Mainstream politicians need to be “less nuanced” when confronting Ukip and defending immigration, the Labour MEP who captured headlines this week for holding up a sign accusing Nigel Farage of lying has warned.
An unknown until his stunt in the European Parliament in Brussels, Seb Dance told The Huffington Post UK that centrists need to copy tactics of Nationalists and Populists by being “much more vociferous, much less nuanced and much more ready to tackle and call out what are, ostensibly, lies”.
The 35-year-old London MEP also expressed frustration that his party was not united in defending contribution of immigrants to the economy amid the Brexit debate.
Dance attracted huge publicity this week when he held the sign saying “HE’S LYING TO YOU” as former Ukip leader Farage defended Donald Trump’s travel ban on people travelling to the US from seven Muslim countries.
Dance was condemned by Ukip, who made a formal complaint to the parliament’s president, but the MEP said he and his colleagues had to be “less frightened of the consequences” of using robust language.
“We’re too used to long press releases and heavily nuanced language because we’re frightened we might upset certain sections of the electorate. We will always be upsetting some people because there are a lot of people who’ve been taken in by what the Nationalists are saying,” he said.
I’m afraid it’s simple messages that win out. So, we’ve just got to do the same.
He added: “When they lie, we need to say so. There’s this tendency to go around at the moment to say, ‘Oh I understand why you feel this way. It’s obviously the case we do need to do something about immigration. It is a big problem’.
“Rather than saying ‘actually let’s have a sensible and factual conversation about this and recognise that the people telling you that this is the number one problem are not telling you the truth’.”
Dance held up the sign as Farage condemned Trump’s critics for not being equally outraged when Barack Obama barred Iraqi refugees from coming to the US for six months in 2011.
This comparison is flawed as Obama’s ban was in response to a specific threat and only applied to refugee visas, not all travellers as Trump’s ban does, fact-checking website PolitiFact said.
Dance claimed no one in the European Parliament chamber at the time would have been able to immediately call up the facts to show this and so Farage’s claim “becomes part of the narrative”.
Dance said: “It’s difficult to challenge the lies. It takes time to research the facts to back up what you’re saying. The problem is when people say things like that, the only thing you can do is say ‘that’s not true. That is a lie.’
“If you do it at the time, if you’re stopping these things getting an airing, then you’re doing the right thing. We’ve just got to be more prepared to do it at the outset.”
There are people who work day in day out on incredible things to improve lives. It never ever gets any hearing or coverage. I held up a piece of paper. That’s got more coverage than anything else anyone’s doing.
Dance, who became an MEP in 2014 after working for international development charity Action Aid, where he campaigned against tax avoidance, said Labour should robustly defend immigration to British voters, and back the UK staying in the single market after it leaves the EU - at least as a transitory step.
But he said Labour was not making the case for immigration’s economic benefits, which he said, “limits our ability to influence”.
He added: “We need to be opposing the scapegoating of immigrants... immigration is good for not just our economy and our society but also public services and all the issues people care about.
“[The Single Market] means accepting free movement. It means making a defence of why immigration has benefitted and will continue to benefit the economy.
“It means challenging those saying immigration is the number one problem we have and we’re not doing that... I don’t think either of the main parties are handling this properly.”
It’s not good for democracy when we can’t get serious sensible messages through, when the kind of flashy stuff prevails. If we have to adopt different tactics to get our message across, so be it.
“If we now say, ‘immigration’s the problem, these people are the reason your jobs are going’, when those things do happen on a massive scale if we leave the Single Market, people will turn around and blame [the] people we said were the cause.”
Dance said parties like Ukip are on the “flashy extremes” where they “like to oppose and make a lot of noise”.
“They like to pretend they have all the solutions. They don’t work with others. They don’t compromise. They don’t do the hard work. They don’t achieve anything,” he said.
Dance added that the European Parliament’s “incredible” work appeared dull because much of it was middle-ground politicians working out compromises.
“It’s not sexy. It’s not exciting but it’s where real change happens,” he said.
“But when mainstream politics becomes unattractive to people, when people get fed up with the compromises and what they see as no progress, they’re going to be attracted to extremes.”
Dance lamented that his stunt with the sign had attracted more publicity than European Parliament’s work, which rarely attracts coverage in the British press.
“There are people who work day in day out on incredible things to improve lives. It never ever gets any hearing or coverage. I held up a piece of paper. That’s got more coverage than anything else anyone’s doing. We have a tendency to trivialise and celebratise everything.
“It’s not good for democracy when we can’t get serious sensible messages through, when the kind of flashy stuff prevails. If we have to adopt different tactics to get our message across, so be it.”
He added moderate politicians “have to challenge the Nationalists but they also have to defend why the middle ground is the place to be.”