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."