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.