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.