OPINION polls are everywhere. They are the devalued currency of modern politics. Sorry then to add to the babble, but I did a quick one of my own in our house. My question was this: “What does Europe mean to you?” I thought it would be timely, what with the European parliamentary elections coming up this week.
My eight-year-old daughter looked up from watching her American TV programme and replied with another question. “What’s Europe?” My partner launched into a long explanation of how Britain needs to be part of Europe so that the rest of the world takes us seriously as a global force. And my son wandered into the room and inquired if we were having another debate about the Eurovision Song Contest, because if we were, that man with the beard dressed as a woman was really funny.
I recognise that our opinions might not count for much in the political arena. We’re not going to get quoted on Newsnight. We’re not going to form the basis of some erudite think-tank report. I doubt Nigel Farage will be beating a path to our door hoping to sign us up to his Ukip cause. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views that count, though. And mine? To be brutally honest, I don’t much care what happens in Brussels right now.
I feel so far from its reach, going about my daily business, working, budgeting, shopping, cooking and attempting to keep my little family on the right track day in and day out that its business has so little to do with me I forget it’s there.
I feel no tangible personal connection, even though I happen to know my own MEP, Labour’s Linda McAvan, as an acquaintance. I have nothing but respect for her. She works hard, and is a lot more approachable than many politicians that I’ve encountered over the years. I’ll vote for her, but not really for party political reasons. I won’t spend ages deliberating over her take on climate change or women in the European Parliament. I’ll just tick the box and think, good lass, carry on for Yorkshire and the Humber.
Now, and here’s the crux. I’ll spend a lot longer deliberating over who to vote for in the local council elections. Indeed, I’ve been known to stand in the community centre doing tactical voting calculations in my head to ensure I support the right candidate for the job. And be honest. What matters more to you? Having your bins collected regularly? Getting the potholes in the road mended? Ensuring that your children get a good education? That your elderly mother gets the home-care services she needs? Or scoring political points with the pub bores over the perceived evils of Europe and all it stands for?
Local council elections matter a lot more to most of us than anything which happens across the Channel. The European debate is a luxury only those with nothing else to worry about can afford to get entangled in. It’s too complex, too far away and too riven with nastiness and political opportunists. I know people who have so little to live on they have never even left the country. The Euro means nothing to them. They will never visit France, never mind tie themselves in knots over the cost of imported wine.
I am afraid that most of us are too busy worrying about the prices in our own local market to worry about what’s happening in the Common Market. Banging on about Europe diverts attention from problems which are happening right here on the doorstep. And it’s negative and counter-productive to blame all our ills on what happens overseas. Or on those migrants who come to Britain from elsewhere. We should look to our own communities, our own towns and cities and fix these first. If it came down to it, I’d much prefer our politicians to concentrate on that than pontificate about what might happen in some imagined future of full European Union.
I don’t want to sound parochial, though. That’s why I asked my lot what they think. It’s so important to have an understanding of how the wider political process works and how we fit into it all. That said, I think we should be wary of getting bogged down in party politics. We should save our energy for the big push. If we ever get the European referendum David Cameron keeps promising us, we will all be called to account. A simple vote, in or out, will polarise opinion once and for all. For now, we have to be realistic. We only have so much energy to expend on politics, and events in our own country take enough keeping up with as it is.
Our views might not be represented at the polling booth this year, because so few of us will bother to turn out and make our mark. That doesn’t mean we haven’t got a voice, though. So go ahead. Ask the question in your own home too. Even when all the votes have been counted this Thursday, that’s what counts in the end.