Friday, 8 November 1996


Review of Changing States by Glyn Ford, Glenys Kinnock and Arlene McCarthy (eds) (Mandarin, £7.99), Tribune, 8 November 1996

Labour’s MEPs don’t get the attention they deserve. The European Parliament has long since ceased to be a mere talking shop: it now has considerable powers to influence decisions that affect us all. And Labour plays a major role in every aspect of its business. The party is the largest single national group in the Party of European Socialists, itself the parliament’s biggest party, and Labour MEPs hold a string of key positions.

Yet the European Parliament goes largely unreported by the British media, which still consider, entirely wrongly, that political life begins and ends in Westminster and that Europe is essentially a matter of foreign policy. In the Labour Party, MEPs are too often viewed, equally wrongly, as second-rate politicians with the cushiest jobs going.

This collection of essays by a group of 14 members of the European Parliamentary Labour Party should go some way towards changing all this. Between them, the authors, all from the pro-European (but not-quite-federalist) mainstream of the EPLP, cover just about every aspect of European Union politics, from economic and monetary union to consumer protection. No one who reads this book from cover to cover will come away doubting that the EU has to be at the centre of Labour’s political concerns.

All the contributions are intelligent, well-written and easy to understand – itself uncommon in writing about European politics – and the book sends a clear message to Labour’s leaders in Westminster as it prepares for power: flirt with Euroscepticism at your peril. It will not be easy in the heat of an election campaign for Labour to remain essentially pro-European. With Sir James Goldsmith threatening them from the right, the Tories are setting themselves up to run a vicious xenophobic anti-European campaign, and they will be given strong backing by much of the press. The temptation for Labour to respond by adopting a much more Eurosceptic line than it has taken for the past decade, particularly on the single currency, will be great.

That, however, would be a major mistake. As several of the authors argue, the EU needs to be reformed and democratised, and there are undoubted risks in economic and monetary union. But the risks that would be involved in Britain turning its back on Europe are greater. A “positive, proactive approach to Europe”, in the words of Glyn Ford’s excellent introductory essay, is the only option that makes sense. And, as Alan Donnelly and David Martin make clear in their respective contributions, that includes engaging actively in the negotiations leading up to the single currency and backing a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament.

Friday, 1 November 1996


Red Pepper, November 1996

Labour's conference last month was an even easier ride for Tony Blair than last year's. But, says Paul Anderson, the unity on show might not last much beyond the general election

Like it or loathe it, Labour is more united today than at any time in living memory. Last month's party conference in Blackpool was all smiles and standing ovations. Not one vote went against Tony Blair – even after Barbara Castle's impassioned call for the basic state pension to be linked again to earnings not prices.

But the party is united for one purpose only: winning the next election. After that, it is unlikely that Labour’s unity will survive long. New Labour is a fragile coalition, and a Labour government will have its work cut out to keep it together. Even now, it’s easy to predict what will stimulate Labour opposition to prime minister Blair – at least some of which will give strength to the pro-European green libertarian left.

Europe The most contentious decision Labour will have to make in office is whether to join the single European currency in 1999. Labour is divided on European monetary union, but unlike the Tories, not on straightforward left-right lines.

The official position is that Labour is in favour of EMU in principle, but against joining unless there is “real economic convergence”. Not only should inflation and government borrowing be low all round – as the Maastricht treaty dictates – unemployment should be low and growth high. This line will probably see Labour through to the election, although it is anathema to the party’s hard-line nationalist Eurosceptics (some hard left, some right-wing Keynesian devaluationists) who are against a single currency in principle.

Once Labour comes to power, however, “the fireworks could start almost at once”, as one centre-left MP put it in Blackpool. A decision on participation in EMU from the outset will have to be made soon after the election, and the best guess is that membership will be on offer only on the terms laid down by Maastricht (albeit flexibly interpreted). It’s most likely that Labour will have to decide whether to join without “real economic convergence” – and that means an unenviable choice. Joining EMU will be a disaster if the convergence criteria turn out to be so tough that they crash the economy. But staying out will be bad news if it means British exclusion from a continental European boom or an EMU-wide job-creation programme.

Unsurprisingly, Labour is divided right to the top on what to do. Gordon Brown apparently wants to take a deep breath and jump in the deep end – but Robin Cook would rather stand on the side and see whether the water is as cold as it looks. Blair is in two minds, but inclined to follow Cook. According to insiders, a majority of the shadow cabinet is wary of EMU, but the balance in a real cabinet will tilt in favour if Blair promotes some of the younger modernisers now in junior front-bench posts. Whatever the leadership decides, at least a significant minority of MPs will disagree, as will a fair number of MEPs, key advisers and trade unions. A referendum on EMU, touted as a way out of Labour’s dilemma, would exacerbate its divisions more spectacularly even than the 1975 Common Market membership referendum.

On the non-xenophobe left, there’s a real argument going on, between EMU sceptics, who would like a renegotiation of the Maastricht conditions (Unison, the TGWU, Tribune, Roger Berry, Peter Hain, Alan Simpson, Jonathan Michie), and EMU enthusiasts, who argue for signing up and then pressing for compensatory measures to cope with the resulting austerity (the GMB, the TUC, Denis MacShane, most of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, John Palmer, Stuart Holland).

This one will run and run – but if Labour signs up for EMU, the protagonists will almost certainly come together behind a Europe-wide employment programme like that being promoted by Labour MEP Ken Coates, which is backed by an impressive coalition of socialists and greens throughout the continent.

Public spending One of the arguments advanced by opponents of participation in EMU is that it requires draconian cuts in public spending; even pro-EMU Labour politicians concede that it means fiscal discipline. But it’s quite possible that a Labour government will decide to squeeze expenditure – except on education, on which Labour is committed to spend – even if it stays out of EMU.

Having made so much of the Tories’ lies about tax, Gordon Brown cannot easily raise income tax or VAT if he needs to reduce public sector borrowing, as he will have to if it overshoots the government’s estimates (as seems likely). There are other options for raising revenue – such as windfall taxes and green taxes – and, in the medium term, growth might ease Brown’s problems. If, however, he decides he has to cut spending (for example to curb inflation), there will be howls of protest from the PLP left, from the constituencies, from the public sector unions and from Labour local government.

Even a refusal to increase public spending beyond the minimal promises in Labour’s manifesto document will be unpopular. Local authorities have high expectations of a Labour government. And the public sector unions are in no mood to be told that big pay rises are out of the question. They will be especially angry if a nugatory minimum wage eventually emerges from the government.

Relations with the unions It’s at this point that big union trouble could start for Blair, and the he knows it. Measures that give substance to the slogans of “social partnership” and “stakeholding” will go down well with the unions – but they might still insist on exerting their influence inside the Labour Party. Because they still dominate Labour’s conference and National Executive Committee, they have the power to make the party ungovernable if they fall out with the government.

Labour’s general secretary, Tom Sawyer, is looking at ways that party structures could be reformed to minimise the damage if the unions get awkward; and if that doesn’t work, there’s the option, floated by junior employment spokesman Stephen Byers during TUC week, that the leadership could cut the party adrift from the unions. As the furore that followed Byers’ remarks shows, that would start a bloody battle that the leadership could well lose.

All the same, it’s not just the modernisers in the New Labour camp that reckon a divorce might not be a disaster. The unions increasingly feel that money they spend on Labour could be better used. Few union leaders are likely to join Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, but the TGWU, MSF and Unison – at very least – are already thinking seriously about life without. Using all their political funds on their own campaigning is looking more and more attractive.

Welfare reform There have been tastes of the potential for welfare policy to generate Labour dissent in recent months – not just the conference row over the proposals from Barbara Castle and welfare expert Peter Townsend on pensions, but also the less-public spats over Gordon Brown’s plans to drop universal child benefit for 16- to 18-year-olds and to retain the Job Seekers’ Allowance.

How much of a hot potato welfare will be in government is unclear, however. If Labour’s welfare-to-work programme really does reduce the dole queues, there will be few complaints; but if benefits are cut – or if Labour embraces some of the wilder privatisation schemes being hatched by Frank Field and others – there will be mayhem, and not just from the parliamentary left and the unions.

The network of left-leaning academic and pressure group welfare experts is out of the New Labour loop: the Castle-Townsend collaboration on pensions could be a portent of trouble to come from politicians acting in league with the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter and others. There’s also growing interest across the political spectrum in the (originally radical left) idea of a basic income, which will find increasing purchase if a Labour government fails the poor.

Scotland On Blair’s insistence, Labour is now promising referendums on devolution for Scotland and Wales in the first year of a Labour government. And the Scottish one, considered a sell-out on Home Rule by many Scottish Labourites and ridiculed by nationalists, is set to be a particular problem.

The Scots will decide whether they want a Scottish parliament and whether it should have tax-raising powers. If the result is “yes-yes”, Labour will be laughing. ”Yes-no”, the next most likely result, will spark apoplexy not just in the Scottish Labour Party but among everyone – from the Scottish TUC and the Lib Dems to the churches and the Greens – who backed the Scottish Constitutional Convention agreement on self-government for Scotland.

Electoral reform Labour is committed to holding a referendum on electoral reform for the Commons – and, if it’s ditched, the party’s electoral reform lobby will be livid. There is also potential for conflict over the wording of the referendum and in the referendum campaign itself, in which senior Labour figures will back different systems.

Once again, Robin Cook is a key player (he is the most senior enthusiast for the German additional member system of proportional representation), and once again there is not a simple left-right divide. Although MPs tend to be sceptical about anything that might threaten their hold on their seats, several, many on the left, are enthusiasts for PR (Ken Livingstone, Clare Short, Richard Burden), and their numbers will swell after the election. They have backing from younger party activists and some unions – as well as from non-party pressure groups such as Charter 88. Cross-party alliances will be key, particularly when it comes to deciding on the particular electoral system the PR lobby supports if the referendum goes ahead.

Civil liberties With Jack Straw as shadow home secretary, Labour has relentlessly asserted its enthusiasm for getting tough on crime, playing down civil libertarian themes. In opposition, internal Labour criticism has been muted – largely because Straw has not come up with concrete proposals that are particularly authoritarian even though his rhetoric has often echoed Michael Howard’s.

The tests here will come in office: in the scope of the Freedom of Information legislation Labour has promised, in the content of its Bill of Rights, in its replacements for Tory laws restricting asylum rights, immigration and freedom of assembly. There is a strong civil libertarian movement outside party politics, part of it long-established and single-issue (Liberty, Amnesty International), part of it new and as involved in questions of social justice and environmentalism (The Big Issue magazine, the new squatting movement, the campaigns against the Criminal Justice Act and road-building).

It would be rash to predict a flowering of a radical new left after Tony Blair makes it to Number Ten. But the pond life is stirring. And it will certainly be more exciting than Blackpool last month.