Sunday, 1 March 2009


I have been making political speeches for nearly 35 years. Tonight I own up to the occasion when telling the truth became my greatest mistake.

I'm in Saddleworth, at the Delph Methodist Hall, speaking to an audience of Liberal Democrat members and friends at a 'pizza and politics' evening. The faces are very familiar, many I have known since 1985 when I became parliamentary candidate for the Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency.

These people supported me through two unsuccessful general election campaigns and a triumphant by-election.

"The year was 2000," I said, "the anniversary of my election to the European Parliament. I was speaking in this constituency at a celebratory dinner, and reflecting on my 1997 failure to hold my seat in the House of Commons and win the new Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency."

With hindsight," I recall saying, "I am not sorry I lost."

It was a slap in the face to all those people who had worked so hard to get me re-elected in 1997, and who had been proud of having a local Liberal Democrat MP.

In truth I am still local to them, and stories about my work still appear regularly in the local papers, but being an MEP is not the same thing.The reasons I gave reflected my true opinion, but at the time they hurt.

I use tonight's occasion to apologise, but then repeat the reasons I gave.

"I like working in the European Parliament with people of so many different nationalities and different political cultures. I like the fact that the issues so often seem of a bigger order than at Westminster. I like the fact that as an ordinary MEP I have a much greater opportunity to influence the shape of legislation than I would have at Westminster, and it is legislation binding on 27 nations not just one."

The reason for this greater influence is the separation of powers between the EU institutions; the European Parliament is not subject to control by a government and MEPs are much less accountable to party whips.

At Westminster, opposition MPs seek to exploit political differences in order to score political points; in Brussels, MEPs explore the common ground between members in order to build up the majorities necessary for their power to be exerted.

"Very often, it feels like more grown up politics," I conclude.

My audience appreciate the apology for my past mistake, but this time they also seem to enjoy the reasons.

Lib Dems like the idea of "grown up" politics.

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