The shenanigans in the past couple of months in the European Parliamentary Labour Party over the electoral system that Britain will use for the 1999 Euro-elections have not been a pretty sight to behold.
First, the EPLP leadership tried to impose a code of conduct preventing Labour MEPs from discussing in public the British government's plans to introduce a closed regional list system of proportional representation. Then, four left-wingers defied the ban. The EPLP leadership tried to have them suspended – but last week the rest of the EPLP backed a deal with the four that modified the new rules to allow MEPs to speak their minds.
It remains to be seen whether that is the end of strife in the EPLP. There are good reasons to think that last week's outbreak of peace will not hold. Many sitting MEPs – not just the 'Strasbourg four' – believe that Tony Blair is planning to ensure that they are either excluded from Labour's lists in 1999 or else placed too low on them to have a hope of winning. Even if he does no such thing, and a candidate's position on a list is determined by his or her position in a ballot of party members, the inevitable reduction of Labour representation as a result of PR guarantees some bloody selection battles.
Nevertheless, the EPLP's decision not to suspend the four and to support freedom of speech is significant because of what it shows about its sense of autonomy from the national Labour Party. By the time it came to the crunch last week, Labour headquarters in London was supporting conciliation – but the original intention of the code of conduct was to increase London's leverage on the EPLP.
Blair has seen Labour's MEPs as a problem ever since a majority of them were named as signatories to an advertisement in the Guardian in early 1995 opposing his plans to change Clause Four, and he has made repeated efforts to assert his authority over them, particularly since becoming prime minister in May. In the past seven months, the EPLP has been bombarded with instructions from London to toe the government line in every European Parliament vote.
Some of Labour's 62 MEPs have accepted this without a murmur – but most do not see why they should be treated as British government lobby fodder. For a small number, this is simply a matter of hard-left ideological antipathy to Blair. For most, however, it is rooted in their experience as members of a supranational parliament that has seen its powers grow massively over the past decade.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that they increasingly see themselves less as the European wing of the British Labour Party than as the British section of the Party of European Socialists, the parliament's social democratic group. They see no reason for automatically giving the views of the British government precedence over the views of their PES colleagues from Germany or France. For these MEPs, the code of conduct was a symbol of the national Labour leadership's lack of understanding of the politics of the institution in which they work - which is why, ever so diplomatically, they drew its teeth.
Of course, Labour headquarters might manipulate candidate selections so that the awkward squad in the EPLP is forced out in 1999. But it is unlikely that even a wholesale purge could in the long term guarantee the EPLP's unstinting loyalty to the party leadership in London. As the powers of the European Parliament continue to grow, the importance of its supranational groups will inevitably increase. Just as inevitably, the occasions will multiply on which a Labour MEP, even one chosen personally by Tony Blair, will be tempted to side with the PES rather than the party leadership in London.
It would save a lot of unnecessary grief if the national Labour leadership recognised the fact that the politics of the European Parliament are not essentially national in character – and let the EPLP have a much freer rein.