Friday, 29 September 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 29 September 2000

The mood at Labour conference this week has been more nervous than for years – which is hardly surprising. The last time that Labour met for its annual beano neck-and-neck with the Tories in the opinion polls was in 1991, and then the party was in optimistic mood because it seemed to be regaining the ground lost when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Every year from 1992 to 1999, Labour enjoyed giant opinion-poll leads at conference time.

This week, Labour has been meeting in the shadow of a massive slump in its popularity as a result of the fuel crisis. Everyone in Brighton has been wondering whether it’s just a blip or whether it means what was until a fortnight ago almost unthinkable – that Tony Blair could lose the next election.

My hunch is that it’s a blip, but then I’ve learned through bitter experience not to trust my hunches when it comes to general elections. Although I didn’t expect Labour to win in 1983, I didn’t foresee the rout that transpired. I felt Labour victory in my bones in 1987 until well after the Greenwich by-election. And in 1992 I was still optimistic when we finished the celebratory champagne in the small hours of election night, though by that point I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.

All the same, there are good reasons to expect a Labour recovery. For a start, although people are angry about the price of petrol, with exceptions they’re not that angry. It should not be too difficult for the Government to come up with some formula for tweaking the transport taxation regime to make it fairer to car-reliant people without getting too much egg on its face (or losing revenue).

More generally, there is plenty of mileage for Labour in knocking the Tories, who still look a bunch of dangerous third-rate lunatics.

Nevertheless, to use the cliché of the moment, there is no room for complacency. Labour’s collapse in the polls after the fuel crisis might well be reversible – but the very fact that it has happened is a serious warning to the government.

It is evidence that the electorate is volatile even in circumstances – more than three years of near-to-full employment – in which it might be expected to be quiescent if not grateful. It demonstrates that many voters do not believe that the greenhouse effect is a problem of any urgency. And it shows that tax remains Labour’s Achilles’ heel even though the government has stuck to its promises on income tax.

A substantial section of the electorate has rumbled the sleight of hand involved in shifting taxation from income to consumption. The trick that allowed the Tories to retain an undeserved reputation as the tax-cutting party right up to the 1997 election no longer works – at least in Labour’s hands.

Now, Gordon Brown has plenty of room for manoeuvre here: he’s sitting on piles of cash, and if he wanted he could use quite a bit of it simply to buy off disgruntled motorists – and to hell with the consequences for revenue or anything else. To do so, however, would be a grave mistake. As a surrender to ignorance of the danger of global warming, it would destroy the government’s already dodgy reputation on environment policy. And as a capitulation to “I’m all right Jack” anti-tax populism, it would kill Labour’s credibility as a social democratic alternative to the Tories. Labour’s members and core supporters would desert it in droves.

In short, the government needs to make two parallel arguments: for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and for maintenance of public services. Any changes Brown makes to the transport taxation regime should be revenue-neutral and should retain disincentives to car use. Otherwise there will be a big electoral price to pay.

Or to put it more positively, Labour has got to come out as enthusiastically green and make the social democratic case for tax and spend. Which shouldn’t be a problem – except that it’s precisely what it has failed to do in the three years it has been in power.

Friday, 1 September 2000


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, September-October 2000

It was difficult to disagree with the Europe minister, Keith Vaz, when he complained at the beginning of September about the "xenophobia" of much of the British press over Europe.

The week he made his remarks, Fleet Street's finest were in a wild anti-foreigner froth over the French fishermen's blockade of Channel ports. In the Telegraph, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan fumed that the events in Calais and Boulogne showed that respect for the rule of law was "peculiarly Anglo-Saxon". The Sun denounced "the Paris regime" for compromising with the fishermen. The Mail complained that the "regime" was "chronically unstable".

Nor was this exceptional. Day after day, week after week, year after year, the right-wing press in Britain has kept up a relentless anti-European barrage. If you believed what you read in the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun and the Times, you would think that everything Britain held dear was under threat from a giant European conspiracy led by the domineering Germans, the arrogant French, freeloading MEPs and corrupt Brussels bureaucrats.

All of which is, of course, inaccurate and reprehensible - and a major cause of the unpopularity of "Europe" among British voters. Vaz was quite right to say that rabid press Euroscepticism is one reason that it is extremely difficult to have a rational debate on Britain's place in Europe.

But it is not the only reason.  Almost as important is the failure of pro-Europeans of any persuasion to put their case with conviction or credibility. And here the government - and particularly Tony Blair – must take at least some of the blame.

Labour came to power in 1997 promising constructive engagement with Europe, and its victory was widely welcomed across the political spectrum on the continent: the sense of relief that the Tories' histrionic obstructionism was a thing of the past was palpable.

In practice, however, the Blair government has proved rather less pro-European than its first days' rhetoric suggested it would be. Most crucially, Blair and Gordon Brown spurned the chance to hold the promised referendum on British participation in the single European currency in 1997, at the height of the government's popularity. Ever since, the government has held to a position – or rather a non-position – of  "wait-and-see", making only the most half-hearted case for joining the euro at some unspecified point in the future. So far, the best it has come up with is to say that, if we join, businesses and holiday-makers will not have the inconvenience and cost of changing money. That hardly counts as a killer argument.

In the meantime, the government, like its Tory predecessor, has made much of its successes in "standing up for Britain", in the name of the US model of deregulation and enterprise, against other European governments and the EU. The most notable of these have been to block extensions of workers' rights and steps towards tax harmonisation - thereby effectively endorsing the Eurosceptics' assumptions. Even the most significant collaboration between British Labour and its continental sister parties, Blair's Third Way initiative, was an attempt to redefine European social democracy in American deregulationist terms.

To make matters worse, the government has treated the European Parliament (and Labour's MEPs) with contempt, and has so far failed to make any coherent statement about how the EU can be made more democratic and accountable – a particularly important question in the wake of last year's European Commission corruption scandals and in the light of the impending enlargement of the EU into central Europe.

I have a hunch that it would all have been a lot better if Blair and Brown had given Robin Cook greater leeway on Europe policy. In 1997, Cook was the most sceptical of Labour's "big four" about the euro. But his experience as foreign secretary changed his mind, and since last year he has been the main protagonist in the cabinet for the single currency. At the same time, he has been a consistent enthusiast for democratic reform of the EU's institutions and for maintenance of the "European social model" of a comprehensive welfare state and "social partnership" between capital and organised labour.

As on arms sales policy, however, he has been squeezed out of the policy-making loop by Brown and Blair. The chancellor is basking in glory as he presides over a sustained boom outside the euro-zone; the prime minister is imprisoned by the focus groups and opinion polls telling Philip Gould that Europe is a no-no. Both find the US far more exciting than Europe in every way.

We are promised a keynote Blair speech on the future of Europe some time this autumn. It  should make the case explicitly for Europe as the best hope for sustaining a modernised welfare state as a bulwark against the Wild West capitalism of the US – but somehow I have a feeling it won't.