Seb Dance: A nuanced response to people like Farage is pointless
Seb Dance on why he called Nigel Farage a liar, why he believes Brexit could end up as a race to the bottom and why sustainability actually matters.
Seb Dance | Photo credit: Natalie Hill
Seb Dance is fuming, reminiscent of Howard Beale in the Hollywood film Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." The UK S&D group MEP had a similar moment when he held up his famous sign calling Nigel Farage a liar in the Brussels plenary.
During a debate on US President Donald Trump's call for a ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, he held up his famous hand written sign saying "He's lying to you."
Farage's actions - support for Trump, telling voters that leaving the EU would make the UK better off, standing in front of a controversial anti-immigration poster during the referendum campaign on the day that British MP Jo Cox was murdered - created a sense of anger in Dance.
"When I realised that Farage would be given speaking time on this debate, I got so angry seeing him sat there wearing a Trump lapel badge, I thought, 'you are not going to make one of your social media videos.'"
A passionate believer in the European project, the Brexit result hit Dance hard. Labour's pro-European stance under Tony Blair had inspired him to enter politics. As a young gay man, he saw his political party and the EU as 'emancipators' that would "free my future. It may sound starry eyed and idealistic, but it genuinely felt like that."
Right from the start of his career, Dance preferred the politics of Brussels to Westminster. "I always thought being an MEP would be amazing, influencing policy at a European level, mingling with people from different countries and learning from their experiences."
Thinking he was holding up the sign only to the public gallery, he didn't realise that photos would go viral on social media. He found himself on the cover of national newspapers including the Guardian and El Pais. He jokes that apart from Farage, he must be the only other MEP to make the Guardian's cover.
"The reaction totally threw me. I genuinely believed I was a lone voice, but when I got to my office my staff asked, 'What on earth have you done?' My Twitter account just exploded. The numbers of followers on my account kept rising; clearly I had tapped into something."
Currently he has more than 20,000 followers and was even interviewed on LBC, the London radio station where Nigel Farage has a regular slot. "The point I was trying to make was that a nuanced response to people like Farage is pointless. You need to call them out, particularly when they lie."
"Sadly, the standard of the debate during the EU referendum was appalling and unworthy of an advanced democracy like Britain's. The level of misconception is impossible to quantify; it is absurd. I will continue to argue it was one of the stupidest things Britain can do."
It wasn't the result of the EU referendum that makes him most angry, "it was the lie that by leaving the EU we will become stronger and better. It is the most cynical and disgusting exploitation of the electorate that I have ever seen."
However, Dance understands why voters accepted the Leave arguments. "If I lived in an area that had been neglected by central government, that had seen wide-scale deindustrialisation and had been told the driving force behind it was global economics and the EU. They were told that by leaving the EU their community will recover some of its pride and economic strength."
Unlike the Conservative party, which was openly split on Europe, most Labour MPs and MEPs supported Remain. The Brexit result showed many Labour constituencies in northern England and the west Midlands voted leave. Dance points out that most Labour voters backed Remain, but accepts that "a core constituency was convinced that the reasons for inequality were immigration and the EU. Both of these are dangerous lies."
"We need immigration, they are not coming to replace working age, healthy people, but the old and retired. That's the reality of our demographics; we urgently need to make the case for immigration, otherwise we are on the road to becoming a much poorer and smaller country. I don't think that is anybody's interest."
With the UK in the midst of a general election, the British media is questioning Labour's position on the EU. However, Dance stresses that he is happy that his party has ruled out any possibility of having 'no deal' with the EU concerning on the single market.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May's elections slogan 'no deal is better than a bad deal'; Dance finds this concept "ludicrous and dangerous, one might say even criminally irresponsible to countenance. It will assign thousands to job losses; whole sectors of our economy will end up on the scrapheap. No government should be willing to destroy opportunities for the next generation."
Dance highlights that having access to the single market will remove the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
He doubts whether the UK, a member of the EU for 40 years, can untangle itself in just 18 months, "without receiving the kind of shock to our economy that would make the 2008 financial crash look like a storm in a teacup. The nirvana offered by UK international trade minister Liam Fox and UK Brexit minister David Davis, where we replicate hundreds of trade deals to make up for single market access is a fantasy."
Although Dance fully backs his party's position, he believes Labour is trying to also come up with a vision that is "too complete." Instead, Dance argues for a 'transitional phase', where the UK can 'test' the alternative vision as set out by the Brexiters. "Ideally we should be concentrating more on the transitional phase. My hope is that people like me will have a voice, so we can shape policy going forward."
When asked about the demise of the European centre-left, he says that although the individual policies of centre-left were more popular than those of the centre-right, "collectively there seems to be a sense that social democratic parties cannot deliver or cannot be trusted to deliver such policies, or bizarrely that we should trust the people who oppose such policies. We are get-ting something wrong here across the whole centre-left family."
He argues that a realignment is taking place in western politics, moving from traditional left vs right to open vs closed. This was seen in the second round of the French presidential elections, where people were given a choice between a candidate with an open, pro-EU and global vision for France - Macron - or Le Pen, with her closed and nationalistic vision, with France retracted from the world and operating protectionist policies.
The traditional centre-left voter base has been fractured. Dance suggests that parties need to, "marry centre-left domestic policies with a global outlook that makes sense to people that have been suffering."
As a member of Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee, Dance also fears that Brexit will have a negative impact on standards in the UK.
"If we cut ourselves off from the single market and find ourselves in a much weaker economic position, then we will be desperate to try and make up some of the losses by undercutting on environmental standards or do deals with parts of the world where the environmental standards are much lower."
"The hard Brexiters want to see a bonfire of red-tape. If our competitors respond in the same way, it could end in a race to the bottom. Not only is that economically stupid, it's also wrong."
As a campaigner on air pollution, he is critical of the way the car industry has dragged its feet in cutting emissions. "In the case of air quality, everybody suffers because we don't clean the air soon enough, it's the same with climate change."
Dance is also ENVI rapporteur on the Parliament's EU action for sustainability report. As part of his report, he is keen to strengthen mechanisms to help Europe achieve its sustainable development goals, in particular the multi-stake holder forum, "to enable discussions to take place between the EU institutions and local, national and regional governments. The delivery of SDGs and EU policies has to happen at all those levels."
He believes this kind of participation in the decision-making process will also help counter Euroscepticism.
Unlike some of his other UK MEP colleagues, who have returned to run in the national election, Dance firmly sees his future in Brussels.
"I always thought being a member of the European Parliament would provide more satisfaction; indeed in my short time here it has. I would be loath to give up my dream job, which I was lucky enough to get in my early 30s. As an epitaph, it's not bad."
Dance sees the negotiations of the next couple of years as a choice between, "the UK cutting itself off and becoming poorer or accepting that we need to be open and prosperous."
He adds, "I want to be as much of a bridge as possible in arguing for being open."
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