One of the many strange things about Nigel Farage is that for a politician who has made a career out of attacking the European Union, his status in public life and his lucrative media career have been largely based on him being a member of the European parliament for the past 20 years.
He’s never been elected to anything else but, to give him credit, he has become a specialist at inventing – or reinventing – positions that have hoovered up publicity, generated endless controversy and harvested enough votes to win four successive terms as an MEP. Now he is back again with his new Brexit party and leading the early polls for elections being held in the midst of a huge political crisis over our relationship with Europe.
But he is not a leader. He thrives on division. He is never accountable for his promises. He never takes responsibility for what he has done. Although Farage sucks most of his support out of both his old party, Ukip, and the Conservatives, whose serial incompetence over Brexit makes them easy prey, he still presents a challenge to Labour.
We cannot just sit back and allow Farage to prosper with a backward-looking brand of politics that offers no solutions. Instead, we must offer a radical alternative based on our values, which speaks directly to the people we represent and demonstrates Labour has a way forward out of this crisis. Labour won’t defeat Farage by being mealy-mouthed and sounding as if we half agree with him. We won’t beat him unless we can inspire the millions crying out for a different direction. We won’t win if we sit on the fence about the most crucial issue that has faced our country for a generation. One poll published last week shows we can cut Farage’s lead to 3% if we back a new public vote on Brexit – but that his margin of victory would extend to 10% if we don’t. This is not, of course, just about what’s best for the Labour party, it’s about having better values and doing what’s best for the country. And the good news on all fronts is that in recent weeks our party has begun to unite around the positive case for a people’s vote.
Like many of my colleagues, I’m a bit of a latecomer to this policy because I know how difficult and divisive the last referendum was, with the likes of Farage up to his usual tricks. But now, along with the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, members and voters, I’ve come round to the view that the people have got to be let back into this decision. My constituency of West Bromwich East backed Brexit three years ago and there are many good friends of mine, whose judgment I trust more than some of those I meet down in Westminster, who still want to leave the EU one way or another.
So it is significant that more and more people are now telling me they feel let down by the way Brexit is turning out. While the media attention focuses on the crisis in parliament, I think about how it’s affecting the lives of car-workers whose jobs are on the line, families worried about the way food prices are going up and young people who see their horizons shrinking.
Now that we know a bit more about what Brexit means, the very least that Leavers and Remainers deserve is a final say – a confirmatory referendum – on any deal. They deserve a Labour party that offers clarity on this issue, as well as the radical vision for a new political economy achieved by working with our socialist allies inside the EU. And, above all, they deserve better than Nigel Farage’s promise of a far-right Brexit that would solve nothing.
These European parliamentary elections are not a proxy for another referendum or a general election. In previous years, they have been characterised by an unusual voting system and usually low turnouts, where the likes of the BNP or Ukip – and probably now the Brexit party – can prosper.
But the answer to a crisis in democracy can never be less democracy, so these elections need to be fought. This is a moment when voices that have been too long ignored by politics need to be heard. My message, in particular to young people, is that Nigel Farage is registered to vote – are you?
For as long as we are members of the EU, it’s vital that we have representation in the European parliament. And an encounter with the voters now may yet focus all our minds on what we really stand for. The Euro elections are, indeed a challenge for the Labour party. But they present us with an opportunity to show real leadership. It is a chance we must, and will, seize with both hands.
• Tom Watson is deputy leader of the Labour party