Monday, 14 December 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 December 1998

I first thought something was up at the New Statesman when I read Peter Wilby’s media column in last week’s issue. It was an extended argument for not taking circulation figures as the sole criterion for judging the success of a publication. I agreed with it wholeheartedly – but it made me suspect that the Statesman editor was himself presiding over a stagnant or falling circulation and was getting grief from Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster General and the magazine’s proprietor. My suspicions increased when I looked at the Audit Bureau of Circulations website and discovered that the most recent audited circulation for the magazine, just under 26,000, was six months out of date.

Then, last Sunday, the Independent on Sunday carried a story on its front page announcing that the Statesman was about to be sold to a consortium led by Robert Harris, the Sunday Times columnist and best-selling author, and Nick Butler, an economist. According to the Sindy, the idea behind the bid was to make the Statesman more Blairite. Both Harris and Butler are good friends of Peter Mandelson, it noted, whereas Robinson is very much in Gordon Brown’s camp.

On Tuesday, the Independent introduced a twist to the tale, claiming that news of Harris’s interest in the Statesman was an old story that had been resuscitated by Brown’s chief spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan, in an attempt to scupper the bid. According to the Indy, the Brown camp is concerned that Robinson might sell to a Blairite in order to curry favour with Blair and save his ministerial career. Harris denied that he would get rid of Wilby, who has been noticeably more critical of the government than his predecessor as editor, Ian Hargreaves.

Politicians who take a keen interest in what goes on at the New Statesman are nothing new. Its founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, intervened constantly in editorial decision-making. Dick Crossman edited it (very badly) in 1970-72.

But in recent years, with its circulation well below 30,000 and its losses barely sustainable, the venerable weekly has been particularly vulnerable to meddling by Labour politicians. In 1986, after the resignation of Hugh Stephenson as editor, Neil Kinnock intervened forcefully to ensure that his successor would be John Lloyd and not Anthony Barnett. After Lloyd left, Kinnock tried – unsuccessfully – to prevent the appointment of Stuart Weir, whom he had fired as editor of New Socialist, the Labour Party monthly, for advocating tactical voting. In 1991, a consortium led by the Labour peer Lord McIntosh of Haringey (and including Robert Harris and Peter Mandelson) made a hostile bid to buy the magazine which got nowhere.

Three years ago, it was the opposition of Margaret Hodge and various other New Labour trustees to a (fully underwritten) plan to raise capital by selling shares to readers that forced the magazine into the near-bankruptcy from which it was rescued by Geoffrey Robinson, then an obscure backbencher. Robinson was put up to buying the magazine by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And it was Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who first suggested the name of Ian Hargreaves as a replacement for Steve Platt at the Statesman’s helm.

Here I should declare an interest: I was Platt’s deputy; I applied to succeed him; the first thing Hargreaves did when he became editor was fire me; and I don’t like what he did to the magazine editorially or politically. I didn’t exactly hit it off with Robinson either. In the interregnum between Platt and Hargreaves, when I was acting editor (though Robinson told me not to describe myself as such), he grumbled constantly about the content of the magazine. When he interviewed me for the editorship, he seemed more interested in finding out about my sex life than in my ability to do the job. (He’d got it into his head that I was gay – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) I particularly remember him asking whether I had “a mistress”. I don’t think he meant as well as the regular squeeze, but I still wish I’d told him to mind his own business. As for his taste in aftershave, well, the less said the better.

But I’m not grinding an axe – honest. I’m more than happy to accept that Robinson has been the ideal hands-off proprietor to both his editors. He has certainly been as generous with the cash as anyone could wish, losing £2 million in his first year as owner. I’ve no reason to disbelieve Wilby when he says that Robinson leaves him to his own devices.

The point, however, is that it doesn’t look that way to most outsiders. The Statesman’s big problem these days – the reason even millions of pounds cannot buy a respectable circulation – is its reputation as a tame New Labour house journal. And it won’t shed it, whatever it publishes, as long as it is owned by friends of Tony, Gordon or Peter. In this respect at least, Robert Harris is no better than Geoffrey Robinson.

Friday, 4 December 1998


New Times, 4 December 1998

I do not think that I am the only person in Britain who reckons Oskar Lafontaine is a good thing, but there have been a few times in the past month when I have wondered.

His remarks about the need for the countries of the European Union to harmonise their tax policies have attracted a quite extraordinary outpouring of venom here – and not just from the anti-European press and the Tories.

That the Sun dubbed the German finance minister ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ was hardly surprising (though the space it allocated to doing it, three pages, certainly was). Nor was there anything new in William Hague’s reiteration of his party’s tired xenophobia.

But they were joined in their synthetic outrage by others of a normally pro-European disposition – most significantly, the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the prime minister, Tony Blair. "Britain has a veto on tax policy and we will not hesitate to use that if we have to," declared Brown. "It is by cutting taxes, not raising them, that is the way forward to create jobs."

In British political terms, it is easy enough to understand why Brown and Blair reacted as they did. They firmly believe that Labour won the 1997 general election because they spent five years assuring the electorate that Labour had ceased to be a party of "tax and spend". Because tax levels are lower in Britain than everywhere else in the EU apart from Ireland, harmonisation would almost certainly mean an increase in British taxes. So harmonisation is politically unthinkable.

From an economic point of view, the Brown-Blair position is just as easy to grasp. They believe that Britain’s low business taxes and anti-pollution taxes have helped attract inward investment. Harmonisation will reduce Britain’s competitive advantage over its European neighbours.

But this of course is precisely why Lafontaine and nearly everyone else on the continental European centre-left favours harmonisation. To them, Brown and Blair are trying to have their cake and eat it. They want all the advantages of access to the giant affluent EU market – to the extent that they might even sign up for membership of the euro. But they want Britain to undercut continental disincentives to pollute and undercut the continental ‘social wage’. Although they want Britain to benefit from continental infrastructure spending, they don’t want to pay the fair share of the costs.

Worse, if Britain manages to scupper harmonisation, the temptation will grow for other EU governments to emulate its "free rider" position, which in turn could set off a frenzy of competitive tax-cutting that destroyed the capacity of most EU countries to maintain generous welfare states and high infrastructure spending. That would be a betrayal of everything most continental social democrats stand for, and they are quite right to want to stop it.

The spat over harmonisation might turn out to be insignificant. My hunch, however, is that it is a foretaste of a rocky relationship between the British Labour government and the rest of the EU over the next few years.

With the single currency in place from 1 January, the participants in monetary union will have a mass of common problems to solve – and Britain, as a non-participant, will necessarily find itself out of the loop. In these circumstances, it might well be that Brown and Blair will have to threaten use of the British veto to have any influence on EU macroeconomic policy (and not just on taxation). But the more they throw their weight around, the less respect they will command among their partners.  

Sunday, 15 November 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 November 1998

I was going to write a worthy column about co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but in the week that Labour’s National Executive Committee passed an idiotic motion barring its members from talking to the press, there’s a better subject. Now is the ideal time to grass up all the politicians who used to leak from the NEC in the good old days when Labour was in opposition and I was editing Tribune.

The worst offender of all was none other than Tony Blair, who leaked every document that Labour’s review group on trade union links produced in 1992-93 – a course of action that almost lost him his job as shadow home secretary. John Evans, the socialist societies’ NEC representative, described Blair’s briefings to selected journalists as the most outrageous breach of confidentiality he’d ever seen. Coming from a man who was himself no stranger to letting NEC documents go walkabout, that was, well, par for the course. The crucial point, however, was that John Smith agreed. If only he’d acted.

Tribune never to my knowledge benefited directly from Blair leaks from the NEC: the Guardian was his favoured outlet, Patrick Wintour his favoured interlocuter. I don’t remember talking to Gordon Brown or Robin Cook about NEC business, although they were always perfectly happy to talk about what was going on in the shadow cabinet and in various policy committees. So was John Prescott, though of course he wasn’t a member of the NEC at the time.

For NEC documents we relied for the most part on two other current Cabinet stalwarts, David Blunkett and Clare Short – or rather their gofers. As a matter of course, their researchers gave us everything we wanted, usually by fax. I’ve a filing cabinet draw full of extraordinarily tedious material to prove it.

I always assumed that the staffers did it with their bosses’ approval, although it’s impossible to be entirely sure. Politicians normally leak through their staff for the simple reason that it’s deniable.

My favourite example concerns the supposed relationship between John Major and Clare Latimer, the Downing Street cook – later the subject of a famous libel action that drove the New Statesman to bankruptcy and the clutches of Geoffrey Robinson. I got the gossip from a senior staffer in Gordon Brown’s office months before it hit even the diary columns. My source claimed to working for a Labour “dirty tricks” operation under Brown’s control. Unfortunately, I do not have the contemporaneous notes that would allow me to identify him.

But back to the main story. Both Blunkett and Short were always happy to give Tribune full and frank accounts – off the record, but that’s normal – of what had happened at NEC meetings within minutes of their finishing, as indeed were several other NEC members. Most of them were rather dull soft-left leadership-loyalists like Diana Jeuda and Tom Sawyer, who are now fully paid-up Blairites. In my day, Tribune was off-message as far as the hard left was concerned. Sad git that I am, I have even framed a piece by Ken Livingstone denouncing me as the most right-wing editor this paper has ever had.

Livingstone was not a member of the NEC in the early 1990s – a pity, because he was a prodigious leaker in his pomp. But our relations with his comrades were frosty. Tribune’s news editor at the time was an unreconstructed Trotskyist (and a brilliant hack) but even he had trouble extracting hot poop from Dennis Skinner on the NEC because of Tribune’s reputation.

Not that this was too much of a problem, because Skinner himself shot his bolt once every month in a column in Campaign Group News – setting out in minute detail who had said what and how all the votes had gone at every NEC meeting. It was self-congratulatory stuff. But it was the only thing in most issues of Campaign Group News that was worth reading.

All of which is to say . . . well, it was a lot of fun and I regret nothing. The NEC leakers of the early nineties had no effect on Labour’s electoral fortunes. Directly and through their intermediaries, they kept Tribune in business journalistically. And a column by the editor today on his experiences on the Blair NEC would do wonders not just for credibility but for sales. It is in Tribune’s interest that he reveals as much as possible of what goes behind closed doors in Millbank Tower.

But it’s also in the interest of Labour Party members to have available the details of what is being done in their name. The message to the control freaks is simple: up yours.

Monday, 2 November 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 1998

I have a sneaking suspicion that historians will come to see the election of Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition in Germany as a turning point for British politics.

Far more than Labour’s victory in Britain last year, the coming to power of the German Social Democratic Party has transformed the European political landscape. A little more than a month after the Bundestag election, it is already clear that the new German finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, and his French counterpart, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, share the view that European macroeconomic policy needs a radical shake-up. Germany will be lining up with France to push for stronger political control over the policy of the European Central Bank and for growth-oriented policies at the European level. Jacques Delors’s early-nineties schemes for Europe-wide public works programmes – blocked by the British Tories in 1994 – are being dusted off again. Contrary to what Tribune and other left Eurosceptics would have us believe, Eurokeynesianism is back, and this time it’s serious.

The Murdoch press is not altogether pleased by this – and nor is the British government, despite Tony Blair’s declaration of support for concerted European action to create jobs at last month’s European summit meeting. Although Gordon Brown flirted briefly with the idea of Europe-wide counter-cyclical economic policies in opposition five years ago, the general thrust of Labour thinking about the economy has been hostile to Eurokeynesianism. Rather than revive Delors, the British government (like the Murdoch press) would go for deregulation, stricter competition policies, labour market flexibility and so on.

The problem for Labour, however, is that its views on economic policy do not carry much weight with its partners in the European Union. This is partly because some continental social democratic parties – particularly the French – are justifiably wary of what they see as Labour’s “neo-liberalism”. But it is mainly because Britain is not joining the European single currency in the first wave. In the past few weeks, it has become embarrassingly obvious that, for all Blair’s talk of “leading” in Europe, Britain is desperately chasing the EMU pack. In such circumstances, it really doesn’t matter how many well-received initiatives the Labour government comes up with on defence policy or the environment.

Which goes some way to explaining why the government has all of a sudden decided to make a start on persuading the electorate that Britain should join the single currency. Until recently, Labour had little of substance to say about economic and monetary union. Of course, it wanted it to work. But it would make up its mind on British membership of the single currency in the fullness of time. Britain would join only if the government thought conditions were right and if voters backed the single currency in a referendum.

Now the message has perceptibly changed. In the past couple of weeks, both Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown have made it clear that British participation in EMU was now less a matter of “if” than one of “when”.

Last week, Mandelson told a group of businessmen that the creation of the single currency “will be a major step towards the creation of a genuine European single market. Across the whole euro area – by far Britain’s most important trading partner – prices will be quoted in the same currency. There will be no hiding place for high charges and consumer rip-offs.”

This week, Brown told the Confederation of British Industry conference that the Government had “decisively and unambiguously put this country on a new road of constructive engagement with Europe”. In January, he went on, he would be publishing a detailed plan for British entry into the single currency.

For many on the British left, this is not good news. Some, including most of the Campaign Group, are simply stuck in a seventies time-warp, antipathetic to anything to do with the dreadful capitalist conspiracy that is the Common Market and oblivious to the constraints imposed by globalisation on a medium-sized state’s economic policy. Others, mainly on what used to be called the soft left, are more sophisticated. They have no objection to the idea of a single currency in theory. But they believe that the European Central Bank will inevitably impose a severe monetary regime that will have dire effects on employment.

I disagree, because I am optimistic that France and Germany will succeed in putting in place the mechanisms necessary to ensure the bank’s anti-inflation brief is not the only determinant of European macroeconomic policy. The irony is that the main reason for my optimism is that Britain is not in the first wave of EMU and so cannot sabotage the continental Eurokeynesians’ efforts. Strangely enough, by staying out for now, Labour has increased the likelihood that the euro zone will be something the left will want to join in 2005.

Sunday, 1 November 1998


Chartist, November-December 1998

There were always going to be losers among sitting MEPs in the selection of Labour candidates for next year's European Parliament elections.

The elections are to be held for the first time under a regional list system of proportional representation – which means that Labour will win only 43 of the 84 seats in Great Britain, down from 62 under first past the post in 1994, even if it does as well as in the 1997 general election.

But the way that the losers have been chosen has shocked even hardened cynics in the party.

The obvious democratic way to choose candidates would have been by one member one vote ballot of Labour members in each constituency, with rankings determined by the number of votes won by each candidate.

But the party leadership wanted to control the selections, and most sitting MEPs believed they should automatically be given winnable places on the regional lists. So the NEC decided to ditch OMOV in favour of a system that gave the preferences of party members a subsidiary role.

Sitting MEPs were guaranteed places on lists if OMOV "trigger ballots" in their existing Euro-constituencies endorsed them – although they were not promised winnable positions. Every single sitting MEP who had decided to stand again comfortably won the trigger ballot.

Other hopefuls had a more difficult task. First they had to be nominated by a constituency Labour party, then win a place in a national pool of potential candidates in an OMOV Euro-constituency ballot. An NEC-dominated selection panel then whittled down the national pool to a shortlist and finally chose the candidates and their ranking after interviewing the sitting MEPs and the new potential candidates.

The party apparatus claims that the process was rigorous and fair. But even MEPs who have a good chance of winning say that the selection interviews were superficial and based on loyalty tests, with the members of the panel showing little knowledge of the workings of the European Parliament. And the results certainly suggest that MEPs considered awkward by the Labour leadership were singled out for rejection.

Of the 49 sitting Labour MEPs standing again, 12 were given list positions that Labour cannot possibly win even if it does as well next year as it did in 1997. Of these 12, no fewer than 10 were signatories of the famous advertisement in the Guardian, backing retention of Clause Four of the Labour constitution, that appeared the same day in 1995 that Tony Blair met the European Parliamentary Labour Party in Brussels. Another five of the Clause Four rebels will lose their seats if Labour does just a little worse than in 1997 – which is the least that can be expected.

Three sitting MEPs given unwinnable positions – Alex Smith, Michael McGowan and David Morris – have withdrawn as candidates since the lists were drawn up in late September, and a fourth, Christine Oddy, is threatening legal action against the party. Several other sitting MEPs whose only hope is a repeat of Labour's 1997 performance are quietly seething.

Not that the MEPs are the only ones with a cause for complaint. Only six of the 106 new potential candidates that made it through to the national pool have been given list positions that are winnable.

"We all knew it would be difficult to choose candidates for the new list system," said one MEP. "But at least if we'd had OMOV it would have been down to party members to decide who they should be and the results would have had democratic legitimacy. The way we actually did them, the selections looked like a giant stitch-up."

Friday, 30 October 1998


New Times, 30 October 1998

For a few days last month it seemed likely that the Italian centre-left would by now be looking back wistfully on two-and-a-half years in power, amid recriminations over the events that led to the fall of Romano Prodi’s ‘Olive Tree’ coalition government.

Prodi had resigned after his defeat in a parliamentary confidence vote which followed the decision of the hard-line Marxists of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), led by Fausto Bertinotti, not to back the government’s budget.

After that, it appeared probable that the next step would be the formation of a technocratic government to see Italy through the start of the European single currency at the beginning of next year, with a general election in spring or summer.

Instead, Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the centre-left Democrats of the Left (DS), the main partner in Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition, managed to put together a new centre-left coalition with himself at its head. Ten years ago, when the DS was the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and D’Alema one of its apparatchiks, the very prospect of his becoming prime minister would have caused panic in the stock markets and in Washington. But the western establishment welcomed the appointment of the first Italian prime minister from a party that was once communist with a sigh of relief that chaos had been averted. D’Alema’s new coalition shows every sign of being able to survive until 2001.

The reason for the rapid turnaround in the centre-left’s prospects last month is simple. Twenty-one of Rifondazione’s 34 deputies abandoned Bertinotti to his own devices to set up a new parliamentary fraction, under the label Comunisti Italiani (Italian Communists), offering support for a coalition led by D’Alema. That gave the DS leader the easiest of tasks in constructing a new and stable majority.

The defection from Rifondazione is not surprising. Most of Bertinotti’s parliamentary comrades had had enough of his populist posturing – he tried the same gambit last year, but was eventually forced to back down – and were not prepared to accept a vote of party activists in favour of withdrawing support for the government.

What is extraordinary, however, is the remarkable speed with which the Rifondazione renegades found a berth in government with D’Alema and his colleagues. They had until recently accused them of betraying the legacy of the PCI, to which they all at one time belonged.

The result of last month’s events is a government that is slightly to the left of Prodi’s. D’Alema has brought on board various centrists, but he has also given one of the Rifondazione rebels, Oliviero Diliberto, the crucial job of minister of justice. Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the main party of the right in parliament, Forza Italia, is not pleased: he faces corruption charges and was hoping for lenience, which Diliberto is unlikely to give.

Nevertheless, on economic policy – of particular importance in the run-up to monetary union – D’Alema has pledged continuity. He has kept the cautious technocrat Carlo Azeglio Ciampi as treasury minister and has promised to keep to the Prodi government’s strict controls on public spending.

How the new government will relate to the rest of Europe remains to be seen. There is no change in foreign minister, the centrist Lamberto Dini, but the replacement of Prodi by D’Alema will probably make a small difference. Prodi was the European leader closest to Tony Blair; D’Alema is much more interested in developing a closer relationship with French president Lionel Jospin and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And with EMU in the offing, Rome has a better chance of entering into a menage a trois with Paris and Bonn than London has. Watch this space.

Monday, 12 October 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 October 1998

Steve Platt made a lot of good points last week about the left and proportional representation. He’s absolutely right about the debilitating effect on British politics of the combination of ever-more-centralised party machines and a first-past-the-post electoral system for the House of Commons. General elections have been turned into an undignified scramble for the votes of a handful of affluent, socially conservative “swing voters” – “scumbags from suburbia who read the Daily Mail”, as a senior Labour official put it to me some years ago. The result has been the marginalisation of creative thinking and dissident voices in mainstream politics.

So I agree with Platt entirely when he argues that a genuine PR system for the House of Commons, far from condemning us to never-ending coalitions of centre-left or centre-right, could liberate the left by allowing a credible red-green grouping to win parliamentary representation. Just look at Germany.

The problem, however, is that when Lord Jenkins’s Independent Commission on the Voting System reports later this month it is set to propose a system that rules out any such thing.

According to no less an authority than Hugo Young in the Guardian, Jenkins will come out for a hybrid system known as “AV-plus” to be put to voters in the government’s promised PR referendum. Under AV-plus, around 500 MPs would be elected in single-member constituencies by the alternative vote, and 150 or so “top-up” MPs would be added to ensure greater proportionality of results in each city and county.

Supporters of AV-plus say that it is the only option that both satisfies the Jenkins commission’s terms of reference – “broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies” – and is capable of winning the support of both the Liberal Democrat and Labour leaderships.

They could be right: we shall see. For our purposes here, however, what is important is that AV-plus as described by Young is also designed to keep small parties out of parliament.

For a start, the use of the alternative vote for single-member-constituency MPs would if anything make it more difficult for small parties to win seats than it is at present. Under AV, voters mark their ballot papers not with a single “x” but by numbering their preferences 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her second preferences are added to the other candidates’ totals, and so on until one candidate tops 50 per cent. Its main effect is to encourage the election of “least objectionable” candidates – and it has rightly been castigated as a recipe for making our political life even blander than it is now.

What is really disappointing, however, is the proposal for electing the top-up MPs by cities and counties rather than by regions. With top-up systems, the smaller the clusters of single-member constituencies that are being topped up, the larger the share of the vote a party needs to win a top-up seat in any cluster. If, under a regional AV-plus system, a party were to get 10 per cent of AV first preferences but no single-member seats in a region with 40 single-member and 10 top-up seats, it would almost certainly win top-up representation. In an extremely localised AV-plus system, a party winning the same share of first preferences in a city with four single-member constituencies and one top-up seat would not win anything.

Of course, we’ll have to wait to read the small print before coming to firm conclusions. But I’m afraid that the dream of the emergence of a credible new red-green party is going to have to remain a dream (at least for Commons elections) for a little while longer.

Which is not to say that the left should mobilise to trash the Jenkins report or back the status quo in the referendum campaign. Sticking to first-past-the-post would effectively wipe out the prospects of PR for the Commons for a generation – and that would be a disaster.

In spite of last year’s landslide, Labour should never forget that first-past-the-post has not been kind to it: 1997 is only the third time it has won a comfortable parliamentary majority. For all its faults, AV-plus would protect Britain from a repeat of the elective dictatorship of the Thatcher era – a distant prospect now, perhaps, but not necessarily so in five years’ time. However imperfect its proportionality, it would be at least a significant step towards fairness in the electoral system: more votes would count. And once it was in place it could at least be improved.

In other words, it’s a case of supporting the bad against the worse – a bit like voting Labour at election time, in fact.

Saturday, 3 October 1998


Paul Anderson, review of Robin Cook by John Kampfner (Gollancz, £16.99), Tribune, 3 October 1998

As instant political biographies go, John Kampfner’s Robin Cook is not bad. Too many examples of the genre are poorly researched, badly written hagiographies. Kampfner’s book is thorough, well crafted and for the most part balanced.

It is particularly good on Cook’s career before he became Foreign Secretary last year. Of course, there are a few errors of fact. Contrary to Kampfner’s belief, Kingsley Martin was not editor of the New Statesman in 1964 when Cook started reading it; and cruise missiles arrived in Britain in 1983, not 1980 as he states. But in context these are minor mistakes: on the important things, Kampfner’s research is meticulous.

His account of Cook’s formative years in the 1960s and 1970s, as student politician, Edinburgh councillor and radical back-bench MP, is superb; and he negotiates with aplomb the intricacies of Labour’s debates and internal power struggles in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Cook’s longstanding anti-militarism, his changing attitudes to devolution and Europe, his Keynesian interventionism in economic policy and his conversion to the cause of proportional representation, Kampfner is excellent.

His most revealing chapter is on Cook’s dithering after John Smith’s death over whether to stand against Tony Blair for the Labour leadership and his belated decision to jump on the Blair bandwagon. There is a strong case for believing that Cook’s failure of nerve was far more important than Gordon Brown’s at the same time. In spring 1994, Brown was in the political doldrums inside the Labour Party because of his caution in economic policy, while Cook’s reputation was riding high on the strength of his handling of the arms-to-Iraq scandal. Had Cook declared his intention to stand early – well, who knows? Kampfner has the sense not to answer this question directly, but he does make it clear that there were plenty of people who took Cook’s chances very seriously.

On Cook as Foreign Secretary, the book is less satisfactory. Kampfner tells the story competently enough, and much of his appraisal of Cook’s first year-and-a-bit in office is fair. He is undoubtedly right that the Foreign Secretary has had a torrid time in the press – particularly over his love life (a story retold here at unnecessary length) but also because of supposed “gaffes” over Kashmir, Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, and Sierra Leone. It is also incontrovertible that Cook has been frozen out of decision-making on European economic and monetary union and that he has been over-ruled on arms sales to Indonesia. As a loyal member of the government, he has been unable to act in public as a tribune of the Labour left.

But Kampfner is far too ready to write Cook off. The truth is that nothing that has gone wrong for the Foreign Secretary has irreversibly damaged his standing. His bad press over Israeli settlements and Sierra Leone was not deserved; and the worst should soon be over as far as publicity about his love life is concerned. He also has substantial achievements to his name: his role in normalising relations with Europe, his part in restraining the gung-ho instincts of Blair and Bill Clinton over Iraq and his changes to the culture of the Foreign Office.

Perhaps most important, Blair knows that he cannot get rid of him. Cook on the back benches as the figurehead the parliamentary left so obviously now lacks would be a nightmare for the Prime Minister. So he seems guaranteed a senior position for the foreseeable future, most likely continuing as Foreign Secretary but just possibly becoming Chancellor if Gordon Brown proves a disaster. If Blair opts for proportional representation for the Commons, moreover, Cook will become a crucial ally in Cabinet.

All of which is to say that Kampfner’s downbeat conclusion – “The man on whom so many had pinned their hopes in opposition had found himself a victim in government” – could all too easily look dated in a year’s time. I certainly hope so.

Friday, 28 August 1998


New Times, 28 August 1998

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has learned from bitter experience never to underestimate the powers of recovery of chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Since the liberal Free Democratic Party abandoned Helmut Schmidt's SPD-led West German government in 1982 to become the junior partner in a coalition with Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, the Social Democrats have lost four general elections in a row to him. In three of those elections, moreover, the SPD lost after holding what seemed to be impregnable leads in mid-term opinion polls.

Will this time be different? Until recently, it seemed inconceivable that Kohl could win the general election on 27 September. In May, the polls showed the SPD, led by the business-friendly populist Gerhard Schröder, supported by some 43 per cent of voters, with the CDU-CSU on 35 per cent. Just about every pundit agreed that even Kohl's campaigning virtuosity could not possibly close the gap.

Now, however, the crystal ball is cloudier. Polls published in August suggest that the SPD will take around 42 per cent of the vote, with the CDU-CSU between three and five percentage points behind. A quarter of voters are still undecided, and it is unclear from the polls which of the smaller parties – the FDP, the Greens, the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism and the small parties of the far right – will clear the threshold to win seats in the Bundestag. In short, although Schröder is still the favourite to head the biggest party, Kohl appears to be catching up and there is everything to play for.

The most important reason for the revival of Kohl's fortunes is Germany's economic recovery this year, which has led to a sharp drop in unemployment from 4.8 million in January to 4.1 million today. But the chancellor has also been able to exploit controversy inside the SPD over Schröder's choice as candidate finance minister, Jost Stollman, a millionaire businessman who is not a party member – controversy that Kohl claims shows the SPD remains at heart anti-business. In similar vein, he has made great play of the dangers of SPD tax increases and of the prospects of an SPD coalition with the Greens or the PDS.

Against this, the SPD has promised tax cuts and much more vigorous action to reduce unemployment, along with a reversal of the Kohl government's unpopular cuts in pension and sickness benefit entitlements. On the vexed question of coalition, Schröder has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with the PDS but has otherwise kept his options open, merely hinting that he would prefer a 'grand coalition' with the CDU-CSU to a deal with the Greens.

Kohl has ruled out participation in a "grand coalition", and so have most other leading figures in the CDU-CSU – the aim being to maximise centrist voters' worries about the Greens. The gambit might just come off. But if it doesn't, Kohl's stance could ironically help bring on the outcome he says he doesn't want by leaving the SPD with no option but a coalition with the Greens. Then again, the CDU-CSU might change its mind after the election.

All of which makes it hazardous in the extreme to predict the political complexion of the government that will be ruling Germany at the end of this year. Like most of the social democratic left in Europe, I'm hoping for an SPD-Green coalition, which would give the centre-left a predominance in the European Union that it has never enjoyed before. But I shall not be too surprised if my hopes are cruelly dashed.

Monday, 3 August 1998


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 August 1998

I can’t be the only cynical old leftist who thought Frank Field’s complaint this week that he’d been done over by spin-doctors was just a bit ripe.

There’s no doubt that the usual suspects told journalists some extremely nasty things about him last weekend. But I remember only too well his own enthusiasm for slagging off members of his constituency party who had the temerity, in 1990-91, to try to replace him as their Labour candidate. Of course, then as now, he adopted the pose of St Frank the Martyr, the innocent victim of satanic forces, but the viciousness of his smear campaign against his opponents was remarkable. There are plenty of people in Birkenhead who are no doubt currently feeling pleased that Field has at long last tasted some of his own medicine.

What’s important about his sacking as welfare reform minister, however, is not the spin-doctors’ vulgar abuse but what it says about the government’s social security policy. And here it is possible to have some sympathy for him.

When Field was appointed last year, it was universally taken as a sign that Tony Blair favoured a radical restructuring of social security. Field had a reputation as an innovative thinker on social security, and in the years before the 1997 election had developed a coherent case for replacing the existing mess of pensions and benefits provision with a new system of universal social insurance.

Shorn of a lot of moralistic rhetoric about the importance of self-reliance, the evils of single-parent families and the like, Field’s argument came down to this. The main problem with the social security system as it had evolved under the Tories was that it left a vast number of people reliant on means-tested benefits. Means-testing — which he described as “the cancer within the welfare state” — by its very nature encouraged claimants to lie about their means, discouraged saving and created an unmotivated underclass of welfare-dependents. The solution was to replace means-tested benefits with benefits received as of right. And the only way to do this, given the general unwillingness to pay more taxes, was to make sure everyone contributed to social insurance funds.

Field made a particular point of the applicability of social insurance to pensions, which were a thorny problem for Labour. The Tories had allowed the real value of the basic state pension to decline and had done everything in their power to shift people out of the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme introduced by the 1974-79 Labour government.

Labour was committed to reducing poverty among pensioners — but it would take big tax increases to raise state pensions sufficiently to ensure a comfortable standard of living for all pensioners. And raising tax was one thing that Labour had set its heart against. Field’s scheme to replace SERPS with fully funded compulsory second pensions for everyone, which he costed in detail soon before the 1997 election, seemed to the Labour leadership to be the solution to Labour’s dilemma: better pensions for all, but no new taxes.

Or rather, that’s how it appeared when Blair gave Field his government job. Once it came down to thrashing out the detail of welfare reform, however, it was a different story. Within six months of Labour taking office, it was clear that there was an unbridgeable gulf between Chancellor Gordon Brown and Field over what should be done.

For Brown, the priorities were simple: no tax increases and reduction by any means possible of the £100 billion social security bill. He had no quarrel with means testing in principle — indeed, he thought that “targeting” was the best way to get value for money in social security spending. The Chancellor was shocked by the transition costs involved in changing to a wholly insurance-based system. Field’s proposals for compulsory savings sounded to him dangerously like new taxes.

So Brown held up publication of Field’s Green Paper on welfare reform for months while they haggled over its contents — and when it eventually emerged in March this year, six months after Field submitted the first draft, it was clear that the Chancellor had won a crucial political battle. All that remained of Field’s grand scheme was a vague statement of principles.

There was plenty wrong with Field’s original proposals. Any social insurance scheme leaves people without cover, and in an era of endemic employment insecurity the goal of abolishing means testing and providing universal benefits and pensions would be achieved more easily by introducing a citizen’s income and reviving SERPS, all paid for through by raising taxes. Nevertheless, Field’s ideas were better than sticking to the Tory policy of relying on cuts and means-testing to keep social security costs to a minimum. Now he has gone, it’s an open question whether Labour has any alternative to business as usual.

Saturday, 1 August 1998


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, August 1998

Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were quick to disparage Derek Draper and the other lobbyists caught boasting of their government contacts by the Observer last month. Draper and the rest were conceited young men of little importance in New Labour’s scheme of things, they assured us.

But the truth is rather different. Draper is certainly a braggart – but he has played a significant part in Labour politics in recent years, most importantly as controller of the glossy Blairite propaganda magazine Progress and its associated organisation. Two of the other main characters in the Observer story, Neal Lawson and Ben Lucas of the lobbying company LLM, have had major roles in sustaining a Blairite intellectual current inside Labour, through the journal Renewal and the ‘ideas network’ Nexus.

Draper set up Progress in late 1995 while working for Mandelson, just before the publication of The Blair Revolution, a dreary book-length account of New Labour’s politics supposedly authored by Mandelson and Roger Liddle but actually written largely by Draper. (Liddle subsequently hired Draper as a lobbyist at Prima Europe, and it was Liddle, by now a government adviser, who was caught by the Observer promising favours to what he thought was an American utilities company but was in fact the investigative journalist Greg Palast.)

Progress was intended as a magazine that would never contradict Labour’s official line, and from the start it enjoyed the support of the party’s most powerful figures. Eight issues have appeared so far, all but the first full colour throughout, the latest at the end of June this year. Mandelson, Blair, Gordon Brown and Blair aide Philip Gould have been regular contributors since the beginning. Other contributors have included Liddle and a host of other government advisers, most members of Blair’s first cabinet (including Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Harriet Harman, Clare Short, Donald Dewar, George Robertson and David Clarke) and a welter of other Labour politicians, many of them first elected as MPs in the 1997 election.

Progress’s patrons include Gerald Kaufman and Baroness Jay. It has had substantial financial backing from David Sainsbury, the supermarket magnate who once bankrolled the SDP; he was put in touch with Draper by Blair himself.

Progress also organises ‘political education’ events at which Labour activists can meet senior government figures. This summer, speakers at its weekend schools include ministers Chris Smith, George Foulkes, John Spellar, John Reid, Joyce Quin, George Howarth, Derek Fatchett and Peter Hain, members of the Number Ten policy unit (including Liddle) and various party officials. The goal of these events is simple: to build up a cadre of Blairite activists in local Labour parties who can be called upon to organise in support of the leadership in internal party elections and on policy.

The efforts of Lawson and Lucas, at least in recent years, have been less visible but no less important. Even though they are only in their thirties, they are both political veterans who in the late 1980s were stalwarts of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, the once hard-left internal Labour pressure group that in the mid-1980s transformed itself into a pro-leadership faction.

After the 1992 election, the LCC put most of its efforts into producing a quarterly journal, Renewal, of which Lawson became business manager. Renewal in turn spawned Nexus, an electronic ‘ideas network’ largely composed of academics, in 1996. Lawson and Lucas, both by then working as lobbyists after spells as aides for Gordon Brown and Jack Straw respectively, played a decisive role in getting Nexus off the ground as the key members of its ‘core working group’.

Renewal was the nearest thing to an intellectual forum that Labour’s modernisers had between its launch and the New Labour take-over of the New Statesman in 1996; and Nexus has provided the Labour leadership with a useful platform for developing big ideas. It was at a Nexus event last month, for example, that Jack Straw gave his much-hyped speech on the ‘third way’; there has also been a Nexus seminar with Blair at Number Ten Downing Street. 

Add the role of their lobby firm LLM as a conduit between business and government, and it is clear that Lawson and Lucas were, until exposed by Palast, just as useful to New Labour as Draper. The disgrace of all three cannot be lightly dismissed.

Sunday, 19 July 1998


Paul Anderson, review of Gordon Brown: The First Year in Power by Hugh Pym and Nick Kochan (Bloomsbury, £16.99), Tribune, 19 July 1998

Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me work out why Hugh Pym and Nick Kochan have written this book. Gordon Brown is certainly an important political figure — or at least he seems to be right now. There is perhaps room in the market for a book-length study of his political career and economic policies that is more serious and more critical than the hagiography by Paul Routledge published earlier this year. But Pym and Kochan have not even attempted to produce such a book. This is an account, pure and simple, of the Iron Chancellor’s first year in power, only slightly more distant from its subject than Routledge’s tome.

It gives a reasonably competent narrative of events, and there is a lot of detail on Brown’s seriousness of character, his obsession with work and his staff — in particular his chief adviser, Ed Balls, and his spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan. If you missed the kite-flying, wavering and intra-Cabinet strife last autumn over whether or not Britain would join the single European currency in the first wave, you can read all about them here. The same goes for the row between Brown and Tony Blair sparked off by Routledge’s biography.

If you have been reading the newspapers for the past year, however, you won’t get much of substance from Pym and Kochan that you don’t know already — though you might find yourself getting extraordinarily irritated with their unyieldingly breathless prose and their addiction to hyperbole. Here, for example, is their account of the drafting of the Chancellor’s Commons statement on the single currency that finally brought to an end the weeks of uncertainty and farce last autumn:

Brown’s familiar speech-writing team was ordered to report for duty. Dr Colin Currie cleared his desk at his Edinburgh hospital and caught the first shuttle down to London. As usual he was put up by Geoffrey Robinson at his flat above the Grosvenor House Hotel, but there was no time to enjoy the Paymaster-General’s five-star hospitality. Currie rolled up his sleeves and joined Balls, Miliband and Whelan in the Chancellor’s private office. In all their years crafting prose from Brown’s machine-gun bursts of ideas this speech was the most difficult. Brown as always paced the room, churning over the momentous challenge before him, striving to channel his thoughts. As Currie remembered it, ‘Gordon is at his best when he is in trouble — his back was really against the wall at that time.’ The speech writers were chivvied and chided as they struggled to capture the ideas flying around them...

This stuff would be just about forgivable if Pym and Kochan stopped occasionally to explain where Brown’s policy ideas have come from or if they rounded off their narrative with a critical prognosis of New Labour economics. They do neither. As with Derek Draper’s asinine Blair’s 100 Days last year, it’s not worth buying this book if you’ve already read the extracts in the Sunday Times.

Friday, 3 July 1998


New Times, 3 July 1998

The current fighting in Kosovo is the worst Europe has seen since the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995. A substantial part of the long-suffering Albanian population of the province has risen in reaction to a brutal campaign to suppress separatism by Yugoslav – which means Serbian – police and army units.

The Albanians constitute nine-tenths of the population in Kosovo and are overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Serbia, which has treated them abominably ever since Slobodan Milosevic's rise to the Serbian presidency more than a decade ago. Milosevic effectively turned Kosovo into a Serbian colony, destroying the autonomy given it by the Yugoslav constitution. Albanians were fired en masse from public sector jobs, denied education in their own language and routinely subjected to police harassment.

For years the Albanian resistance to Milosevic's regime was resolutely non-violent. But in the past couple of years, support for the Kosovo Liberation Army has grown dramatically – not least because of Milosevic's decision earlier this year to send in Serbian forces to burn and shell villages in areas where the KLA had a presence. According to newspaper reports, the KLA now controls a quarter of the province's territory.

It is clear that there is no way of avoiding a bloodbath unless Milosevic withdraws his forces and the Kosovans are granted the national self-determination they so desire. The international community should be threatening Milosevic with dire consequences if he refuses to let the Kosovans free.

Yet such a course of action has not even been considered by the six major powers in the Contact Group that are attempting to resolve the crisis. In the short term, they argue, there must be a cease-fire and the Serbian forces must be withdrawn. In the longer term, they go on, Milosevic and the moderate Kosovo Albanian leaders, particularly Ibrahim Rugova, the head of the Democratic League of Kosovo, should negotiate a form of autonomy for Kosovo within the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Independence is out of the question.

Of course, a cease-fire and withdrawal of the Serbian forces would both be welcome – and Nato should be prepared to intervene militarily if the Serbian attacks continue. But the idea that autonomy for Kosovo inside Yugoslavia could provide a stable solution to the crisis is almost laughable. The Kosovo Albanians know from bitter experience that the Serbs could end such an arrangement by force, just as they did before. Not even the most moderate Kosovo Albanian leader will consider anything less than independence.

So why the major powers' commitment to autonomy? One honourable reason is concern for the position of the minority Serbian population in Kosovo. But that is not the whole story. The members of the Contact Group are also stubbornly attached to the idea that Milosevic is a man with whom they can do business; and Russia in particular is opposed to any redrawing of maps that might give succour to its own separatists. As in the first phase of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the major powers have failed to recognise that the status quo or a variant on it is no longer a viable option. Let's hope that in the case of Kosovo this doesn't have effects as disastrous as the delayed recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992.

Saturday, 13 June 1998


Paul Anderson, editorial, New Times, 13 June 1998

I’ve been involved in organising lots of conferences over the years, but nothing quite as big, ambitious or difficult as People’s Europe 98, which took place on the weekend of 5-7 June at the London School of Economics.

The idea was simple enough in the beginning. At last year’s Labour conference, I met Mary Kaldor, with whom I’d worked on the European Nuclear Disarmament Journal in the 1980s. I’d been involved in trying to get a radical left pro-Europe group off the ground, Left for Europe, and she’d been thinking about how the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, of which she was (and is) co-chair, could get involved in the British Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of this year. Wouldn’t it be great, we agreed, if we set up a pan-European forum of civil society that fed its deliberations into the Presidency, culminating in a big festival in Cardiff on the eve of the European summit there in June.

I didn’t give the idea much more thought – but Mary did, and in early December she said she’d got Robin Cook’s backing for the project. It fitted perfectly with the British government’s desire to open up the institutions of the EU, it seemed, and there was money available too. By the beginning of the year, we’d sorted out a realistic budget and lined up the staff we needed. A couple of weeks later, the Foreign Office gave us a provisional go-ahead for a big event in Cardiff on 12-14 June. Soon after that, we decided on the name People’s Europe 98 and made a start on setting up the advisory group that would steer the whole process.

Which is when it began to get complicated. The government started to get jittery over what it was letting itself in for. We emphasised that we had no dangerously subversive hidden agenda and made it clear that we were keen to get small business, the trade unions and local government on board. The FO was happy with our reassurances – but not Number Ten Downing Street, which refused to back People’s Europe 98 unless it was moved from Cardiff, unless it took place a week earlier, and unless various lefties involved in it took a backseat role.

To cut a long story short, we agreed reluctantly to change the time and place – much to the annoyance of everyone in Wales with whom we’d been working – and sorted out a personnel shuffle that made no real difference to our plans but looked better to Number Ten. In mid-March, we finally got the green light, just 12 weeks before the rescheduled event.

That People’s Europe 98 happened at all in such circumstances is a tribute to the staff and members of the executive and advisory committees who organised it. But it didn’t just happen – it was a resounding success. More than 1,100 people came along, more than 200 of them from outside the United Kingdom. There were 56 different discussion meetings on the programme, and by all accounts the overwhelming majority were extraordinarily good. There was a real engagement with government, in particular in the closing question-and-answer session with Robin Cook.

Most important, it looks as if People’s Europe 98 has enough momentum to continue in some form – as a Europe-wide organisation putting on similar events or as a Europe-oriented forum in Britain. Get in touch if you’re interested.

Friday, 12 June 1998


Review of Prawn Cocktail Party by Robin Ramsay (Vision, £9.99), Tribune 12 June 1998

On page 144 of Robin Ramsay's book on the "hidden power behind New Labour" there is a footnote: "I have written book reviews for Tribune since 1986. The first review of mine which did not appear was of a book attacking Britain's military-industrial complex, Neil Cooper's The Business Of Death. A couple of months before I submitted my review the unions represented in the British arms industry had run a full-page advert in Tribune saying, basically, 'jobs are at stake'. These two events are, of course, not connected."

Which is, of course, a joke - or at least I think it is, Ramsay doesn't really believe that the Tribune reviews editor, on receiving his piece, took a look and thought: "Hmmm. We can't use this. The defence unions might pull their advertising." Or does he? Worse, perhaps Tribune does work like that these days. After all, when I ran into the advertising manager last week, he did say that I’d better not slag off Ramsay's book because the publisher was taking an advert. I think he was joking, though I'm not sure.

The difficulty with writing about hidden influences in any sphere of life is simple. You need evidence, and evidence of what is hidden is by definition hard to find. It is all too easy to stray into the realm of conspiracy theory. Ramsay knows this danger from long experience. He has been editor and publisher of Lobster magazine since 1983 and was co-author with Stephen Dorrill of Smear!, a sober and comprehensive account of MIS's "dirty tricks" campaign against Harold Wilson. Prawn Cocktail Party cannot be dismissed as conspiracy theory, but Ramsay does push his thesis on the role of multinational capital in shaping the policies of New Labour rather further than the evidence will take it.

Ramsay's big idea is that there "is a group of interrelated and mutually supporting financial institutions whose interests lie outside the domestic British economy" - what he calls "the overseas lobby" - that has for most of this century pursued a policy of undermining everyone who has backed measures to ensure that wealth created in Britain stays here. With New Labour, he argues, the triumph of this lobby is complete.

It is not an implausible story, and Ramsay tells it with a polemical verve unusual in contemporary political writing. The chapter on shadowy American-funded transatlantic networks for members of the political elite is excellent, as is the one on Labour's fear of the City. The problem, however, is that Ramsay never tells us who, precisely, has been part of the "overseas lobby" or how members of the lobby operate - and the result is that he gives little idea of how its supposed influence could be countered beyond making a plea for Labour to resort to economic nationalism.

Friday, 10 April 1998


New Times, 10 April 1998

It is tempting simply to cheer last week's decision by a Versailles tribunal to bar Jean-Marie Le Pen from public office. The president of the far-right National Front, found guilty of physically attacking a Socialist candidate during last year's French general election campaign, is a thug whose racist message has poisoned French public life for more than a decade. The two-year ban means that he will be unable to continue as a regional councillor in Provence-Côte d'Azur and is unlikely to be allowed to stand again for the European Parliament in 1999. The ruling could be the beginning of the end of his long and inglorious political career.

Yet if Le Pen appears to be on the way out, the same cannot be said of his party. In last month's regional elections, the National Front took 15 per cent of the popular vote, winning the balance of power between the left and the mainstream right in large swathes of France. More important, in five of the 22 regional councils its councillors struck deals with the mainstream right parties, the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), to ensure the election of right-wing regional presidents.

President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, immediately disowned the agreements, appearing on television to denounce the Front as "racist and xenophobic". Last week, he started consultations with politicians and constitutional experts on plans for changing the proportional representation system used for regional elections. His goal is to come up with an electoral system that ensures the Front will not in future win seats.

But he is engaging in damage-limitation. The regional council deals, the first significant agreements between the Front and "respectable" politicians, showed that a large section of the mainstream right is no longer prepared to treat Le Pen's party as a pariah.

The main reason for this – apart from desperation for power – is the rise to prominence in the Front of Bruno Mégret, Le Pen's deputy and chief strategist, who is now almost certain to succeed him as leader sooner rather than later. A smooth-talking former Gaullist, Mégret has made a point of toning down the Front's crude anti-immigrant rhetoric in favour of a more reasonable-sounding appeal for lower taxes, more police and the defence of French 'cultural identity'. The deal offered by the Front in the regional councils was votes in return for support for a six-point programme that did not include racist policies.

The changes in the Front's image are cosmetic, as Mégret himself admitted in a remarkably candid interview with the Daily Telegraph last week. But the degree to which a section of the mainstream right fell for them is remarkable. If only briefly, it gave the Front's racism and xenophobia unprecedented legitimacy.

It would be wrong to exaggerate the prospects of a far-right take-over in France. The short-term effects of the events of the past month have been to demoralise the RPR and UDF and to strengthen the moral authority and popularity of the governing Socialists and their allies. In the longer run, the likelihood is that electoral reform, consolidation of the centre-right and – with luck – falling unemployment will combine to squeeze the Front's support.

But it would also be wrong to be complacent. Mégret believes that, by striking accords with the mainstream right, the Front can take up to 30 per cent of the vote, becoming the majority force on the French right. That this does not appear quite as incredible as it did a month ago is itself a cause for concern.

Friday, 13 March 1998


New Times, 13 March 1998

Everything was looking good for the German Greens when they met in the eastern city of Magdeburg last weekend for their last conference before the 27 September Bundestag election.

The opinion polls said they were set to take a healthy 10 per cent of the vote - more than ever before in a federal election. Joschka Fischer, their leader in parliament, arrived at the conference with a reputation as the most impressive left-of-centre politician in the country, widely tipped for a post in government in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), possibly as foreign minister.

The Greens had to show that they were capable of brokering a deal with the SPD, now with the populist Gerhard Schroeder confirmed as its candidate for the federal chancellorship after his stunning victory in the Lower Saxony Land election earlier in the month.

That, however, did not seem to be an insurmountable problem.

Schroeder himself is no friend of the Greens, not least because he has Volkswagen in his home state and is a shameless populist on petrol taxation. But his party would undoubtedly prefer a coalition with the Greens to one with the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, the other possible outcome of the Bundestag election that has been widely discussed.

Moreover, days before the Greens met in Magdeburg, Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD party leader and a strong opponent of a "grand coalition" with the CDU, had won himself a key role in drafting the SPD's election programme after anointing Schroeder as "chancellor-candidate" – a job he craved for himself. With Lafontaine in a position of influence, a "red-green" coalition, giving the Greens seats in federal government for the first time since entering the Bundestag in 1983, appeared more credible than ever before.

Yet somehow the Greens conspired to damage their prospects in the most spectacular fashion. On Saturday evening, after an acrimonious debate, they voted by 275 votes to 274 to reject Fischer's proposal to support the use of German troops in peace-keeping forces in Bosnia.

This is not merely a personal blow for Fischer and a sign that the Greens have not grown out of their youthful enthusiasm for factional disputes. The vote also has a crucial symbolic importance. For Fischer and the party leadership – as indeed for most Germans – opposing the use of German troops in international peace-keeping efforts is an abdication of responsibility. They believe that it is imperative for Germany to play its part in preventing ethnic cleansing, however understandable it is that many peace-loving Germans shudder at the thought of deploying their country's military might abroad.

Fischer and his colleagues are right. The crimes of the Third Reich or indeed of imperial Germany before it are no excuse for failure to face up to the – non-German – crimes of today. The Green fundamentalists' pacifist isolationism is gesture politics at its worst. The rest of the world needs Germany to take its fair share of peace-keeping tasks.

As with their opposition to German unification in 1989-90, the Greens appear to have misread the political circumstances out of misplaced fear of resurgent Nazism. Whether the misreading is quite so politically disastrous as it was then remains to be seen. In 1990, the Greens and Lafontaine, who took much the same line as chancellor-candidate for the SPD, gave Helmut Kohl a free ride with their anti-nationalist rhetoric. This time, not so much is at stake – and Schroeder is too canny to fall into the same trap. The problem is that Schroeder without the Greens would be too much like Tony Blair without Robin Cook and John Prescott.

Sunday, 1 March 1998


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, March 1998

All the signs are that the government is set to reject replacement of the House of Lords with a democratically elected second chamber.

Insiders say that the committee chaired by Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine to examine the options for Lords reform – first to find a way of getting rid of the ludicrous archaism of hereditary peers and then to proffer suggestions for a ‘more democratic and representative’ second chamber as promised by the 1997 Labour manifesto – is likely to reject the idea of an elected upper house. Instead, they say, it will back Irvine’s (and Tony Blair’s) preference for a second chamber that is largely appointed.

‘The publicly stated rationale for rejecting democratic elections will be the supposed need for a diverse upper house,’ said a senior Labour peer. ‘In fact, the point of the exercise is simply to preserve the patronage powers of the prime minister.’

Irvine himself has made it clear that he sees a wholly elected second chamber as dangerous. He told an interviewer last month that ‘it’s difficult to see how without a very significant element you can really ensure that the House of Lords is a house of all the talents, and a place at which people enter at a fairly high age’.

But journalists have been slow to latch on to the dominance of his view in his committee – which is largely down to Blair’s strong support for his anti-democratic position.

The argument is by no means over. Labour peers certainly lack democratic legitimacy. But they are hardly a New Labour cabal, as they showed last month by voting to outlaw predatory pricing in the newspaper industry, a measure Blair had promised Rupert Murdoch that Labour would oppose. Many of them remain attached to the principle of a democratically elected second chamber as advocated by Labour before Blair became leader – not least Roy Hattersley, now elevated to the peerage but in past life, as shadow home secretary, the architect of Labour’s 1992 promise of an elected upper house. Even in Irvine’s inner circle there are a few convinced democrats.

But Irvine and Blair have strong support among Labour MPs who reject an elected second chamber on the grounds that it would inevitably reduce the powers of the Commons. And they can count on the backing of most of the press, which rather likes the idea of a second chamber packed with the celebrities it already knows, however they are chosen.

So – rather like proportional representation for the Commons – a democratic second chamber is already looking like a modernisation too far for the Blair government. Unless, of course, we start putting on the pressure right now.

Friday, 13 February 1998


New Times, 13 February 1998

Quite the most important elections in Europe during the first half of this year are those on 1 March in the German state of Lower Saxony.

Since 1990, the state premier there has been the populist Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who is on the right of his party. If he stands as SPD candidate for the federal chancellorship in September's elections for the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, he has a better chance than anyone else in his party of ousting Helmut Kohl and his centre-right coalition government.

But Schröder has said that he will not put his name forward for selection unless on 1 March the SPD vote in Lower Saxony does not fall by more than two percentage points. At present, it looks as if he'll do better than that, actually increasing the SPD's share of the vote – which will almost certainly mean that his main rival for the SPD chancellorship nomination, Oskar Lafontaine, the more left-leaning Saarland state premier and federal party leader, will withdraw and nominate Schröder when the SPD's top brass meet to choose their candidate on 16 March.

If Schröder fails in Lower Saxony, however, the nomination will almost certainly go to Lafontaine, the unsuccessful  SPD candidate for the federal chancellorship in the 1990 post-unification election. Although Lafontaine has maintained a consistently high public profile in recent months with his assaults on the economic and financial policies of the federal government, opinion polls suggest that he is unlikely to beat Kohl.

To up the ante still more, victory for Kohl's Christian Democratic Union in Lower Saxony would wipe out the SPD majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, and bring to an end months of legislative deadlock.

So a lot is at stake on 1 March for both big parties, and both are pulling out all the stops during the campaign. Kohl plans no fewer than eight speaking engagements in support of his party's challenger in Lower Saxony, Christian Wulf, and Schröder and Lafontaine – who started the year wrangling over the date that the SPD would choose its candidate for the chancellorship – are putting on public shows of mutual admiration as often as they can.

Of course, there's plenty that can go wrong for Schröder even if he does well on 1 March. Schröder's enthusiasm for reform of the welfare state and his tough-on-crime stance risk pushing many SPD voters into backing the Greens, and they could well provide a lifeline for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former East German Communist Party. Schröder's rhetoric might also make it very difficult for the SPD to reach a coalition arrangement with the Greens after the election. This doesn't bother Schröder, who would prefer a coalition with the liberal free Democrats or a "grand coalition" with the CDU, but it worries many in his party, by no means all on the left.

Nevertheless, the prospects for the SPD today are brighter than at any time since German unification, and that can only be good news for the rest of the European centre-left. Under Kohl, Germany has for the last four years resisted all attempts to get the European Union to introduce reflationary measures compensating for the deflationary effects of European economic and monetary union. Largely as a result, German unemployment last month reached the startling total of 5 million.

Schröder is no radical Keynesian, but his populism means that he is at least open to the argument that Europe needs a concerted assault on unemployment. And that is a small but significant step in the right direction.

Friday, 16 January 1998


New Times, 16 January 1998

The idea that Europe should have a common foreign policy was one of the great dreams of the founders of what has become the European Union - and in one sense their dream has been realised.

The EU simply has to have a common foreign policy as it processes applicants for membership and makes trade deals.

Who is in, who is out: there's real power here, as any Cypriot or Turk or Czech or Slovak or Windward Islander will tell you.

But beyond the crude mechanisms for deciding membership of the club, the record is scratchy. On the big question of security policy since 1945 – what should we do to stop the Russians invading? – western Europe has never found any answer but to beg the United States provide a "nuclear guarantee".

Since the end of the cold war the community of west European democracies has failed miserably to rise above the competing interests of its major member states when dealing with crises on its borders.

The west European response to the collapse of Soviet imperialism in 1989-92 was chaotic, determined partly by the perceived interests of the national governments of France, Britain and Germany and partly by the US. German unification almost split the west asunder.

Far worse, the "diplomacy" of the EU as Yugoslavia collapsed – orchestrated by Britain and France – merely encouraged Serbian territorial aggrandisement and genocide.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for the EU initiative on Algeria, announced by British foreign secretary Robin Cook earlier this month.

It's not that Algeria should be left to its own devices. It is clear that its government is running a policy of terrorism against its own people to legitimise its suppression of democracy. The state massacres of recent weeks are the latest in a long line since the generals mounted a coup to annul an Islamist victory in local elections in 1992.

The problem, however, is that the Algerian regime has been allowed to get away with it for so long because it has been backed by France, the old colonial power and still a force in the land, with the acquiescence or support of the rest of the west.

The argument was – and is – that if Algeria were to fall to the Islamists, Morocco and Egypt would not be far behind. In a short time, the whole of north Africa would be in "enemy" hands. The idea that the people of Algeria should be allowed to make their own choices (and their own mistakes) has never been allowed to get a look-in. The same goes for the possibility that the Islamists might just sustain a polity that is more liberal than the current one.

Of course, this anti-democratic paternalism has an immaculate left pedigree. The totalitarian regimes of "actually existing socialism" before 1989 always claimed that "the masses" were too simple, too stupid, too prone to influence by propaganda to be allowed to vote. A similar position is taken by apologists for "socialist" police states in Cuba and North Korea today. It is no accident, as the communists used to say, that many of the leading figures in the regime were once acolytes of Moscow.

But there's no reason for the EU to adopt their line. Free elections will not stop the slaughter on their own - but nothing will stop the slaughter until there are free elections. If the delegation comes back with a ringing declaration in favour of democracy, and if the governments of the EU back it up with an offer to run the polls, the initiative will at least have made a mark. Anything less will be a very sick joke.

Thursday, 1 January 1998


Chartist, January-February 1998

Many commentators have rightly complained that social security secretary Alistair Darling’s plans for reforming the pensions system, announced at the end of last year, are insufficiently radical. The trouble with the present system is simple. People are living longer but aren’t saving for their old age. By 2020 we’d need to be paying a lot more tax to sustain state pensions. This is politically unthinkable, and in any case – as Charlie Leadbeater argued in the New Statesman the other week – the tax system is in grave danger of collapsing before then because of the growth of self-employment and Internet shopping. So it is imperative that we act now to make sure everyone starts saving.

Yet Darling has done the opposite. His plan to retain the basic state pension and pay a means-tested guaranteed minimum to those who have not made their own provision suffers from a fatal flaw. A substantial proportion of people who can well afford to save will choose not to because they recognise that their chances of getting the means-tested pension will be wrecked if they have money in a pension scheme.

The only solution to this “free rider” problem is to bring home to these irresponsible non-savers the risks that they are taking. To coin a phrase, we have to be tough on prodigality and tough on the causes of prodigality. And the most effective way to do this is to abolish all state provision for pensioners – the basic pension, means-tested income support and the state earnings-related pension scheme.

This is perfectly feasible politically: I am not suggesting abolishing any existing pensioners’ pensions, nor am I suggesting doing anything to alarm anyone who will soon retire. My suggestion is that the state should withdraw from pensions provision only for those whose 65th birthday is on or after 1 January 2025. No one born before 1960 will be affected in any way. And because everyone born in 1960 or after has 26 years or more still to save before reaching 65, no one should have any difficulty in building up sufficient funds: we are, after all, an affluent society. Provision would of course be made for modest voluntary deductions from unemployment and disability benefits to pay into individual pension accounts so that everyone is able to feel that they have a stake in their future.

The economic advantages of abolishing state pension provision are many. By 2065, the demands on the exchequer from pensions would have become nugatory, allowing substantial reductions in income tax – with all that means for encouraging enterprise. Equally important, taking the state out of pensions would stimulate an ethic of personal responsibility and thrift, which in turn would have substantial beneficial knock-on effects on the British economy.

The less people spend and the more they save, the better the government’s chances of maintaining unemployment at a level compatible with low inflation – a particular headache if we are to join the European single currency. If everyone saved 40 per cent of his or her post-tax income in a pension scheme, the risks of runaway consumer demand causing the economy to overheat would disappear forever.

Getting the state out of pensions would also allow many older people to remain economically active for much longer. Older people are one of the great under-used resources of this country, and many regret having been forced into retirement at 65 when they are at the height of their powers and believe they still have much to offer. The arrival of working over-65s on the labour market would put welcome downward pressure on wage inflation, making Britain even more competitive in the global market place.

There is no reason why working over-65s could not have the same rights at work as everyone else. And if they lost their jobs, they would of course enjoy the same rights to unemployment benefits – and the same responsibilities to look for work. Anything else would be patently unfair.

However, it would be wholly utopian not to recognise that older people have a greater propensity to fall ill despite the great advances in medicine in recent years. So rules governing sickness and disability benefits for working over-65s would have to be kept under constant review to ensure costs to the taxpayer remain reasonable. On the other hand, because working over-65s would enjoy enhanced mortality rates, the costs of long-term care for the elderly who are genuinely incapable of working would be reduced.

I have no interest in benefiting from this proposal myself. Indeed, as I was born in October 1959, I would narrowly miss out on being a beneficiary – except indirectly as younger people’s changed patterns of spending and saving have their macroeconomic impact. But the more I think it through, the more its attractions become irresistible. Let’s hope Alistair Darling still reads Chartist.