Opinion: Eastern Europeans hold the key to the European elections

Boston-eurosDoomsday predictions in the media that Liberal Democrats are set to lose all our MEPs to UKIP are wide of the mark. The closer we get to the Euro elections in May the greater the opportunity for us to win support from the substantial minority of voters who are pro-Europe.

Yet there is no doubt the threat of UKIP is a substantial one. And just as Nigel Farage is boxing clever we Lib Dems need to get smarter about our strategy. Our Euro-slogan ‘In Europe, In Work’ is a powerful statement about where we stand but that needs to be supplemented by targeted messaging to maximise our appeal.

Boston, in the East Midlands, has been in the news due to the town’s large migrant population. I recently visited five Eastern European coffee shops there to talk with migrant workers. As soon as they heard the Lib Dems’ pro-Europe message of supporting the free movement of goods and labour they were eager to vote for us.

As a Euro candidate in the East Midlands I am particularly keen to pay attention to the large number of Eastern European workers. They have the right vote for their MEP but many are unsure whether they can so have not joined the electoral roll.

Not only do millions of jobs for British citizens depend on trade with Europe but jobs in industries like the Lincolnshire farms, who struggle to hire British-born workers, would collapse tomorrow if UKIP had their way.

People in the cafes told me they were fearful of the anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP and the Tory Right, and many would enthusiastically support the Lib Dems if only we made contact with them. We must, for they could hold the key to fending off UKIP and make the difference between keeping or losing our MEPs.

However many Eastern Europeans are unaware they had a vote. We need to spread the news that they can vote so long as they register. Others told me they feared being kicked out of Britain if UKIP ‘won’ the Euro elections.

All local parties across Britain would benefit from targeting this group in society. I am urging my colleagues in the East Midlands to keep engaging with these communities because we need to do all we can to re-elect our hard-working MEP Bill Newton-Dunn.

Eastern Europeans will become more established in future decades. Securing their support today, at a time when they are repelled by the anti-immigration climate, will serve us well in future elections. And it may just take us over the winning post in May.

* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here

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46 Comments

  • Are you sure that they can vote in the European elections? I thought that they could only vote in local elections?

    I am a bit worried by the tone of this article. It sounds a bit like gerrymandering.

    Anyway, around 80% of immigrants vote for Labour, so it may be best not to let them know that they can vote, because it will not be to our electoral advantage. I suppose it would give Labour a chance to beat UKIP in the European election so there may be some satisfaction in that.

    We have to admit that the British indigenous voters will not thank us for supporting immigrants to vote against the wishes of large chunks of the British voters. We really need to be careful how we handle this, we could gain a few thousand eastern European voters and loose many hundreds of thousands of British voters, once the Daily Mail etc get hold of this story.

  • John Clough 1st Feb '14 - 5:01pm

    As long as EU citizens are on the register they are eligible to vote in local and Euro elections. Consequently, I am surprised that Joe King wrongly uses the word gerrymandering to describe canvassing for votes from such a group. Also I am slightly shocked that he suggests that “it may be best not to let them know they can vote, because it will not be to our electoral advantage.” 80% of immigrants apparently vote Labour too, I suppose it depends how you define the word immigrant, but I would be interested if Joe King could provide statistics and facts to back up this assertion. When did Liberal Democrats seek to run things past the Daily Mail for approval? The mind boggles! We should be encouraging all eligible voters both to be on the register and exercise their democratic right to vote, as should politicians of every party.

  • Mark Thompson 1st Feb '14 - 5:23pm

    What about our democratic right to have an EU referendum?!

  • Meral Hussein Ece 1st Feb '14 - 6:42pm

    Excellent work by Issan. Well done. Working on the ground to engage and encourage more people to register and vote., alongside campaigning, against a tide of UKIP negativity. As no 2 on the East MIdlands Euro list, Issan is the highest ranking BAME MEP candidate , and demonstrates how important it is to talk to Eastern Europeans migrants rather than demonise them.

  • They can, I live in Eastern Europe and vote in euro elections here.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Feb '14 - 7:10pm

    I support reaching out to eastern European’s, but I think they might be the biggest EU pragmatists of all of us…

  • It will probably benefit Labour more than us.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 1st Feb '14 - 11:07pm

    Joe King, I feel that I have to remind you that us “immigrants” as you call some of us, may well disproportionately vote Labour, but some of us have left Labour because frankly they are not what they used to be, and joined the Liberal Democrats, for they espouse the rhetoric of equality and fairness.

    EMLD is doing its best to assist our Party to become more hospitable to the many differing ethnic communities so I would suggest that we would benefit from refraining to appear as tabloid readers who apparently would close the borders (including those with Wales and Scotland), pull out of Europe, hang criminals that they do not like, attempt to turn Britain into a 1950’s Ealing Studio film set, and have half day closing on Wednesdays.

    This is actually an excellent article written by someone who knows a thing or two about community engagement so I hope that people (other than Labour) will take notice.

  • David Allen 1st Feb '14 - 11:21pm

    Seeking support from everywhere – fine
    Quietly concentrating effort on those most likely to vote for us – fine
    Telling the world that we want to win on Eastern European votes – not fine

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Feb '14 - 12:05am

    Excellent article Issan. There’s nothing at all to be ashamed about in standing up for the principles of freedom of movement, the right to vote and of course, against the kind of nastiness that has been displayed towards immigrants in general and eastern European immigrants in particular.

    Joe King, perhaps if we did more to engage with people who ought to have good reason to support us, then we’d do better at having them actually vote for us. If we assume they’ll either not vote, or vote for someone else, then why should they vote for us?

    We should be actively seeking the votes of anyone who would benefit from a more liberal and democratic political environment. And of course, be unafraid in opposing those who try to win – or suppress votes – through fear-mongering.

  • I agree with David Allen ‘Telling the world that we want to win on Eastern European votes – not fine’

    My point made earlier is that this plays right into the hands of UKIP. Probably the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories too.

    If UKIP had an equivalent of Lynton Crosby we would probably be toast by now. Good thing that they don’t.

    The Tories have been suppressing the rate of rise of UKIP by their catchphrase ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour’. Unfortunately this is not true any more because UKIP are gaining significant votes in Labour strongholds, often coming second, pushing us and the Tories into third and fourth places.

    We need to be extremely cautious about the Eurosceptic Tories. We are now in the year and a half leading up to the general election having to disengage from the Tories more, and maybe with the idea of forming a coalition with Labour next time, if there is a next time. Given that our polling rating may give us 20 or perhaps fewer MPs, there is little reason for the Tories to give us any special favours on the campaign trail from now on.

    If the real Lynton Crosby decides that it is advantageous to destroy us, I think that we will be seriously attacked. Even if that means the Tories ceasing to attack UKIP, they will do the calculations that I mentioned on the other article (‘How the Lib Dems will actually do’ – comment on the polls), and see that it is worth throwing a few morsels to UKIP, if it means clearing us off the scene.

    This suggestion to target the eastern Europeans made in the public domain is a real gift to the Eurosceptics. How was it allowed to be published here? We are a bit crazy at times, we could achieve much more if we applied even a small amount of common sense.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Feb '14 - 9:51am

    Are these Eastern Europeans liberal minded?

  • Robert leslie 2nd Feb '14 - 10:17am

    the provost of Aberdeen recently told me that 1/4 of Aberdeen’s electorate was born outside of the UK, mostly from Europe . He also told me that the Poles have a high turn out at local elections. Does anyone feel that we should ignore 25% of the voters because it might upset others. As we will need people who can communicate in languages such as Polish
    the term concentrate does apply as we will be trying to make a break through to what is for us a new group of electors.

  • If we are to gain the Polish vote then we have to understand the religious dimension. They are Catholics, which is more conservative (small ‘c’) than liberal.

    Issues such as gay marriage will probably have turned them against the Conservatives and ourselves. They may not feel so comfortable with Labour due to their dependancy mindset. The Poles are more entrepreneurial. It may seem ironic, could we see Poles and others actually attracted to UKIP? They would want to pull up the ladder and avoid the EU expanding any further, which would bring in the citizens of new EU member states, with the consequent downward push on wages.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1540286/Catholics-urge-Poles-to-vote-against-Labour-policies.html

  • Are these kind of machinations not one of the reasons that politics has become discredited, and even a blockage to change in many people’s lives.? And,.. ultimately backfire spectacularly, as we have seen everywhere from Northern Ireland to Egypt.?
    Alex Macfie asks: Are these Eastern Europeans liberal minded?
    Good question. Just a thought experiment:
    Suppose a new political party emerges in the next few years, that wishes to see more infusion of Sharia law, into general policymaking. Would it be right and proper, to call upon the East European muslim community for their voter support for policies aimed at banning the wearing of ‘offensive’ ‘T’ shirts, and other deemed ‘offensive’ attire on our streets?
    Be careful what you wish for.

  • Nice one. Guido Fawkes has found this and put it on his website.
    that’s a few less lib dems in 2015 -good.

  • jedibeeftrix 2nd Feb '14 - 2:14pm

    “The Poles are more entrepreneurial. It may seem ironic, could we see Poles and others actually attracted to UKIP? They would want to pull up the ladder and avoid the EU expanding any further”

    I don’t think that is very fair to Poles.

    Those two sentences taken together would indicate that you believe they would actively seek to destroy opportunity for others once they have made their bed.

    That is wrong.

    They are indeed entrepreneurial, if only by dint of being an immigrant, and yes they come from a pull-yerself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but what is wrong with that?

    Alternatively, we can separate the two sentences and take it to mean that having got into the EU, they don’t want anyone else in.

    I don’t think this is fair either, for while they have little desire for supranationalism they definitely have an idealism in their desire to use the EU as a club that guarantees freedom for all.

    Whether this makes them good liberals or not is another matter.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Feb '14 - 2:52pm

    If you are a social conservative, then it would make some sense to vote Conservative in Euro elections as they are part of a group (ECR) that is rather socially conservative (it includes Poland’s Law & Justice Party) as well as Euro-sceptical. Whatever the Tories in government are doing in domestic law on things like gay marriage, their MEPs tend to support the social conservatism of their raving-right allies. UKIP’s group is similar in ideology to ECR.

    The Lib Dems’ group, ALDE, is socially liberal, pro-market and pro-EU. S&D, Labour’s group, is pro-EU (though Labour itself is equivocal), but not pro-market and is liberal on social issues.

    If you are a pro-EU social conservative, you would probably want to vote EPP, especially if you are also entrepreneurial and thus pro-market. However, there is no option for voting EPP in the UK. European Christian Democracy has never been a major strand in UK politics. But perhaps Lib Dems could to pull in pro-EU, entrepreneurial Eastern Europeans with their pro-EU and pro-market (in EU terms) position, even if our group’s liberal stance on social issues is not exactly to their liking.

  • jedibeeftrix 2nd Feb '14 - 3:36pm

    most young poles I know, here and in Poland, have contempt for the social conservatism of the law and justice party.

    it is seen as a relic of the older generation, particularly in the rural (vast majority) parts of the country.

    that said, let’s not get above ourselves; european politics is treated with indifference/contempt almost universally, and immigrant poles and quite sophisticated enough to follow national politics without the crutch of reading across from european politics.

    young poles are liberal in the sense of classical liberalism, i.e. what you do in your space is your own affair, it is not in their interest to interfere, but i only ever detect an odd disbelief at the extreme end of the positive liberty argument.

  • Why does it matter who wins the Euro elections? The European parliament is just a rubber stamping machine for decisions already taken in Brussels and to give the impression the EU is an elected democracy which is not, never has been, and never will be.
    There is no way the EU will allow political parties to wield real power and thus change the direction the elite and their bureaucrats have already chosen. No in this universe.
    EU elections are the most pointless on the planet.

  • Anthony Siebenthaler 2nd Feb '14 - 7:33pm

    ‘In Europe, in work’… something deeply ironic in that, on any number of levels!

  • This article and some of the comments trouble me, as there seems to be (deliberate?) confusion between “migrant workers” and “ethnic communities”. To me they are different, although “migrant workers” may become settled into communities.

    So my question is: do we really want to encourage ‘migrant workers’, namely: people who by definition are only temporarily in the country to do a job and hence will typically be living in employer provided accommodation or have other temporary/short-term accommodation arrangements aligned to their employment, to vote in elections that have effects on this country after they have returned to their home country? or do we see it as a way of encouraging them to become settled?

    Personally, I would of thought EMLD would have had their hands full targeting the established “ethnic communities” in this country, since the people in these communities have largely already made the decision to adopt ‘Britain’ as their home (and the home of their children).

  • The Poles and others who are less socially conservative (particularly those not heterosexual themselves) are probably most likely to be attracted to the idea of living in the UK, in addition to the fact that their experiences living abroad will have had some influence on their views. So don’t assume they are representative of their country as a whole, or even of fellow Poles in their own age group.

  • jedibeeftrix 2nd Feb '14 - 10:16pm

    Broadly agreed.

    Poland remains about 75% rural (as opposed to about 45% here), and these are the places where Radio Maryja rules.

    Ask any urban/immigrant Pole (usually in the 25-35 age bracket), what they think of that radio station and watch them sigh!

    But for all that there is a world of difference my experience is that they make very good candidates as liberals, less clearly so as lib-dem’s.

  • Who cares what Guido says or writes folks, are we really going to go around pretending to do differently than we believe?

    I don’t think we should say that we’re ‘targeting’ Eastern, or any other Europeans (in my neck of the woods it’s the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese), but I do think that we should ensure that everyone we contact who is eligible to vote is encouraged to do so.

    Most, if not all, of the non-UK born eligible Europeans that you will meet will know that it is because of the EU that they are here in the first place, and that if they want that arrangement to remain and be improved, then choosing us is the best use of their vote.

    Those people that dislike or hate us will do so whatever we do; our task is to make sure that those who like us but who are unaware of their voting rights are informed of them, and given a good reason to use them supporting Liberal Democrat EU candidates.

  • I slipped in a controversial comment into my earlier message:

    ‘They would want to pull up the ladder and avoid the EU expanding any further, which would bring in the citizens of new EU member states, with the consequent downward push on wages.’

    Only one person responded to this point as far as I can see. Does that mean that Lib Dem members have swallowed the propaganda of the Eurosceptics? Just testing. Or I would like to hear some good strong contrary arguments. We need such arguments otherwise why are we the party of IN? If we cannot answer this adequately, preferably with two or three bullet points particularly regarding the depression of wages and the increasing cost of living including rents, then I am asking myself whether it is time to give up.

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Feb '14 - 11:04pm

    Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans will never have a reason to be or vote Lib Dem unless we ask them to! As a party we have plenty to offer them. Not least of all the same respect that other people living in the UK (and other people such as Brits, living elsewhere in the EU) are entitled to.

    They have the right to vote. They have every right to be fed up with their demonisation in much of our media and by much of our political system. We are a party that for the most part opposes attacking people for being immigrants, that supports the freedom of movement within the EU, that supports the freedom of religion, that supports funding early years education, decent food for school kids and which supports help with childcare to enable entrepreneurial people to go out and work: I think we can make an excellent case as to why they should at least consider supporting us.

    I think that without exception the central and eastern Europeans I know are open minded as well as being famously hard working. The last thing we should be doing is writing off a significant minority of people who have every reason to be at least as interested in voting for us as anyone else.

    Of course, we shouldn’t base our electoral strategy on targeting them to the exclusion of all others, but that’s not what Issan is suggesting. We should be targeting the many, many millions of people in this country who actually have good reason to vote for us if only we would make contact with them and ask for their support – and involvement.

    I’ve met several new eastern European members at more than one Lib Dem conference or event, and a common sentiment I heard expressed was that they were just wishing that a major political party would speak up for them and oppose the UKIP drivel that they are constantly facing. Issan’s post is a part of us being the party that is proud and open about opposing Nigel Farage’s nonsense.

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Feb '14 - 11:10pm

    @Joe King, re: new immigrants wanting to pull up the drawbridge after them, I’ve no doubt that’s true for a few people (out of a few hundred thousand it would be a surprise if there were none), but I’ve never heard any of the central and east Europeans I know or have met express this.

    Poland in particular has worked hard to keep the eastward expansion of the EU on the agenda, along with the support for democracy, economic reform and the rule of law that this entails.

    We are the party of IN because we can see the benefits to this country and to most individuals here. In my experience, most EU immigrants / migrants are just as capable of seeing the same benefits.

  • @Joe – “They would want to pull up the ladder and avoid the EU expanding any further..”

    Whilst not directly responding to the point you were making, there has to be a question over just how much further the EU can realistically expand and still be the ‘EU’. That is before we consider such things as a membership request from Russia…

  • “As long as EU citizens are on the register they are eligible to vote in local and Euro elections.”

    Sorry, but I don’t think that’s correct. The Electoral Commission website says they are eligible to vote in European elections only “if they fill in a form stating that they wish to vote in the UK and not in their home country”.
    http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/faq/voting-and-registration/who-can-register-to-vote

  • Don’t forget ex-pats such as pensioners who have retired to places like Spain and France. Many of them retain the right to vote in the UK and have usually been the preserve of the Tories who have local activists working amongst them to harness the vote. I am not so sure these voters will want to follow the anti EU rhetoric when a tit-for-tat response to restrictions on EU free movement might mean them having come home!

  • Giles Goodall 3rd Feb '14 - 3:02pm

    V good piece Issan and I agree wholeheartedly with the need to register and mobilise citizens from other member states resident in the UK to use their right to vote as EU citizens. I will certainly be campaigning for this as a candidate in the South East region too. The choice for citizens from other EU countries- of all political persuasions – is stark: vote Lib Dem to stay in the EU, or vote for another party and risk losing your right to free movement and residence in the UK.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Feb '14 - 7:06pm

    @Grindelow: That is absolute nonsense. The European Parliament is actually more powerful than national legislatures in many ways. It has co-decision-making power with the European Council (representing national governments) in amending legislation, and can veto any legislation (and it has used this power). It also has the power to sack or reject the European Commission. Due to the separation of powers between the 3 institutions, there is no ‘payroll vote’ in the European Parliament, so MEPs are much freer to act independently than UK MPs. Party discipline is also rather weaker anyway in the European Parliament than in most national parliaments. By the standards of the UK HoC, practically all MEPs are party rebels.
    Probably the biggest pressure on MEPs to ‘conform’ to the EU ‘establishment’ agenda comes from national government and party machines, both of which often informally brief their respective MEPs on issues that come up in the European Parliament to try to get them to support their national government position. Certainly when MEPs voted to sack the Commission in the mid-1990s and reject the proposed Commission team in 2004, it was in the face of informal pressure from national governments for them to stand by their country’s man or woman in Brussels. However, MEPs can assert their independence as their jobs do not depend on patronage from national governments or party leaderships, and not on the Commission either.

  • Well the Daily Mail did get hold of this story, maybe via Guido Fawkes, he was sniffing around earlier.

    My comment: ‘We really need to be careful how we handle this, we could gain a few thousand eastern European voters and loose many hundreds of thousands of British voters, once the Daily Mail etc get hold of this story.’

    And here it is:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2550914/Lib-Dems-urged-woo-eastern-European-voters-avoid-wipeout-Brussels-elections-May.html

    I did notice this comment, which is similar to the point I made. I am not sure that the seniour members of our party quite know how to stop blundering.

    ‘Every Pole I know plans to vote for ukip. Why? Because they know that what has happened to the UK can soon happen in Poland—-once Croatia and maybe Ukraine get in to the EU, then Poland will be a net cash contributor (too ‘rich’) and will have no border controls.’

  • Bill Chapman 4th Feb '14 - 2:19pm

    I think it is instructive to read the comments on the Daily Mail site. Some are xenophobic, but by no means all. These comments do give an insight into people’s views of the Liberal Democrats.

  • Bill, I do see that many comments there are actively hostile towards us. What where the key points that went wrong since 2010? Our poll rating has plummeted and so has our membership. Maybe it has stabilised for the time being, however articles such as the above really are polarising and must surely harm our cause.

  • Trevor Stables 5th Feb '14 - 1:02am

    Totally support the move to encourage all citizens to vote including other EU citizens resident in UK! Also Giles Goodhall is totally spot on in encouraging UK citizens wherever they are in registering to vote! It is a clear case that UKIP is intent on wiping out their and our rights to free movement. By the way, there is more than 300,000 French living in UK and eligible to vote also! They pay taxes and contribute like everyone else – they have a right and civic duty to vote!
    By the way I will be voting in the French local elections and probably EP elections too!

  • Expanding the franchise and encouraging all qualified persons to vote — regardless of the party they are likely to support — are good, old-fashioned Liberal values.

  • “As a Euro candidate in the East Midlands I am particularly keen to pay attention to the large number of Eastern European workers”.

    I think this strategy is risky. If you do that, and the local voters latch-on, you will play straight into the hands of UKIP. British voters will not understand why you are courting Eastern Europeans and they will punish you hard. You will need to be a bit more subtle and try hard to hide from them what you are trying to achieve.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 8th Feb '14 - 1:44am

    Who is this ‘Joe King’ that comes out with such things as “If we are to gain the Polish vote then we have to understand the religious dimension. They are Catholics, which is more conservative (small ‘c’) than liberal.”

    So Catholics cannot be liberal in thinking.

    I am really concerned about the backlash against people who have a religious belief within our Party. I am certainly not as a Buddhist going to support any dogma that restricts another persons human rights, but neither am I willing to brandish all people who have a religious conviction as reactionaries, traditionalists, unprogressive or establishmentarian. Even people who hold a religious belief have the ability to have freedom of thought.

  • R U-P ‘So Catholics cannot be liberal in thinking.’

    http://townhall.com/tipsheet/christinerousselle/2014/02/07/un-tells-vatican-church-to-alter-doctrine-to-allow-abortion-n1791365

    Is it paradoxical that the liberal stance is to support illiberal organisations?

    The UN did put pressure on Saudi Arabia to end slavery. Maybe it can encourage the Catholic church to modernise too?

  • There is something going badly wrong with our message. How can this be? Look at this:

    ‘NIGEL FARAGE of UKIP is considered the second most effective political leader by Poles living in Britain, despite his anti-immigration views.

    Farage was beaten only by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, in a “poll of Poles” commissioned by The Sunday Times to gauge the views of Polish citizens who have the right to vote in the European elections in May.

    Farage’s rating comes despite UKIP’s policy of withdrawing from the EU, curbing benefits for migrants from Europe and a five-year ban on immigrants settling in the UK. Overall, 16.3% rated Farage as the most effective leader. Miliband scored 30% with David Cameron on 15.6% and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, on 14%.’

    http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/Politics/article1373556.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2014_02_08

  • @Joe King – re. UN
    I’d like to see the UN try and “encourage Islamic fundamentalists” to modernise… I doubt the response would be so measured…

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