Most people cannot name one of their their MEPs: how many South West voters know they are represented by six? But many in the region are familiar with the Green Party’s Molly Scott Cato, one of the UK’s 73 MEPs, who is standing here for re-election to the European Parliament on Thursday 23 May.
The Green Party is often characterised by its commitment to tackling climate change. However, as Molly was quick to point out during a recent campaign visit to Exeter, the party has also long promoted a wide range of progressive social and economic policies, not least on the issue about which some seek to make the European elections a proxy referendum.
She said: “We’ve been clear on Brexit right from the start, we’re trying to stop Brexit and we want to remain in the EU. We’re obviously the best party to vote for if you want to see urgent action on climate change. But it’s really important that we also focus on fairness and equality in the economy because we will not end the problem of Brexit, we will not persuade people to stay in the EU, we will not bring our country back together until we address the massive inequalities that have arisen since the financial crisis in 2010.”
Molly sees part of the EU’s role as dealing with issues that can only be addressed above national level. The EU Green Group, one of (currently) eight major supranational groupings in the European Parliament, collaborates on issues including tax avoidance, toxic pesticides and green economy finance. It has recently succeeded in introducing a new mandatory disclosure regime, the first of its kind in the world, that will require all financial products to reveal their impact on the environment. She said: “When people found horse meat in their lasagne it was a scandal, but we have not had the right to know whether our pension fund was invested in a wind farm or in clearing a rainforest for a palm-oil plantation. Now citizens will have the right to transparency when buying financial products.”
More new European legislation will restrict use of antibiotics on farms, where much of the increasing resistance to antibiotics is developing. Molly said: “This is really important to farmers here in the South West: they’re not going to be able to have the same stocking densities, they’ll have to do more outdoor grazing simply to keep their animals healthy because they’re not going to be able to routinely dose them with antibiotics. This is really going to change the way you can farm.”
The EU also sets some of the world’s highest standards on climate and environment. It sets the bar on air and water quality, single use plastics and waste management, wildlife habitats and pollution, biodiversity and clean energy. It is the source of most environmental protection in the UK and currently acts as a monitoring body with the power to impose fines for breaches in the law. But the UK government intends to bring forward post-Brexit changes which have been widely criticised for leaving scope to water down these protections.
MPs on the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee said key policies would be “severely downgraded” while the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee urged the government to make “significant revisions” to its plans. Molly said: “There’s nothing legally binding there, just aspirations, so if MPs vote for the Brexit deal they vote to come out of this strong framework of protective legislation and vote for an empty box which Michael Gove will fill at a time of his choice. Who would do that? Who would trust Michael Gove to determine our future?.”
In fact, during the May House of Commons opposition day debate on climate change, when Michael Gove claimed a “green thread of ambition” for Conservative governments, he failed to reply when Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked him how his approach could be reconciled with the government’s decision to back a third runway at Heathrow airport. The government chose not to oppose the motion, so the Labour Party announced that Parliament had declared a climate emergency.
But such parliamentary proceedings are not legally binding: the current convention is only for the relevant minister to make a statement to the house within eight weeks. This seems unlikely to lead to decisive action, despite the publication of the government Committee on Climate Change report the day after the debate, which recommended a legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Molly Scott Cato pointed out that the first UK climate emergency motion was written by a Green Party councillor in Bristol, Carla Denyer, who is also a candidate for the European Parliament in the South West. It was passed in November 2018, since when more than 70 other councils in the UK have passed similar motions.
She said: “All sorts of people are claiming credit now. In most places where this has happened, either from inside the council or outside it, it’s been Green Party people behind it. This is what we’ve wanted to happen for a long time. Last summer’s crazy weather and the IPCC report gave us the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. That’s what the youth strikes have done, that’s what Greta Thunberg has done, that’s what Extinction Rebellion has done. Now it’s easier to push for political change, to argue for much stronger action.”
The pressure has been building for some time. Molly was one of the signatories on the Extinction Rebellion launch letter published in October 2018, and she took part in the group’s bridge closure protests in London the following month. In February this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a major report that strongly criticised politicians and policymakers for failing to grasp the gravity of the environmental crisis facing the Earth.
Later that month Devon County Council passed a climate emergency motion, first proposed in December 2018 by Green Party councillor Jacqui Hodgson. The text of most of the original motion was removed, leaving the climate emergency declaration but deleting the 2030 target date for zero carbon emissions altogether. A spokesperson for the county council nevertheless said its “ambition” was to become carbon neutral by 2050.
The school strike climate activists who had gathered at county hall the previous week to demand more rapid action would be forgiven for thinking they were not being taken seriously: the day before the county council released a statement saying they supported the protestors’ aims they made another announcement: that they welcomed £55 million of infrastructure funding, much of which would be spent on roads. Exeter Chamber of Commerce seemed to chime in by simultaneously promoting low-cost flights from Exeter airport.
The situation is similar at Exeter City Council, with a twist. When Green Party councillor Chris Musgrave proposed a climate emergency motion in February, the local Labour Party also took a leaf from the Conservative government’s book by removing most of the motion’s text, including all references to a climate emergency, and replacing it with text commending their policies and decisions instead. By the time he had been promoted to city council leader-elect after the May local elections, Phil Bialyk had apparently changed his mind, announcing that one of his “first priorities as new leader will be to get the council to declare a climate emergency”, although the announcement included no new initiatives to tackle the problem.
Other Devon district councils are pursuing similar aims, with similarly varying target dates and clarity of purpose. Molly Scott Cato cut through the confusion: “What we have to do is everything we can as fast as we can: we already know what those things are. People have said they’re supporting the climate emergency, now they have to follow through.”
Molly sees confused governance as a major cause not only of our ability to address systemic issues such as climate change, but of widespread disenchantment with politics itself. She said: “Our governance structures are a mess from every point of view. One reason is because there’s no clear responsibility or accountability. So when something goes wrong you don’t know who’s responsible and you don’t know who should sort it out. Different places have different levels of governance. You need a situation where everybody has the same structure, everybody knows who’s responsible for what, so when you’re voting you know what that vote means.”
She sees this problem affecting local and regional government as well as supranational decision-making. She said the UK needs “significant devolution of powers down to the regions. We’re more centralised and more under-represented per head than any other country in Europe. When people voted for Brexit one of things they were voting about was a sense of powerlessness. For me, the question they should have been asking is which powers should be exercised at which level.”
The subsidiarity principle, that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate level that is consistent with their resolution, has been gaining ground in the UK under the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments, less so in England and Northern Ireland. It was established at EU level by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that nearly brought down John Major’s government in the Conservative party’s previous internal battle over Europe.
Molly sees it as the main issue that lay behind Brexit. “A lot of people were fed up with miserable jobs without any dignity and very poor pay and bad conditions. Those issues can only addressed above national level by constraining the power of corporations, which you can’t do as a national government. These sort of questions should have been at the heart of what was being discussed around Brexit and they just weren’t. People were fed up, wanted to take back control but didn’t think who was taking back control, of what, at what level, because that’s a more complicated question. People don’t vote to leave Devon County Council when the hospitals don’t work well.”
She is worried that a lack of citizenship education means people do not understand the electoral system and are prey to disinformation, particularly online. In the South West region in which Molly is standing for election this week, other parties are fielding what could be described as “celebrity” candidates: Ann Widdecombe for the Brexit Party, Andrew Adonis for Labour and Rachel Johnson for Change UK. She is concerned this approach reflects a descent into “the sort of populism we’ve seen in Italy, where a comedian sets up Five Star who can’t make anything work as they’re not experienced politicians. But then people don’t say Five Star were rubbish, I was stupid to vote for them, they say democracy doesn’t work. That’s the danger we’ve got here.”
She adds: “Neither the Brexit Party nor Change UK have clear governance structures, they’re not membership organisations. You can be a supporter but you don’t have democratic control over policy. Neither of them have policy platforms but they put an entertaining person out front, provide a floor show and you’re supposed to vote for them.”
Molly wonders how many European Parliament candidates even want to be MEPs. “It’s a really important decision we’re making here. If we stop Brexit, which I really hope we will, then we’re talking about people having a lot of power over legislation which will affect everybody for five years. 24 of our 73 MEPs did not get involved in legislation last time, so even if you want them there to stick up for your national interest that is like leaving a third of your power outside. Electing people who aren’t skilled, don’t understand the job, don’t have any experience and are not effective is a problem.”
Recent polls show pro- and anti-Brexit parties neck and neck at national level, and that three in five UK voters think both UK and EU political systems are broken. Disillusionment is unsurprisingly highest among Brexit supporters, who are expected to be the largest group in all regions except Scotland. The Liberal Democrats are in second place, in front of Labour, and the Greens in third, beating the Conservatives into fourth place. The largest South West regional poll shows the Green Party in third place by vote share, with Labour trailing in fifth position behind the Conservatives.
However, when translated onto seats, the d’Hondt party list system of proportional representation that is used in England, Wales and Scotland may mean only a single seat for the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the South West, with the Brexit Party winning four. Those that seek to treat these elections as a proxy referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU will choose between number of votes cast and number of MEPs elected, either for unambiguously leave or remain parties, to support their subsequent arguments. It is unclear how will votes cast for the Labour Party be interpreted.
In the May local elections the Green Party got the best results in its 46 year history, more than doubling the number of green councillors across the UK. Molly Scott Cato thinks recent media attention towards climate change is not the only reason why.
“There are two things driving our success in the local elections. One is that climate has really risen up the agenda and people trust us to take action, they know that we want to do it and are not just pretending to want to do it. The other one is Labour’s failure to deal with Brexit in any clear way at all. People would probably have more respect for them if they came out and said we’re going to make Brexit happen, but this endless posturing and sitting on the fence at a time of national crisis is really unforgivable.”
“I think people in Exeter are feeling really furious about that, then they see the Green Party. They trust us to do what we say, they see we’re strong on climate, they see the clarity of our position on Brexit and they think: well, why would I vote Labour?”
Exeter Cathedral is hosting a European election hustings at 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 May at which Molly Scott Cato will be speaking alongside other candidates. Doors will open at 7pm and seating will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Polling will take place in the UK from 7am-10pm on Thursday 23 May. If you live in Exeter you can find the location of your nearest polling station on the city council website. Otherwise search here. The deadline for registering to vote in this election was 7 May. If you are unsure whether you are registered you can contact your local electoral registration office.
The University of Exeter Global Systems Institute is hosting a climate emergency debate at 6pm on Thursday 23 May at the Alumni Auditorium. Panel members will discuss the steps required to achieve rapid change and deep emissions cuts.
The fourth Exeter Youth Strike for Climate will take place on Friday 24 May. Starting at County Hall, the march will proceed through Exeter city centre and end at Bull Meadow Park.
European election exit polls and results will not be available until after 10pm on Sunday 26 May, as other countries vote on other days. The European Parliament’s next term starts 2 July 2019.