Monday, 1 December 1997


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, December 1997

The commission appointed last month to recommend an alternative system for Commons elections is a mixed blessing for anyone hoping for a proportional representation system in which a new green left party could win seats.

The good news is that the composition and brief of the five-strong Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, suggest that it will probably not recommend the alternative vote (AV), a non-proportional system, to put to voters in a referendum. The bad news is that it is likely to support a version of PR that excludes small parties from parliament.

The commission’s terms of reference are wide: it can ‘consider and recommend any appropriate system or combination of systems’ for parliamentary elections that satisfies the requirements of ‘broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies’. Ministerial opponents of PR insist the commission will be considering AV, but that is not compatible with the ‘broad proportionality’ criterion.

More important, although two of the members of the commission – journalist David Lipsey and Labour peer Baroness Gould – have in the past backed AV, both are said by colleagues to have moved towards a ‘soft’ PR system. Two other members, Jenkins himself and Tory peer Lord Alexander, are on record as backers of single transferable vote PR system (STV) favoured by the Liberal Democrats, although Jenkins is said to be flexible and Alexander’s support for STV is weak. The fifth member, retiring Northern Ireland Office mandarin Sir John Chilcot, has direct experience of STV in Northern Ireland local elections but has not expressed an opinion in public.

All this points to a recommendation of some sort of PR. It would be surprising, however, if the commission backs a version that would give parties with, say, 5-10 per cent support nationally –a realistic target for a British version of the German Greens – a chance of winning seats. The commission members are without exception centrist advocates of ‘stability’ rather than enthusiasts for a parliament in which all shades of opinion are given voice.

So the smart money is on their coming up with a hybrid system with a strong element of AV that gives already-represented parties greater proportionality but makes it difficult for anyone else to get MPs elected. There are two obvious candidates: a mixture of AV for rural areas and STV for towns and cities – favoured by some Lib Dems – or a watered-down version of the German additional member system (AMS), in which MPs elected by AV in constituencies would be ‘topped up’ from party lists to ensure greater overall proportionality (but only for parties that have already won single-member seats). Either would be marginally fairer than first past the post. Neither would provide too much encouragement for anyone who wants to break the grip of the established parties on British electoral politics.

The favourite is undoubtedly an AV-based AMS system – not least because it could be introduced in two stages, with AV for the next election and additional members tacked on in the one after that, round about 2007. Whether that’s worth taking seriously looks set to be a key question on the left for some time to come.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead As Labour home secretary in 1974, Roy Jenkins proposed that the voting system be included in a Speaker’s Conference on Commons reform; and in his 1979 Dimbleby lecture, which prepared the ground for the SDP’s split from Labour in 1981, he argued for electoral reform as an essential element of a new centrist political settlement for Britain. He backed STV as SDP leader in the early 1980s, but has not spoken out in its favour in recent years. The best guess is that he is now prepared to broker a compromise between supporters of AV and backers of a proportional system – probably a conservative version of AMS in which constituency MPs are elected by AV and regional top-up representation is limited to parties that have won constituency seats.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour’s director of organisation during its purge of Militant, Joyce Gould was between 1989 and 1993 a member of the party’s commission on voting systems chaired by Raymond Plant. She backed a version of AV then, but has subsequently moved towards AMS and is now – ironically – probably the best hope of the anyone who would like the commission to recommend a PR system that would not rule out representation for a green left party.

Lord Alexander of Weedon A Tory peer who is chairman of the National Westminster Bank, Robert Alexander declared a ‘tentative personal preference’ for STV in a recent book, The Voice of The People.

David Lipsey The political editor of the Economist, Lipsey was in the 1970s a protégé of and adviser to the Labour right guru Anthony Crosland. In 1992, he was strongly in favour of the alternative vote, which he described in a Fabian pamphlet as having ‘immense attractions’ because ‘party discipline remains important, fragmentation is discouraged and extremists are still excluded from parliament’. Since the 1997 election, he appears to have become more open to the idea of proportionality – but is likely to back a conservative AV-AMS or AV-STV hybrid.

Sir John Chilcot As a senior civil servant – he is the retiring Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office – Chilcot has not been allowed to make public statements on the electoral system, although he has seen STV in action in local elections in Northern Ireland.

The main options that the commission will consider are variations on the alternative vote (AV), the single transferable vote (STV) and the additional member system (AMS).

AV, used in Australia, retains single-member constituencies from first past the post but changes the marking of ballots to ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the candidate with the fewest votes are added to the other candidates’ totals. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote. AV is not proportional. There are several variants, one of which was recommended for the Commons by Labour’s working party on electoral systems in 1993.

Under STV, favoured by the Liberal Democrats and used in Ireland, electors in multi-member constituencies mark their ballot papers ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. Candidates reaching a certain proportion of the vote on first preferences are declared elected, then second preferences of the candidate with least first preferences are redistributed. The process continues until all seats are filled.

Under AMS, backed by most of Labour’s proportional representation lobby and used in Germany, electors vote once for a constituency candidate and once for a party. Successful constituency candidates are ‘topped up’ from party lists to ensure proportionality. The single-member constituency element in an AMS system can be either FPTP or AV, and in most existing versions there is a threshold of a certain number of constituency seats or percentage of the vote (in Germany three seats or 5 per cent) before a party wins seats from regional lists. It would be easy to design an AMS system that denied top-up seats to any party that had not won in a constituency – or to set a high percentage threshold for top-up representation.


D-tour, December 1997

Ken Livingstone wants to be London mayor – but he thinks the Labour leadership will stop him standing, he tells Paul Anderson

Just three months ago, Ken Livingstone was a marginal figure on the Labour left, out of favour with Tony Blair’s new government, yesterday’s man.

But then the MP for Brent South surprised all the pundits by beating Peter Mandelson to a place on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee – and suddenly he was news for the first time in years. People started talking about him as the leader of the left in parliament and as a candidate for the new post of elected mayor of London. With the Blair government running into its first patches of turbulence, Red Ken has been on the television every other night making trouble.

Relaxing over a coffee in the Italian café on Whitehall, he seems pleased about his return to the limelight. “Politics gets reported as a sprint run,” he says in his famously nasal drawl. “In reality it’s a marathon. You may seem to be totally isolated. But suddenly events turn, and then you’re back in the frame. After being kicked off the NEC in 1989, I had eight years of people saying I was finished. But that isn’t real politics. Real politics is about sticking in there until the circumstances are favourable and then exploiting them as best you can.”

“The circumstances” now are, of course, the election of a Labour government with plans for a London-wide authority with a directly elected mayor and city council. Livingstone was the last leader of the capital’s last city-wide authority, the Greater London Council, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – but he’s no enthusiast for the government’s scheme. He believes that an elected mayor will be unaccountable between elections and accessible only to the rich and powerful. “I prefer a system where there’s a leader of a council, maybe called the mayor, who’s elected by a majority on the council,” he says. “You then have some way of affecting the mayor’s decisions through the parties, and if needs be the council can get rid of him or her. If you have an elected mayor for four or five years – well, if they go bad or mad, you’re stuffed.”

He also thinks that the new London authority needs far greater powers than the government proposes, not least to raise its own taxes. In the end, however, he’ll back the government plan. “Anything’s better than nothing,” he says.

But will he be running for the post? “I’d very much like to be a candidate,” he says. “But there’s going to be a clause in the bill that says ‘white men born in Streatham in 1945 aren’t eligible to stand’. They can’t have something saying ‘Ken Livingstone can’t stand’, but if they make it a general proscription against a class of people, it’s no problem. I suspect the Labour leadership will say that you can’t stand if you’re an MP – and I’m not going to give up my seat in parliament.”

He’d ideally like to be both mayor and an MP. “The government won’t give London tax-raising powers, so if you’re mayor, your main task is to get back from the government more of London’s money. Each year London puts into the national government £6.2 billion more than it gets back. If we had the same level of public spending per head that Scotland’s got, we’d have an extra £4.4 billion. With that sort of cash, we wouldn’t have people sleeping on the streets or the transport system breaking down. And the best place to make that case is on the floor of the House of Commons. Otherwise they’ll just give you a large brandy and show you the door.”

Livingstone believes that transport is the new authority’s first priority. “You’ve got to be able to reduce fares and put conductors back on the buses so there are fewer delays. And you need the power to make local boroughs put in cycle routes and bus lanes.” Otherwise, he says, the authority should play a leading role in creating jobs in inner London and in arts and culture policy.
It is clear he sees the old GLC as a model for how it should all work. “We started listening to Londoners. People felt they had an influence on it. You can’t have an influence on the present government – unless you’ve contributed £1 million to the Labour Party, and that gives you access to the prime minister.”

The dig at Blair is a reminder of Livingstone’s deep dissatisfaction with the government. He warms to his theme. “I’ll give it six out of ten,” he says. “They’re doing brilliantly on Ireland. But denying Londoners the choice of what sort of elected authority they want is a disgrace. So is the refusal to back the anti-hunting bill and go for tuition fees for students. But the most appalling scandal is taking the six quid off the single parents. Tax revenues are flooding in because the economy is booming. It’s just a macho thing to show the bankers that they can trust us to screw the poor.”

Our hour is almost up, and Livingstone has another meeting. “My life is one long meeting,” he moans as we wait for the bill. “I don’t have a lot of time for a lot of things I love, like hanging around in cafés in Soho. We’ve got to pedestrianise Soho, you know. I get to work at ten, get home to Cricklewood at eleven, watch Newsnight, drink half a bottle of wine and crash out. My record collection peters out in about 1973. The one thing I always make time for though is to take in at least one film a week. That’s my culture. I loved LA Confidential and Excess Baggage. I hated Event Horizon and Face/Off. You can’t believe how bad Face/Off is.”

And with that, he’s back to his office, then off to the Commons for a vote, then a cab to a television studio. “You know, I sometimes think I’d like to give it up and spend half my time just reading books,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous life. But I love it really.”


Red Pepper, December 1997

The future of Wayne David as leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party hangs in the balance after he and EPLP chief whip Simon Murphy were forced to abandon the suspensions of the “Strasbourg four” dissident Labour MEPs last month.

At a meeting of the EPLP on 11 November, Labour MEPs voted overwhelmingly for a deal to reinstate the four  –  Ken Coates, Alex Falconer, Michael Hindley and Hugh Kerr  –  who had rejected a Labour National Executive Committee code of conduct because it banned them from commenting in public on government plans to introduce a “closed list” system of proportional representation for Euro-elections.

The four agreed to a memorandum of understanding drawn up by EPLP chair Roger Barton, supposedly clarifying the code of conduct but in fact modifying it to allow MEPs to speak their minds publicly on the government’s electoral reform plans and to express their opinions ‘within the Labour Party’ on the method for selecting Labour’s candidates.

The deal is a humiliating setback for David and Murphy, who had staked their credibility as EPLP leader and chief whip on the decision in October to suspend the four, believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of Tony Blair. Whether or not they were, the London leadership was taken aback by the strength of opposition to the suspensions not only among other Labour MEPs but also in the press. When Barton, a close ally of John Prescott, hatched his plan for a face-saving compromise, London supported him fully.

MEPs are now openly speculating how long David can last as leader of Labour’s 62 MEPs. First elected in 1994, he incurred Blair’s displeasure in autumn that year by defending Clause Four of the Labour constitution, but subsequently rallied to his side after half the EPLP were named as signatories to a pro-Clause Four Guardian advertisement. Last year, he was embroiled in controversy after he threatened Hugh Kerr with loss of the party whip for allegedly heckling Blair at Labour conference. David recovered sufficient left support to beat off a challenge to his leadership this summer from the right-wing Alan Donnelly  –  but his position is now “at best precarious”, in the words of one former supporter.

It remains to be seen whether the reinstatement of the four will lead to an improvement in relations between the EPLP and the Labour leadership in London. Many MEPs, by no means all on the left, have been critical of what they see as heavy-handed attempts by London, particularly since the election of a Labour government, to dictate policy to them.

Labour’s choice of a “closed list” system of PR for the 1999 Euro-elections is controversial because such a system would not allow voters to vote for individual candidates or to split their votes among parties. Moreover, suspicions are rife that Blair plans to prevent many existing MEPs from being candidates in 1999  –  by imposing all Labour candidates with no ballot of members, by making sure that leadership loyalists take all the places at the top of each regional list, or by excluding “awkward” MEPs on disciplinary grounds. In the past couple of months, several sitting left-wing MEPs have been discussing the possibility of standing against Labour on a red-green list if they are indeed purged.

The deal on the code of conduct appears to indicate a new willingness by London to negotiate and compromise with the EPLP. But MEPs’ fears about the electoral system for 1999 and the selection process will not be easily assuaged. Something says that this story will run and run.

Friday, 14 November 1997


New Times, 14 November 1997

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.

Saturday, 1 November 1997


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, November 1997

Supporters of proportional representation are dismayed by reports that Labour’s long-promised referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons will offer voters a choice not between the current system and some version of PR but between the status quo and a non-PR system, the alternative vote (AV).

At the Labour Party conference in Brighton last month, home secretary Jack Straw, a long-standing opponent of PR, told a fringe meeting that he ‘could live with’ AV. After the conference, several newspapers quoted ‘senior party sources’ as saying that Tony Blair had come round to the same point of view. Party spin doctors suggested that Blair might get his way by appointing Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Liberal Democrat peer, to chair the commission on voting systems that is due to recommend a system to be put to the voters in the referendum.

‘The alternative vote is the only system that’s even worse than first past the post,’ Ken Livingstone, the Labour MP for Brent South, told Red Pepper. ‘It exaggerates the representation of whichever party is ahead. We could push it through and then five years later find the Tories winning a majority of 50 with only 1 per cent more of the vote than us.’

Richard Burden, the Labour MP for Birmingham Northfields and chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Labour’s main pro-PR pressure group, said: ‘The manifesto is clear that the voting systems commission will be charged with recommending a proportional system for the referendum. AV is not a proportional system. It gives voters precious little say over the shape of the parliament after an election.’

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson made much the same point: ‘The commitment was to a referendum on a proportional system and the alternative vote is not a proportional system.’

AV retains the single member constituencies of the status quo but changes the marking of ballots from ‘x’ to ‘1, 2, 3’ and so on in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last-placed candidate are added to the other candidates’ totals, a process that continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the votes.

AV is not a proportional system, although it is often mistakenly described as one. It would give greater representation to the centre than FPTP, but would make it just as difficult for small parties to win seats and would force parties to compete even more than at present for the centre ground.

The prospects of AV as a would-be electoral system for the Commons seemed to have been dashed last year when a Labour-Lib Dem consultative committee chaired by Robin Cook and Robert Maclennan agreed that ‘the referendum should be a single question offering a straight choice between first past the post and one specific proportional alternative’. Blair himself ruled out AV as an option because ‘it’s not proportional’ in an interview just before the election.

Labour was first committed to a referendum on electoral reform by John Smith in 1993. The government has promised that the additional member system of PR will be used for elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and it is planning to introduce a list system of PR for the 1999 European Parliament elections.


Red Pepper, November 1997

When the Green Party issued a press release in September claiming that it had been approached by half-a-dozen left-wing Labour MEPs who wanted to defect before the 1999 European elections, Labour was quick to dismiss the story as groundless rumour.

 But in fact there is a small group of disaffected Labour MEPs who are seriously considering the idea of fighting the next Euro-elections against Labour on a pro-European red-green platform if, as they expect, the Labour leadership in London makes sure that ‘awkward’ sitting MEPs are not selected as candidates.

 The next Euro-elections will be fought on the regional list system of proportional representation, which both allows party machines far greater power over selection of candidates than first past the post and makes it possible for lists with minority support to gain representation.

 Tony Blair has made little secret of his desire for a more pliant European Parliamentary Labour Party. His relations with the EPLP have been cool ever since early 1995, when more than half of Labour’s MEPs were named as signatories to an advertisement opposing abandonment of Clause Four.

More recently, MEPs have objected to a code of conduct prepared by the London leadership. 

"We’re expecting a purge," said one MEP. "The best bet is that 12 or 15 of us will be targeted – and not just the outspoken oppositionists like Hugh Kerr and Ken Coates. Some will go quietly, but others have been giving the idea of standing on a red-green platform active consideration." Red Pepper understands that six sitting MEPs have been involved in informal discussions.

 Of course, fears of a purge might prove to be groundless – in which case a breakaway is unlikely. At this stage, no detailed preparations have been made. Labour won 62 of the 84 European Parliament seats in England, Scotland and Wales on 44 per cent of the vote in the 1994 Euro-elections. Even if the party matches this share of the vote in 1999, it will win only 44 seats on the list system – and if the government is suffering from mid-term unpopularity it could easily end up with a haul in the low 30s or worse.

Friday, 17 October 1997


New Times, 17 October 1997

Most of the British press had no doubt who was responsible for the collapse of Italy's centre-left government last week: the unreconstructed hard-line Marxists of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation). They refused to tone down their opposition to the government's plans for cuts in pensions – part of its attempt to ensure that Italy qualifies for first-wave membership of European economic and monetary union – and thus left prime minister Romano Prodi facing the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the budget.

The story is a little more complicated than that, however. It is true that Rifondazione, led by the stubborn Fausto Bertinotti, includes some real political fossils. It is also true that it was intransigent in its insistence that the government make some concession to secure its support in parliament.

But by no means everyone in Rifondazione is a diehard Stalinist, and winning concessions from the government is what Bertinotti and his comrades see as their job. In the April 1996 general election, which gave Italy a left-dominated government for the first time, Rifondazione, created by members of the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) who opposed its transformation into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) in 1991, won nearly 9 per cent of the vote. That gave Rifondazione 35 seats in the chamber of deputies – enough to make it an essential ally of the PDS-dominated "Olive Tree" coalition whenever the right and the regionalist Lega Nord voted together in parliament.

Until discussions began on the budget, Rifondazione was broadly supportive of the government, flexing its muscles only intermittently. But it consistently made clear that it would not back large-scale reductions in welfare spending merely to allow Italy to take part in EMU. Bertinotti and his party would have lost the substantial credibility that they have patiently built up with working-class voters if they had not used all their leverage over pension rights. Italy's economy is doing well, and many voters do not see why they should go through yet another bout of austerity.

Equally important, Rifondazione was not the only one playing intransigent over the budget. Bertinotti had made it clear that, although he needed a concession, he was open to suggestions about what precisely it should be – and it is likely that agreement could have been reached had it not been for the inflexibility of PDS leader Massimo D'Alema.

D'Alema was quite happy to see the collapse of the government because he wants an early general election, which he believes would return a PDS-centre government  that would not have to rely on the support of Rifondazione – and would thus have far greater freedom of manoeuvre.

He might be right. The main right-wing party, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, is doing poorly in the opinion polls and is tainted with corruption. There is a good chance that the Olive Tree coalition, making the most of the voter-appeal of its latest recruit, Antonio Di Pietro, the investigating magistrate who became a popular hero for his pursuit of political corruption in the early 1990s, would make substantial inroads into the territory formerly occupied by the Christian Democrats.

There is, however, a big problem with D'Alema's strategy. The president of the republic, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who alone has the power to appoint prime ministers and dissolve parliament, does not want a snap election and is doing all he can to create a new government without one. If he succeeds, D'Alema will not be easily forgiven by many in the PDS for the part he played in throwing power away.

Friday, 19 September 1997


New Times, 19 September 1997

If all that mattered in politics was the state of the economy, this month's general election in Norway would have been a walkover for the Labour Party, in government as a minority administration since 1986, latterly under Thorbjorn Jagland . Unemployment is below 5 per cent and falling, inflation is just over 2 per cent, and interest rates are low. Largely because of a dramatic growth in North Sea oil revenues, Norway's gross domestic product grew last year by more than 5 per cent. Norway has never had it so good.

Yet far from expressing their gratitude by backing Labour, Norway's voters decided to give Jagland a bloody nose. Before the election, he had stupidly announced that he would resign if his party did not better the 36.9 per cent of the vote it took in 1993. In the event, Labour managed only 35.1 per cent, and Jagland had no option but to go – even though his party remains by far the biggest party in the Storting (parliament), with 65 of its 165 seats. He left Kjell Magne Bondevik, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, to try to put together a minority centrist coalition government with the Liberals and the anti-EU Centre Party.

There are several reasons that Labour lost support. Jagland is a lacklustre figure by comparison with Gro Harlem Brundtland, his predecessor as party leader and prime minister - his television performances during the campaign were particularly mediocre – and his government had acquired a reputation for arrogance that was exacerbated by his turning the election into a vote of confidence.

More important by far, however, was Labour's failure to persuade voters of the wisdom of its welfare policies. Norway's oil revenues are set to decline in the early years of the next century, just as demography suggests that the country's spending on pensions and healthcare for the elderly will have to rise. In government, Labour followed a prudent policy of restricting current welfare spending and investing Norway's oil revenues in equities to ensure that there will still be the means to pay for a comprehensive welfare state in the middle of the 21st century.

But the election result showed that many voters want to have their cake and eat it. The two parties that are most pleased with the election result, Bondevik's Christian Democrats and the far-right populist Progress Party, led by Carl Hagen, both argued for using oil revenues for increased welfare spending now. The Progress Party's gains were particularly spectacular: standing on an anti-immigration law-and-order platform, it took more than 15 per cent of the vote (up nine points on 1993) and equalled the Christian Democrats' haul of 25 Storting seats.

Apart from Labour, the main losers were the Centre Party (which slumped to 8 per cent of the vote from 17 per cent), the Socialist Left Party (down two points to 6 per cent) and the Conservatives (down three to 14 per cent, their worst result since 1945). Both the Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party had more often than not given Labour parliamentary support.

Most commentators believe that Labour will be back in office before long because of the instability of the centre coalition and its weakness in the Storting. But there can be no doubt that Labour has been rattled by the experience of parties to its right gaining by promising more generous welfare provision. Despite all the differences between Norwegian and British politics, there is a salutory warning here for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Friday, 15 August 1997


New Times, 15 August 1997

After 15 years in power, German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s centre-right coalition government is showing signs of exhaustion. The economy is faltering: unemployment is more than 4 million and the Deutschmark is dwindling in value. The government is desperately trying to reduce its debts to qualify for European economic and monetary union – but its enthusiasm for EMU is not shared by the voters or the Bundesbank, which earlier this year humiliated the government by refusing to allow it to use new estimates of the value of its gold reserves to make the debts look smaller.

Key elements of the government’s legislative programme, most notably its plans for reforming the tax system, have been scuppered by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) majority in the federal upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which comprises representatives of Germany’s 16 regional states, the Lander. Relations among the three parties in the ruling coalition, Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, the Bavarian Christian Social Union and the liberal Free Democratic Party are at best fractious.

Rivals to succeed Kohl as the leader of the CDU/CSU are already jockeying for position. In other words, everything suggests that it is time for a change.

But whether the SPD can capitalise on Kohl’s misfortunes remains to be seen. Although it is running at around 40 per cent in the opinion polls, compared with the 36 per cent of the vote it won in the last Bundestag election in October 1994, it is poorly led, divided over Europe and unsure about how far the ‘German model’ of the social market economy needs to be reformed.

Its current leader is Oskar Lafontaine, the rhetorically left-leaning Saarland premier who unexpectedly ousted the ineffectual Rudolf Scharping at the party’s 1995 conference (although Scharping remains the leader of the SPD in the Bundestag). Lafontaine was the SPD candidate for the chancellorship in the 1990 federal election, and he desperately wants to have another go at Kohl in 1998. But he has not given the SPD a clear sense of direction, and he faces a strong challenge for the party’s nomination as candidate for the chancellorship from Gerhard Schröder, the Lower Saxony premier.

Schröder is a right-wing populist in SPD terms who has taken a sceptical position on EMU, arguing that it should be delayed if the convergence criteria in the Maastricht treaty prove too tough. Most of the smart money is currently on Schröder – although that could easily change before the party makes its choice early next year.

Meanwhile, the SPD’s most likely coalition partners in government if Kohl does not make a comeback, the Greens, are enjoying a period of sustained popularity unprecedented since unification, with ratings in the polls of 11 per cent (compared with 7 per cent of the vote in 1994). They have long since metamorphosed into a mature and credible parliamentary party, and in Joschka Fischer, their leader in the Bundestag and a convinced proponent of greater European integration, they have far and away the most impressive politician of the German centre-left.

Green optimists believe that they might take as much as 13 or 14 per cent of the vote in the general election. The first test of the long election campaign for both SPD and Greens comes next month (September) in Land elections in Hamburg – but more important by far are next spring’s elections in Schroeder’s home state of Lower Saxony, which will play a crucial role in determining his chances of becoming Kohl’s SPD challenger.

No one is yet counting any chickens, however. Kohl is the great survivor of contemporary European politics – and it would be no surprise come next September if he manages a fifth consecutive victory.

Friday, 4 July 1997


New Times, 4 July 1997

The new British defence secretary, George Robertson, chose the right time to launch the government's strategic defence review – the morning after Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and the leaders of the European Nato countries met in Paris to sign the security deal between Russia and Nato that will allow the alliance to expand eastwards, initially to incorporate Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The newspapers were almost unanimous in heralding the agreement as an historic breakthrough, not least because of Yeltsin's surprise declaration that Russia would remove the nuclear warheads on missiles pointed at Nato countries (a statement subsequently toned down by his officials to a promise no longer to target missiles at signatories to the deal).

There could not, it seemed, be a more propitious opportunity to start what Robertson said would be the most fundamental reassessment of Britain's security needs since the end of the cold war.

And indeed, there is much about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security that is very good news. The agreement sets up a new Nato-Russia Council with a permanent secretariat, which will give each side a voice in the other's security affairs; and it suggests a long list of topics that the council might discuss, from conflict prevention and peace-keeping to nuclear safety and theatre nuclear missile defences. Nato has agreed to re-examine its "strategic concept", which has remained unchanged since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Founding Act states that Nato has "no intention, no plan and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Nato will guarantee its new members' security by promising to reinforce their defences in time of emergency rather than with substantial permanent deployments of troops.

Yet there are also grounds for scepticism about the deal. For all the hype surrounding it, it could well turn out to be no more than an agreement to create a talking shop. Nato's declarations on nuclear and conventional deployments and nuclear strategy fall short of absolute promises. And the Founding Act is not a legally binding treaty: it needs no ratification, and it puts neither side under any obligation. Neither can veto anything the other unilaterally decides to do.

Of course, warm words count in international diplomacy, and it is better to have non-binding agreements than none. It is possible that the Founding Act marks the definitive end of the division of Europe created in Yalta at the end of the second world war, as French president Jacques Chirac said.

But it could just as easily be a harbinger of disaster. The success of the agreement depends crucially on Yeltsin's ability to sell it at home as a victory – which will not be easy. Nato expansion is deeply unpopular across the political spectrum in Russia, and the concessions that Yeltsin has wrung from Nato are too few and too small to guarantee the acquiescence of even liberal opinion. Nationalists and communists have already denounced the Founding Act as a capitulation.

The danger is that as Nato expansion comes closer, its opponents will gain the upper hand in Russia and do their best to block it, which in turn will push Nato to take a less friendly attitude to Russia, which in turn will lead Russia to flex its muscles in what it sees as its sphere of influence (particularly the Baltic states), and so on. Even with the Founding Act in place, Nato expansion could all too easily set off a spiral of mutual mistrust and military escalation every bit as dangerous as the one that characterised the cold war.

The best way to avoid this would be for Nato to reconsider expansion. Failing that, it is essential that Nato takes the sting out of expansion by taking the initiative in disarmament negotiations - particularly on nuclear arms, where progress is stalled by the Russian parliament's unwillingness to ratify START 2 (largely because of Nato expansion). One easy way to break the logjam would be a unilateral gesture by one of Nato's nuclear weapons powers. Now how about that as a fresh idea for the defence review, Mr Robertson?

Friday, 2 May 1997


New Times, 2 May 1997

French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to call a snap National Assembly election, with the two rounds of voting taking place on 25 May and 1 June, has put the parties of the left, the communists and the socialists, in a difficult position.

The two-round voting system means that both parties always do badly unless they reach agreement with one another about standing down in the second round. And this time, because of the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, there are many seats where the left parties will have to agree on single candidates in the first round if the best-placed left candidate is not to finish third.

The problem, however, is that they disagree with one another on the most important issue in this election, European monetary union. While the Communist Party (PCF), led by Robert Hue, is against the single currency – as it has been all along – the Socialist Party (PS), led by Lionel Jospin, is broadly in favour. EMU was the brainchild of François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors, and the socialists cannot easily rat on it.

Under Jospin, a likeable 63-year-old who did far better in the 1995 presidential election than anyone expected, the PS has returned to its social democratic ideological roots after the ideology-free late Mitterrand years – and this has allowed it to move some way towards the PCF’s Euroscepticism. The PS has long argued for Europe-wide reflation, but in recent weeks it has taken to emphasising its concern about the strict rule in the Maastricht treaty limiting state budget deficits to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. Unemployment in France is running at nearly 13 per cent, and the socialists have come out against cutting spending to get the budget deficit down. As Jospin put it last month: “If, in respect to the 3 per cent criterion, it is necessary to impose new austerity measures on the nation, my answer is no.”

Rather than austerity, the PS is promising to create 350,000 jobs in the private sector by cutting working time and to subsidise another 350,000 in the public sector.

This programme – which is radically unlike Labour’s in Britain – would mean that France would not qualify for EMU in 1999. This in turn would at very least postpone the whole project and might just scupper it completely. It is no surprise that it is very much to the liking of the PCF.

Whether it goes down as well with the voters remains to be seen, however. Voters are worried about the effects of the deflation and deregulation required by EMU, and the centre-right government of Alain Juppé, which has made a priority of reducing the deficit rather than creating jobs, is highly unpopular. The two government parties, the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right UDF, are almost certain to lose many of the seats they currently hold in the National Assembly.

On the other hand, the right can afford to lose a lot of seats. Both left parties were routed in the last parliamentary election in 1993: in the outgoing National Assembly, the socialists have 63 seats and the communists 24 to the RPR’s 258 and the UDF’s 206. The left also has the problem that many voters disaffected with the government seem likely to opt for the far-right National Front, which has won several municipal victories in the south of the country in recent months – although its candidates will be to the left’s advantage where they get through to the second round and split the right-wing vote.

So a left victory is not impossible, just unlikely. But if it happens, the implications for the rest of Europe could be enormous. Watch this space.

Friday, 4 April 1997


New Times, 4 April 1997

A Labour government in London is not simply the last hope of everyone in Britain that has had enough of the corruption and incompetence of the Major government. It is what every single European Union government wants too. When Tony Blair wins office on 1 May the sense of relief in the chancelleries of western Europe will be palpable.

 If they knew the Labour leader better, they might be less enthusiastic. His view of the world, like that of his closest advisers – and of every other Labour leader since the war apart from Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock –  is disappointingly Atlanticist. New Labour has looked primarily to America, not Europe, for its thinking about policy and electoral strategy, and the would-be prime minister is ill at ease about the EU. He knows what the polls and focus groups say about the unpopularity of “Europe”; he doesn’t know European politics too well; and he doesn’t like the idea of winning what he thought was the key position just to find –  like Aneurin Bevan as a councillor in south Wales in the 1920s – that the important decisions are being made one rung further up the ladder.

 Nevertheless, the optimism of the west European political elite is justified. Blair might not be an out-and- out Euro-enthusiast or even particularly au fait with European politics. He is, however, not a pig-headed Europhobe – and his party’s pig-headed Europhobes have been in no position to cause him trouble. Indeed, he wants constructive engagement with Europe, and the mood in the Labour Party remains cautiously Euro-integrationist. A Blair government will not engage in the obstructive histrionics  that the Tories made their trademark under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

So Blair is guaranteed an initial warm embrace from the rest of the EU. What then? Of course, nobody knows. But European monetary union will suddenly become crucial. If it goes ahead on time – which still looks likely, despite the difficulties of the German economy – Britain will probably qualify for first-wave membership. If it does and a Blair government joins, or says it will, Britain will be the toast of the continental European political class. But if, as seems more likely, Britain stays out, Blair will have his work cut out if he is to retain any credibility with other European governments, however good his reasons.

The problem, put simply, is that EMU has become the touchstone of commitment to the cause of a united Europe. The decision on joining a single currency has become more than a matter of hard-headed economics. It is also a political decision. To opt out is to damage the prospects of further European integration.

Which would be no problem if going it alone were an option for a Labour Britain. But it is not. Further European integration is essential if the EU is to acquire the powers Labour needs it to have in the spheres of economic, environmental and security policy.

So what can Labour do? Its best bet is to come up with a far-reaching programme for European integration that can be implemented whatever happens to EMU – whether or not it goes ahead as planned, and whether or not Britain is part of it. In particular, a Blair government should table proposals for a radical democratisation of the EU, based on a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament, and should make clear its enthusiasm for reviving Jacques Delors’ “Eurokeynesian” plans for employment generation. This would not go down as well with other EU governments as an unambiguous commitment to EMU – but it would be a lot better than nothing.

Friday, 7 March 1997


New Times, 7 March 1997

Anyone who suggested ten years ago that we would now be discussing the rights and wrongs of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia joining NATO would have been ridiculed.
It was not quite the height of the cold war: the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating seriously on nuclear arms, Mikhail Gorbachev had tentatively begun the  liberalisation of the Soviet Union, and at least some of the communist regimes of the Soviet bloc – notably Hungary and Poland – had relaxed their suppression of dissident opinion.

But the division of Europe between two hostile blocs, one dominated by the United States, the other controlled by the Soviet Union, seemed such an established fact that ending it peacefully appeared utopian even to those, like Edward Thompson and his colleagues in European Nuclear Disarmament, who most wanted it. The idea that NATO should expand to the eastern border of Poland hardly entered the mind of even the most militant western cold warrior.
Which only goes to show that the course of history is impossible to predict. The enlargement of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is now imminent. It is US President Bill Clinton's top priority in foreign affairs for 1997, and there is a remarkable degree of consensus across the political spectrum in Europe that it is a good thing. In Britain, it has the blessing of all the main political parties.

But is NATO enlargement really such a bright idea? There are good reasons for doubt. It will be difficult and expensive to integrate Polish, Hungarian and Czech armed forces into NATO's military structure; and enlargement will do nothing for the security of Europe's most volatile region, the Balkans. Most important, it is likely to have an unwelcome effect on Russia.
NATO was begun in 1948 as an anti-Russian alliance at a time when the west feared - with some reason – that Moscow would attack western Europe. Today, NATO says that it is no longer anti-Russian, and that Russians have nothing to fear from its expansion. But it is not seen that way by Russians, or indeed by most Poles, Hungarians and Czechs. The reason they want to join is to provide security against a future military threat from Russia.

These fears of Russia are understandable and legitimate. It is less than ten years since east-central Europe was under the Soviet yoke. Even if Russia today is not a threat, it could well be in the none-too-distant future. It retains substantial nuclear and conventional arsenals, which it has been less willing to dismantle of late than in the early 1990s; and it is anything but politically stable. In the next few years, it could certainly find itself with an authoritarian government, possibly with strong backing from the military, that plays relentlessly on nationalist anti-western themes.

The problem, however, is that expanding NATO eastwards makes it more rather than less likely that this will happen. Public opinion in Russia is running strongly against NATO expansion, and authoritarian nationalist politicians are already trying to exploit this for their own ends. The Russian parliament has refused to ratify the START-2 agreement on strategic nuclear weapons and the government is dragging its feet in other disarmament negotiations. There is a strong case for believing that the priority for European security is to  prevent Russia from turning nasty - and that the best way of doing this is to postpone NATO enlargement and use the good will this creates in Moscow to press for rapid and radical disarmament agreements.

This would of course necessitate some radical new thinking about creating a new post-cold-war security structure for Europe. One option that would certainly allay Russian fears would be expansion of NATO to include Russia. Alternatively, NATO could be recast as a strictly European alliance, excluding both the US and Russia but with non-aggression agreements with each: this would have the advantage of aligning Europe's security arrangements more closely with the political structures that will emerge in the early years of the next century as the European Union expands. Most radically of all, NATO could be dismantled and the security of Europe entrusted to either the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

All of which sounds ridiculously unrealistic and utopian. But in ten years' time, who knows . . .

Saturday, 1 March 1997


Red Pepper, March 1997

Tony Blair looks set to win the general election. That's good, but the left shouldn't expect radical change, says Paul Anderson

Labour has been ultra-cautious with its pre-election policy commitments for a long time now. Avoiding hostages to fortune was a crucial element of the pre-1992 campaign strategy – and John Smith as leader decided to make it the guiding light of Labour policy-making. Since Tony Blair became leader in 1994, however, "safety first" has been taken to new extremes in just about every area of policy.

The priorities for Blair and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown have been to reassure taxpayers and to calm business nerves. They have repeatedly announced that they will run a tight anti-inflationary fiscal and monetary regime. In January, Brown promised not to change either the top rate or the standard rate of income tax – and said that, with the exception of the money he gets from his windfall tax on the excess profits of privatised utilities, he will stick to the Tories' plans for public spending for his first two years in office. That means a continuing clamp-down on public-sector pay and only small increases in spending on health, education and local government.

Policy on Europe has changed little since 1994 - although shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook has adopted a marginally more sceptical position on economic and monetary union than Labour had before. The idea of the EU running a counter-cyclical macro-economic policy, very popular with both Brown and Cook, has been downgraded, although this is in part because the Delors plan on which it was based was scuppered by the British government in the Council of Ministers.

Labour has stuck to its promise to sign up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. But since 1994 it has watered down its commitments to rights for part-time and temporary workers and has abandoned plans to allow trade unions to engage in sympathy actions in certain circumstances. It has also changed its policy on its promised minimum wage: instead of announcing what it will be before the election, as in 1992, it will leave it up to a commission to set it afterwards at a "sensible" level.

In education, the key change since 1994 is that Labour has made it clear that it will not now abolish grammar or grant-maintained schools. In health policy, the party's opposition to the internal market and GP fundholding has softened. Labour will not now abolish Jobseeker's Allowance and go back to Unemployment Benefit, and its pensions policy is in limbo after last year's row at its party conference. The welfare state in its broadest sense is, however, an area where Labour could well prove radical in government. Its plans for "lifelong learning" and a "university for industry" are ambitious, and its "welfare to work" strategy for tackling unemployment contains much that makes sense.

Changing the constitution was the one thing about which Labour under Smith was not ultra-cautious. Reformers looked forward to a Labour government legislating for a Bill of Rights, an elected second chamber and devolution to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and directly elected regional councils in England. Labour also promised a referendum on the electoral system. Now devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions will happen only if people vote for it in referendums, and Lords reform will be limited for now to removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers. There are persistent rumours, denied by Blair's office, that he has decided to ditch plans for a referendum on electoral reform.

Labour has downgraded the profile of environment policy since 1994 – to the disappointment of green campaigners (see Charles Secrett in last month's Red Pepper) – but has not formally changed it. On transport, its key shift has been on what to do about the privatised rail network, where it is now promising something less than wholesale renationalisation.

Friday, 7 February 1997


New Times, 5 February 1997

Shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook's remarks on the Dimbleby programme about a single European currency – that he would back Britain joining if it was working in 2002 – have been widely reported as a surprise shift in Labour's position on economic and monetary union. But they had been some time in the pipeline.

Although, so far, it has barely figured in the sparring of the run-up to the election campaign, the biggest headache facing Tony Blair is undoubtedly Europe – specifically, whether a Labour government will sign later this year sign up for the first wave of EMU.

Until some time last year – it is impossible to put a precise date on it – EMU seemed to most Labour politicians to be a rather distant problem. Of course, the 1991 Maastricht treaty laid down a strict timetable for creation of a single currency, with EMU itself beginning by 1 January 1999. That meant the member states of the EU making up their minds in late 1997 whether or not they wanted to join, with the final decision about who would be admitted being made by early 1998.

But after the turmoil in the currency markets of 1992-93, it seemed implausible that this timetable would actually be put into practice. Italy, Spain and several smaller countries looked unlikely to qualify for participation under the strict convergence criteria laid down by Maastricht, and it was by no means clear that France, Britain or even Germany would make it either.

With the Tories tearing themselves apart over Europe, it did not seem particularly urgent for Labour to come up with a hard-and-fast policy. The formula that the party had adopted in 1991, that it was in favour of EMU in principle but would join only if the conditions were right for Britain, appeared perfectly adequate to take Labour through to the election – particularly as it had been honed by shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook since late 1994.

Cook's line, that Labour wanted the proposed European central bank to be "accountable politically to make sure it pursues policies of growth and full employment" and that it insisted on "convergence of the real economy - of output, production and growth" before it would recommend British membership of EMU, satisfied all but a handful of the party's MPs and MEPs. Those of a sceptical disposition could take comfort in the qualifications; enthusiasts could point to the backing in principle for a single currency.

This has remained Labour's formal position, with the addition, last November, of a promise that a Labour government would put British membership of the single currency to a referendum if it decided that it was in Britain's interests to join.

All that Cook's remarks show is that he has prevailed in a behind-the-scenes argument at the very top of the party about how the position should be nuanced to take account of the facts that EMU is now very likely to go ahead on schedule and that most of continental Europe is prepared to go through almost any amount of hardship to be part of it. From early last year, Labour's 'big four' – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Cook – were forced into some serious thinking about whether Labour would go for EMU membership in its first few months in power.

Their problem was that each had a different perception of the issue at stake and a different instinct about how to deal with it. Brown was the initially most enthusiastic about EMU membership in the first wave. He was one of the architects of Labour's pre-1992 policy of backing British membership of the ERM (along with his mentor John Smith) and, for all his fiscal conservatism when it comes to running Britain's own economy, in his first years as shadow chancellor he gave strong backing to Jacques Delors' plans as President of the European Commission for a role for Keynesian counter-cyclical policy for job creation at a European level.

At the other extreme, Prescott was against the single currency on principle – a point of view he had not changed since the prospect of EMU first raised its head – although he was said by colleagues not to be particularly well informed.

In between Brown and Prescott were Cook and Blair. Cook, like Brown, was fully up to speed on the detail and was an enthusiast for European counter-cyclical economic policies. But he harboured doubts about whether EMU would work and was sceptical about Britain's ability to join in the first wave because of the amount of legislation it would require in the first year of a Labour government. He argued that Britain should not go into the single currency at once but should join later if conditions are right.

Blair took a position somewhere between Brown's and Cook's – but like Prescott was said not to be completely au fait with the technicalities. Although he is no anti-European, the Labour leader has never taken a great interest in European politics and feels ill at ease with the EMU argument. Perhaps understandably, he is more worried by winning the election than by what he does afterwards.

Attempts to reach a consensus at the end of last year resulted merely in the agreement that Labour would back a referendum but would not rule out being part of the first wave of EMU. Cook's public statement that Labour would probably not enter in the first wave but that it would be very difficult to stay out if EMU was working well in 2002 indicates that the stalemate was broken by Brown conceding the unlikelihood of first-wave membership in return for Cook becoming more enthusiastic about the benefits of EMU. It doesn't actually solve the problem of making the decision when the time comes – but it should preserve Labour's unity on Europe until the election. And that in itself is no mean feat.