right.

This year I contributed to a study of the far-right published by Counterpoint. We showed there is a single common strand in politics: of intolerance, anti-immigration, and for simple solutions to complex problems.

It is an anti-politics, always knowing what it’s against but never what it’s for.

Political scientists don’t call this exclusively far-right, but they do call it populism. They call these parties populist radical-right Parties. And UKIP, as much as the BNP, is just such a party.

It is why Labour has to fight UKIP at the European Elections too. It is a common fight with sister socialist and social democrat parties across Europe against populist parties. We have to hold their actions to account, not increase the salience of issues over which the populist right claim ownership. We have to make the case that diversity is a positive, bust their myths, confront their propaganda.

Most  important of all, however, we have to rebuild trust in the Labour Party and our own politics. And at the European Elections we have to confront UKIP and the Tory right head-on over immigration.

In the week those poor three women were rescued in London, I believe in being tough on immigration: tough on the people traffickers who are the modern day representation of the slave trade we thought had been abolished two hundred years ago.

Labour’s answer to the insecurity people feel for their jobs because of migration is to offer decent employment rights to prevent in law those cowboy employers who deliberately recruit migrant labour to undercut jobs and conditions.

I and my Labour MEP colleagues did it on agency workers, we are doing it on what they call the posting of workers and I believe we should take our campaign against exploitative zero hours contracts to the European Parliament too.

Some people say we’re losing the immigration argument. But you don’t win an argument if you don’t put it in the first place. Yes, Labour must argue for well-managed immigration. But is the fact two per cent of Europe’s population lives in a different EU country really such a bad thing?

We have to put the argument that migration – our ability to visit, study and work in different countries, to share in our different cultures – is actually a good thing. Economically, Britain and the European Union need migration. As human beings, we should want it.

At last night’s conference dinner, Ed Miliband said the route to Downing Street came through the East of England and its thirteen target seats. By giving people something to vote for at the European Elections – not only to vote against – Labour can take a giant stride forward on that road.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.