Friday, 24 June 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 24 June 1994

Tony Blair's speech at last week's Guardian/Fabian Society "Whatever Next?" conference in London was without a doubt the clearest expression of his overall beliefs that he has made during this Labour leadership election campaign.

"The socialism of Marx," he declared, "of state control of industry and production, is dead. It misunderstood the nature of a modern market economy; it failed to recognise that the state and public sector can become a vested interest capable of oppression as well as the vested interests of wealth and capital; and it was based on a false view of class that became too rigid."

"By contrast," he went on, "socialism as defined by certain key values and beliefs is not merely alive, it has an historic opportu-nuity now to give leadership. The basis of such socialism lies in its view that individuals are social, interdependent human beings, that individuals cannot be divorced from society. It is, if you like, social-ism.

"It contains a judgment that individuals owe a duty to one another and to a broader society – the left view of citizenship. And it believes that it is only through recognising that interdependence and by society as a whole acting upon it that the individual's interests can be best advanced."

So there you have it – Tony Blair, just like John Smith, is a Christian socialist in the R H Tawney mould. For him, socialism is not about nationalisation and planning, nor is it about class struggle. Rather, it is "a set of principles and beliefs based around the notion of a strong society as necessary to advance the individual".

And there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Leaving aside the question of whether Blair was being fair to Marx, who was much less of an enthusiast for "centralised state control of industry and production" than Blair thinks (and rather more nuanced in his ideas about class), it is perfectly reasonable of him to distance himself from the dominant Marxism of this century – the disaster that was "actually existing socialism".

He is also quite right to make it clear that he is opposed to the notion, dominant on the British left from the 1920s until the late 1970s, that socialism is all about nationalisation and planning. Labour's association with the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the Morrisonian model of nationalisation (a model, incidentally, that owes a lot to Fabian admiration for Stalin's Russia) did it tremendous harm, as indeed did its enthusiasm for the tower block.

More generally, Christian (or rather ethical) socialism, with its emphasis on the importance of altruism, solidarity and community, is an honourable tradition of left thinking, untainted by the bureaucratic statism at the heart of Leninism and Fabianism. Like G D H Cole's guild socialism, anarchism and the ideas behind the cooperative movement, it is a useful tool for developing a non-statist socialism – the only sort that can be credible at the end of the 20th century. We do need to place what Blair called "a new settlement between citizen and society" at the centre of the left's concerns.

But there are difficulties here too. If the left needs a political philosophy, and if Blair's broad approach has a certain amount going for it, the picture is not entirely rosy. Most fundamentally, there is a major tension between Blair's advocacy of values of "social justice, cohesion, equality of opportunity and community" and his enthusiasm for the market and for the consumerist affluence that has transformed the everyday lives of the majority of people in the developed world since 1945. As many left and green thinkers have argued since the 1960s, it is the rise of privatised consumption that more than anything else has eroded feelings of solidarity and community in modern industrial societies: ours is a society of enjoying the home we have bought, driving to work alone in our cars, staying in to watch the television. Certainly people feel isolated, certainly they yearn for a feeling of belonging – but to satisfy these cravings demands a quite extraordinarily profound transformation of our whole way of life. Blair, like most of us, wills the end but not the means.

More mundanely, there is the problem that political philosophy butters no parsnips. However appealing the big idea of community and solidarity might turn out to be – and it certainly worked for Bill Clinton in 1992 – it cannot be all that Labour offers the electorate if it is to win the next election. The party needs concrete policies to give credibility to its vision and to reassure voters that a Labour government would mean more than just a change in government rhetoric.

Last weekend, however, Blair talked of "a central vision based around principle, but liberated from particular policy prescriptions that have become confused with principle". The charitable interpretation is that he meant that Labour shouldn't stick to particular policies just because they have always been Labour policies, which is fair enough. But it is equally plausible that he meant that the party should fight the next election with the minimum of concrete policy commitments.

Such an approach is superficially tempting, particularly on the economy: given the impossibility of Keynesianism in one country and the unpopularity of taxes, it is difficult these days to put together an economic policy package that is both election-winning and specific, as Labour found in 1992. But it would be a disaster to yield to the temptation. If Labour goes into the next election without being clear about what precisely it will do with the reins of power, it will not win the trust of the electorate. Even Clinton, in a political culture dominated far more than Britain's by the soundbite and the political broadcast, offered more than just big ideas.

Friday, 17 June 1994


New Statesman & Society, 17 June 1994

Can Tony Blair define a new Zeitgeist? Will he be the most extreme right-wing Labour leader ever? Or is he just promising more of the same, asks Paul Anderson

In a week of enthusiastic endorsements of Tony Blair, quite the most gushing came from Martin Jacques, the former editor of the Communist Party magazine Marxism Today, writing in the Sunday Times.

The Labour Party leadership election, he wrote, "has the potential to transform Britain's political landscape . . . The Conservatives have lost their way and Labour seems about to elect a leader in Blair who marks a break with the past... The desire for change has been in the air for several years now. The problem was that Labour did not offer a convincing alternative. The result was a blocked political system. Blair could be the man to unblock it... He could turn out to be one of those rare politicians who, like Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, succeed in defining a new Zeitgeist, in ushering in a new political era."

For Jacques, Blair is a Labour politician "possessed of a deep hostility towards labourism —towards the culture of class, the block vote, con¬servatism, certainty and insularity — which is now, at last, in headlong retreat. .. Blair will be the first leader of either of our two major parties who is an authentic creature of the 1960s and its aftermath, of the era of weak ideology and postmodernism."

Over the top and pretentious? Certainly, and Jacques's underlying assumption that class no longer matters in British politics is nonsense. But the notion that Blair marks a radical break with Labour's past is widespread. According to Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, Blair would be "the most extreme right-wing leader" the party has ever had. "He more than anyone else represents the desire to turn the Labour Party into something much more like the American Democratic Party." Even the normally guarded political editor of the Financial Times sees the election of Blair as somehow changing Labour's ideological identity once and for all. "By the end of July, we should have a clear idea of whether his party is ready to see social democracy sup¬plant socialism," he wrote in a profile last weekend.

But will Blair make that much difference? Perhaps — but it is more likely that the effect of his elevation to the Labour leadership will simply be more of the same with a slightly modified gloss. Blair undoubtedly has a very different style from any Labour leader since Harold Wilson. Like Wilson in 1964, he appears classless, he's young, he's a good television performer. And in Labour's row last year on its links with the trade unions (more accurately, its system for leadership elections) he did stick his neck out in favour of one member, one vote, which lost him some union friends.

This, however, is all image, apart from the union link — and no one is suggesting that further reforms of the Labour constitution are on the cards this side of a general election. Even the most cursory consideration of the stream of interviews and speeches he has made in the past week shows that, for all his rhetoric of "change" and "renewal", he is determined to keep Labour firmly on the course set by John Smith and Neil Kinnock. And although he told the Guardian's Patrick Wintour that "we are not going to win through the politics of caution ... It is never enough for a left-of-centre party to wait for government to be delivered to it", this means setting caution at the centre of Labour strategy.

Take, for a start, the hardy old perennial of pacts with the Lib Dems, up for discussion yet again at this weekend's Guardian-Fabian Society "Whatever Next?" conference in London (needless to say, the event was planned before the Lib Dems' disappointing performance in the Euro-elections). For some reason, word had got around that Blair might be open to a pre-election deal with Paddy Ashdown over seats. So he killed the story, telling the Financial Times: "I don't believe in pacts and I don't believe that they work... What I have always said is that at the level of ideas we should be prepared to open up. The Social Justice Commission is the beginning of that." In the Guardian he declared that "if Labour is not electable, then doing a deal is not going to make it electable", then went on to attack the Lib Dems' record in Tower Hamlets.

Like it or loathe it, the position is identical to Smith's. It was Smith who invited Lib Dems on to the Commission for Social Justice, Smith who authorised the assault on Lib Dem local govern¬ment spearheaded by Jack Straw in the six months before this year's council elections. The idea is to go for a majority Labour gov¬ernment, but to keep the Lib Dems reasonably sweet in case they're needed for a coalition or to prop up a minority Labour administration. In days gone by, Jacques would have denounced this as old-fashioned labourist "winner-takes-all" politics, deeply antipathetic to pluralism and blind to the fact that, in the postmodern world, traditional parties are passe.

In line with this, Blair's position is also at one with Smith's on proportional repre¬sentation for the House of Commons — kicked into touch last year with the promise of a referendum. "The party policy is to give people a referendum on PR," Blair told the FT. "I personally am not persuaded by PR but the party policy I think is the right one."

On other constitutional matters: "We must revi¬talise our aged and decrepit constitution—de¬volving power to the nations and regions of our country, rebuilding our local democracy, removing unaccountable quangos and bure¬aucracy, taking on vested interests, granting our people the constitutional rights and free¬dom other nations have long taken for granted and guaranteeing equal rights in society and fair treatment at work for all our citizens."

That is Blair a week ago, speaking in his constituency: leaving aside that he said nothing about the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords, it is virtually indistinguishable from Smith’s pronouncements on the constitution at a Charter 88 meeting last year. It is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far.

As for the economy, “the key to whether Brtiain succeeds lies first of all in developing its potential through eduction and skills” – just as Gordon Brown has been saying for the past two years and just as John Smith said as shadow chancellor from the late 1980s. In similar vein, Blair has made it clear since declaring his candidacy that Labour will not be in the business of taxing and spending for the sake of it; nor will its industrial policy “pick winners”.

He has backed “full employment” (although “I don’t think anyone would suggest that this is something we can achieve overnight”) and a minimum wage (“implemented in a way that is sensible and practical”). And he has endorsed partnership between the private and public sectors to rebuild Britain’s economy.

He won’t declare on the future of tax and benefit systems until after the Commission on Social Justice publishes its report in mid-October — a report that no one now expects to recommend more than minor adjustments to the post-1945 welfare state settlement. Not one of Blair's pronouncements has provided the slightest indication that he has given a moment's thought to the green critique of social democracy's enthusiasm for economic growth or to the deleterious effects of military expenditure.

Once again, all completely in line with the past.

It is, of course, easy to find a difference in nuance on economic policy between Blair and his main challenger for the leadership, John Prescott. Prescott has made much of the crucial importance of full employment for the best part of a decade and has spent the past nine months as employment spokesperson developing policies for job creation. Last weekend, he said that Labour ought to set a target for job creation "because I don't think people are going to be satisfied by rhetoric".

But he has also declared that no timescale should be attached to this, which rather spoils his point. And, in policy terms, Prescott is suggesting nothing that everyone else on the Labour front bench hasn't already endorsed.

Along with Margaret Beckett, Prescott is also far more sceptical than Blair about the prospects for European monetary union. But neither Beckett nor Prescott is prepared to state publicly that the only way for a Labour government to act is to let EMU go hang and go it alone for job-creating growth.

Unlike Bryan Gould, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in disgust in 1992, after Gordon Brown refused to endorse devaluation even in the wake of Black Wednesday, both have given unswerving public backing to Labour's ERM-based economic policy ever since Kinnock and Smith introduced it in the late 1980s.

There is no sign that Blair has had even private doubts.

As NSS pointed out in its leader last week, there is still plenty on which Blair has never said anything, from the Common Agricultural Policy to the future of Northern Ireland. He might yet surprise us. But on the key policy questions, there is no sign that he has any intention of deviating from the cautious game-plan con¬ceived by Kinnock in the wake of the 1987 election defeat and made still more cautious by Smith after 1992.

The aim remains to play safe — to reassure voters, particularly affluent workers and the middle class, of Labour's trustworthiness, by distancing the party from its controversial past and avoiding commitments on tax and spending until immediately before the next general election. Far from representing a radical change in Labour's direction, Blair is straitjacketed by the austerity social democracy established as Labour's ideology by Kinnock in the late 1980s.

In the week of Labour's landslide in the Euro-elections, it is tempting to see this continuity as a strength — particularly in the context of Blair's apparent attractiveness to voters. But the dangers of caution should not be forgotten. It has, after all, lost one general election already after a stunning mid-term Euro-election success, and it could do so again.

It is quite possible that a Blair-led Labour Party will succeed where Kinnock's failed, picking up substantial support from the affluent working and middle class to romp home with a large Commons majority. But that is by no means guaranteed.

On one hand, the affluent voters might just stick with the Tories, particularly if they ditch John Major and the economy really does pick up. On the other, there is the real possibility that wooing affluent voters by minimising policy commitments, particularly on employment, will en¬courage abstention by Labour's core traditional working-class supporters.

Unsurprisingly, there is no great enthusiasm for the strategy of social democratic caution among Labour politicians and activists. They're prepared to live with it, not least because the only coherent alternative on offer, the devaluationist anti-European Keynesianism most cogently advanced by Bryan Gould, seems worse.

And if they're enthusiastic about Blair, it is not because they feel the need suddenly to turn their backs on labourism or to opt for social democracy: they did that years ago. It's simply that they think him the best available salesman. He has an unenviable job.

Friday, 10 June 1994


Leader, New Statesman and Society, 10 June 1994

By the time most readers of NSS get this issue, voting in the European election will be over and the runners in the Labour leadership will have de¬clared — as indeed will the non-runners. But as we go to press the only certainty is that Gordon Brown will not be putting his name forward. All the others who have been mentioned as possible contenders have kept their intentions to themselves as planned.

All the same, it is increasingly likely that the best person to lead Labour into the next election is not going to be in the race at all. Robin Cook has this week apparently been swayed by his poor showing in opinion polls of Labour Party members and supporters not to go for the top job. Far and away the most intel¬ligent and radical of all the would-be contenders — and easily the most effectively combative in the House of Commons and as a public speaker — he seems to have decided that standing would mean risking humiliation and subsequent demotion from his current job as Labour's trade and industry spokesperson.

Many of Cook's supporters will be disappointed, and with reason. He is the most able representative of Labour's libertarian left, a political tendency that deserves a voice in the leadership contest. Given that his economic policy differences with Tony Blair are nowhere near as big as those between Bryan Gould and John Smith, there is no reason to expect that he would have been given the Gould treatment in the event of a Blair victory.

As it is, however, if Cook sticks to his decision not to run, Tony Blair is now virtually unstoppable. The reason is simple. Put bluntly, there is no credible challenger apart from Cook.

Of the two hopefuls who seem almost certain to run against Blair from the left, John Prescott cannot win and Margaret Beckett has even less chance. Both Prescott and Beckett are generally admired in the Labour Party, and each has undoubted qualities. Prescott is blunt, pugnacious and sharp-minded, and Beckett has an unrivalled head for detail.

But neither, unlike Cook, is widely considered to be leadership material. On the level of image, it is difficult to imagine Prescott living down his reputation as a loose cannon or Beckett suddenly acquiring a television manner that matches the warmth of her off-air personality. More important, both are out of tune with the politics of the time. They are very much of the old left – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation for the House of Commons, lukewarm about green politics. Neither will get more than grudging support from the increasingly important part of the Labour left that is pro-Europe, pro-PR and environmentalist.

At least, however, Prescott and Beckett have the capacity to give Blair a real political test. More is known about Blair's views than was before John Smith's death  – but he is still very much an unknown quantity. His position on law and order is by now familiar, as indeed is his line on trade  union rights. His speech last Thursday in Eastleigh, much praised by the weekend papers, endorsed the approach to economic policy developed by Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, in the past two years; and he has made a string of speeches outlining his ideas about a new sort of demo¬cratic socialism involving a changed relationship between the individual and the community.

But too much of this political philosophising is high-sounding flannel, and the range of policy areas on which he has said nothing is surprisingly large, particularly considering his reputation among the pundits as a man of ideas. Indeed, it is just about impossible to find more than a soundbite on such crucial policy areas as European integration, electoral reform, defence and security after the cold war, Ireland, the future of the welfare state or the effects of global warming – in fact, just about everything that has not fallen directly within his brief since he was catapulted into his first frontbench job a year after entering parliament.

This is not to say that Blair has no opinions apart from those required to function as a shadow minister. Nor is it to cast aspersions on his effectiveness as shadow home secre¬tary or on his ability to lead Labour. But the lacunae in public knowledge of his politics cannot be overlooked. Forget the cynics' argument that his lack of ideological baggage is his greatest strength: it is essential for Labour (and indeed for the country as a whole given the party's standing in the opinion polls) that Blair is not elected to the leadership before being made to give a full account of his political credo. A hard-fought leadership campaign "on the issues", as Tony Benn would put it, is a must.

When Blair wins, his first priority will have to be to unite the party. Even if his support is at the levels suggested by the opinion polls, there remains a substantial minority of La¬bour MPs and ordinary members (including, it seems from anecdotal evidence, most of the activists) who are underwhelmed by the prospect of Blair as leader. His performance during the leadership campaign might change their minds – but the likelihood is that he will need to be generous to the left if he is to avoid demoralisation of activists and polarisation of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the run-up to the next election. Offering Robin Cook his pick of the top three shadow cabinet jobs is the very least he should do.

Friday, 3 June 1994


New Statesman & Society, 3 June 1994

Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey talk to Noam Chomsky about the roots of his libertarian  socialist politics

Noam Chomsky is nothing if not consistent. Back in the mid-1960s, a rising star in the American academy because of his work in linguistics, he shocked his colleagues by taking a vocal public stand against what he called "the American invasion of Vietnam". In his 1966 essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", he railed against the assumption underlying all mainstream discussion of US policy in Indochina – "namely, that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible".

Ever since, while continuing to develop his linguistic theories, he has been the most prominent US critic both of his country's foreign policy and of the intellectuals and media that give it overwhelming consensual support. "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" was followed by a series of ever more devastating attacks on American policy in Vietnam (collected in American Power and the New Mandarins and At War With Asia): by 1970, he was far and away the best known intellectual opponent of the US war effort.

After the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, he expanded his field of fire with a string of articles and books. All are worth reading, but several stand out. In 1979, the two volumes of The Political Economy of Human Rights, co-authored with Edward Herman, exposed America's backing for Indonesia's war against East Timor, its responsibility for the rise of Pol Pot in Cambodia and its support for bloody dictatorships in Latin America. In 1982, Towards a New Cold War subjected the US rearmament programme and its apologists to an unrelenting political attack.

Next was The Fateful Triangle (1984), an assault on US sponsorship of Israel's suppression of the Palestinians, which prompted Zionist accusations that Chomsky was a "self-hating Jew". It was followed by Turning the Tide (1985), opposing the US siege of Nicaragua and support for death squads and dictatorship in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the late 1980s and early 1990s came a further batch of writings on the media (notably Necessary Illusions and – with Herman – Manufacturing Consent), Latin America (Year 501), the Iran-Contra scandal (The Culture of Terrorism), and the cold war (Deterring Democracy). A volume on the "new world order", World Orders Old and New, is out in October (in Britain as a Pluto paperback).

Chomsky is a critic, not a policy-maker, a whistle-blower rather than a strategist furnished with alternatives. Today, he is using all his considerable powers of argument against calls for the US military to go into Bosnia and Haiti. Although he backs the lifting of the UN embargo on arms sales to Bosnia, he says: "I find it hard to take seriously those people who are saying 'Let's intervene'. It just happens that there's one country that's offered to send forces to protect Bosnia – Iran. I haven't heard anyone agree to that, and there's a straightforward reason. If Iran were to invade Bosnia to save it from Serbian attack, the result would not be pretty. The same problems arise with anyone else."

As for Haiti, he says: "The people there don't want US intervention. They understand what it means, from bitter experience – the end of the grassroots movements, the end of any hope of democracy."

Chomsky has amassed an extraordinary body of evidence to show that, since 1948, the US has operated a foreign policy of refusing to allow radical nationalist third-world regimes to come between the US and the raw materials needed by its industry. Military intervention has been used consistently to this end – and the media have given the policy almost unstinting support.

But the single-mindedness of Chomsky's critique has unnerved many commentators. Mainstream journalists get particularly hot under the collar about his "propaganda model" of the workings of the US media, according to which television networks and the press slavishly defer to the government line on every contentious foreign policy question. It's far more complex than that, say the journalists. Chomsky will have none of it. Every piece of research he and Edward Herman have conducted on media coverage of Nicaragua in the 1980s shows "a degree of conformity to power that would rarely be attained in a totalitarian state", he says. "The only time that the propaganda model is falsified is when the media turn out to be even more servile to the interests of the state than we would expect."

Still more controversially, Chomsky has been criticised, particularly from the right, for being soft on communism and third-world authoritarianism. He has always concentrated his fire on the US and has consistently argued for solidarity with the victims of US policy. Where, ask the critics, are his polemics against the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, Pol Pot's genocide, Cuba's drug-running or the PLO's terrorism?

Chomsky dismisses this line of criticism out of hand. "If you look at all of the stuff I wrote about the Vietnam war, there's not one word supporting the Vietcong," he says. "The left was all backing Ho Chi Minh: I was saying that North Vietnam is a brutal Stalinist dictatorship. But it wasn't my job to tell the Vietnamese how to run the show. My view is that solidarity means taking my country, where I have some responsibility and some influence, and compelling it to get its dirty hands out of other people's affairs. You give solidarity to the people of a country, not the authorities. You don't give solidarity to governments, you don't give it to revolutionary leaders, you don't give it to political parties.

"The point is that the people of a country should be free to do what they want – and the main reason they're not is that we've got our boots on their necks. Once our boots are off their necks, it's up to them to figure out how to be free. If they're left with an oppressive government, then they can overthrow it – and maybe I'll help them."

Chomsky's refusal to extend support to governments and leaders is rooted in his underlying anarchist political philosphy. This world-view is based in part on the notion that a capacity for self-realisation and freedom is an unchanging part of human nature (an idea not unrelated to the central thesis of his linguistic theory that, as part of our genetic make-up, we all have an innate capacity for acquiring the rules of language). But it is also based on Chomsky's study of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism and of the dissident libertarian Marxism of 1920s and 1930s council communism – an underground socialist tradition he first came across through friends and family as a teenager in the 1940s.

"I disagree with the orthodox left on just about everything, going back to the Bolshevik revolution," he says: all the Bolsheviks managed to create was a form of state capitalism. "That was a defeat for socialism. Lenin and Trotsky destroyed the factory councils, remade the Soviets and wiped out every socialist tendency in the revolution. Leading socialist intellectuals like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg saw at once that it was counter-revolutionary."

Unlike the majority of anarchists, who argue that direct action is the only form that anarchist politics can take, Chomsky does not believe that his political philosophy dictates particular political tactics. "The basic anarchist idea is that any system of authority has to prove its legitimacy: if it can't prove its legitimacy then it ought to be eliminated. Occasionally a system of authority can justify itself. If it can't, and it's important enough, well, you have to undermine it. How you do so depends on the situation. There's nothing in anarchism that tells you how to proceed." This means that, sometimes, even traditional reformist activity is the best way forward. Chomsky is a member (albeit "very passive") of Democratic Socialists of America, the Socialist International affiliate in the US that boasts a handful of supporters among Democrat Congressional representatives. "You can be anti-parliamentarian – and indeed I am – and still think it's important to deal with parliament," he says. "If you're trying to stop US terror in central America, it's sometimes very effective to lobby Congress. There are no new ideas in political strategy – just constant educating and organising."


New Statesman & Society leader 3 June 1994

Such is the incompetence of John Major that Tory European election campaign managers must be grateful that the newspapers have decided that the main story this week is whether or not former Tory defence minister Alan Clark displayed his penis to a 13-year-old girl. At least Major comes out of that story with some credit: he was an opponent of the Powellite bigotry championed by James Harkess, the father of the girl in question, when Tory candidate for Brixton in 1970.

But even the lurid tale of Clark's alleged misdemeanours cannot quite rescue Major from the spotlight after his massive gaffe on beggars and his smaller one on a "two-speed Europe". The first was quite obviously intended as a routine Tory attempt to heap blame for society's ills on a defenceless, marginal group: previous targets in the past couple of years have included single mothers, the workshy, "bogus" asylum-seekers, New Age travellers and ravers. Until last week, it seemed that this scapegoating tactic had few deleterious political side-effects. Liberals might howl, but the voters for the most part acquiesced. This time, however, Major appears to have gone too far: his tirade against "offensive" beggars has backfired spectacularly.

That he went on this week to state that he believes in a "two-speed Europe" – giving the unmistakable impression that he thinks that, under his leadership, Britain can't keep up with the continent – almost defies credibility. Major is now as vulnerable as he was before the untimely death of John Smith. If the Tories get the drubbing that they deserve (and that everyone expects them to get) in next week's European election, his days could be numbered. As Ian Aitken argues this week (see page 18), this has ramifications for the Labour leadership that the party ignores at its peril.

But the Euro-elections are not simply a referendum on the competence of Major or the performance of his government. For a start, they are happening not just in Britain but throughout the European Union, and, although it is only in Spain that the fate of a prime minister also hangs on the result, they are important in every one of the 12 EU countries. In Germany, with a general election in October, the vote is a crucial test of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's apparent political renaissance; in France, it will show whether the left has recovered from the nadir of its general election defeat last year.

More important, however, is the impact of the elections on the future of the EU itself. As a result of the increased powers for the European Parliament in the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, voters will for the first time be choosing MEPs who can exert real influence over EU legislation.

Of course, the powers of the European Parliament remain far more limited than those of national legislatures (although the powers of national legislatures should not be exaggerated: as study after study has shown, in recent years their role has declined just about everywhere as the powers have shifted to the executive). It is the European Commission, composed of appointees of national governments, that still sets the legislative agenda for the EU; and the European Parliament can still do little to affect the decision-making of the secretive inter-governmental Council of Ministers.

But the idea that the European Parliament is little more than an expensive talking shop – an idea, unfortunately, still all too prevalent on the British left – should have been buried long ago. Although MEPs still cannot initiate legislation, they can ask the Commission to propose it, a right previously reserved for the Council. They can also reject Commission legislation and the EU budget – which gives them serious leverage in securing amendments. And they have the right to be consulted on Commission appointments, as well as the right to sack the Commission en bloc. The MEPs elected on 9 and 12 June will have a big say in economic, social and environmental policies that will affect every EU citizen's daily life.

What is more, the European Parliament's powers are set to increase in the next few years. On one hand, this is a matter of MEPs using the legitimacy that comes from being democratically elected to set precedents that will be difficult to reverse once established: for example, by voting on the successor to Jacques Delors as president of the Commission. On the other, the 1996 intergovernmental conference to sort out some of the issues left dangling by Maastricht will almost certainly agree to measures to reduce the universally recognised "democratic deficit".

The question is: what measures? Here we come back to Major's "two-speed Europe". The charitable interpretation of his remarks is that he meant not that Britain can't keep up, but that Britain shouldn't sign up for the whole package of single currency and federal polity advanced by continental Christian democrats and social democrats. As far as 1996 is concerned, that means attempting to limit as far as possible the inevitable increase in the European Parliament's powers while trying to preserve as much as possible of the powers of the Council of Ministers and those of individual national governments within it. If this strategy fails, Major reserves the right to opt out of European democracy.

The alternative is clear: a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament and a reduction of the role of the Council of Ministers and of individual national governments, with no opt-outs from democracy. It is a mark of the debilitating effect of the Tories' flag-waving on the confidence of their opponents that not one leading opposition politician – not even a Liberal Democrat – has had the courage to come out explicitly for a democratic federal Europe, with the European Parliament playing the leading role, during this European election campaign.