Saturday, 11 November 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 November 2000

First the nation's rail service grinds to a halt after a fatal accident, apparently caused because routine maintenance is considered a luxury by the privatised company responsible for rail infrastructure. Then the long-awaited report on mad cow disease shows a quite extraordinary dereliction of duty by government and officials convinced that the agricultural industry needed less intrusive regulation in order to flourish. Almost simultaneously, a spell of inclement weather reveals that recent relaxations of the rules governing new building have led to thousands of homes being built where they are likely to be flooded any time it rains a lot. And now we're all on tenterhooks awaiting the next round of protests against fuel taxation to see whether a handful of fat blokes will again bring the country to its knees by blockading the handful of refineries that normally supply our oil products "just in time".

Yes, the past few weeks have given us a string of wonderful advertisements for letting the spirit of enterprise run free (or rather with the lightest of regulatory touches). It all looks marvellously dynamic for a while, a few people make a lot of money by cutting corners on safety and otherwise ripping us off – and then everything either collapses in scandal or seizes up completely.

Sorry, but things look a lot better the other side of the Channel. All right, I know all about floods in Italy, BSE and farmers' fuel protests in France and truckers creating mayhem in Germany. But at least over there they manage to keep the trains running, if not always on time.

For all the fashionable nineties neo-liberal talk about "Eurosclerosis”, no continental European country has been reduced to the pitiful state of Britain by the tribulations we have all suffered in the past few months.

I'm not arguing that the rest of Europe is perfect, or even that deregulation is always wrong (have you tried to buy a loaf of bread in Germany on a Sunday?). It seems to me incontrovertible, however, that economies in which the essentials are more strictly regulated, with key transport and other infrastructure in the public sector, work better overall – even if, week-on-week, when everything is going well, they seem to accountants to be less efficient.

A genuinely pro-European social-democratic government in Britain would now be making the case vigorously for the European model of regulated capitalism against those who would let the free market rip. By contrast, Tony Blair and friends have kept mum. I’d like to think that they’re embarrassed by the way that they embraced so wholeheartedly the neo-liberal enthusiasm for deregulation. But I have my doubts . . .


On a different matter entirely, I’m amazed at the scanty coverage in the national media of the crisis that has hit the London borough of Hackney in the past month. To cut a long story short, the council will be declared bankrupt unless it makes gigantic cuts in spending – to the tune of £18 million – to claw back a £40 million deficit. Half its council tax is uncollected. More than 17,000 residents are owed outstanding housing benefit. Hundreds of local businesses have not been paid for work they have done for the council. Estimates of the number of workers Hackney will have to sack range from 500 to 1,000. Just about every senior officer is desperately searching for some way of jumping ship.

It is not quite on the scale of New York in the 1970s, but it’s big news all the same – not least because it raises serious questions about the much-vaunted pragmatism and responsibility of New Labour in local government.

It is true that, since the mid-1990s, Hackney has not been the Labour stronghold that it was before, and that at least some of the mess can be put down to a brief spell of Liberal Democrat administration and before that to a bout of vicious in-fighting among Labour councillors that resulted in a substantial breakaway from the Labour Party. But Labour councillors close to the party leadership nationally have been the dominant force in Hackney politics since the mid-1980s, and they were in power for most of the long period of incompetence and mismanagement that has led the borough to the brink. Anyone who suggests that Hackney’s problem is the loony left running riot is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Wednesday, 1 November 2000


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, November-December 2000

All the gossip around Westminster suggests that Labour is on the verge of ruling out British membership of the single European currency for the next parliament. So far, I’ve not met anyone who can do more than repeat the circumstantial evidence for this that has appeared in the press since the middle of October – and most of it is extremely circumstantial. But on the principle that in politics there is usually no smoke without something at least smouldering, it is worth taking the rumours seriously, if only as indicating a possible course of action that is being taken seriously in Labour’s upper reaches. Who knows? By the time you read this it could be policy.

First, though, the evidence of impending change, if you can call it that. The most important thing that has emerged in the past few weeks is clear the level of hostility to the euro in the Treasury. It’s not that Gordon Brown has declared publicly against joining the euro – but then his style has never been to say what he means. Rather, it is that, thanks to new books by Andrew Rawnsley and Geoffrey Robinson, more details have emerged of the famous row in autumn 1997 that followed the revelation by Brown’s spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan, that the Chancellor was going to rule out participation in the euro for the duration of this parliament.

Precisely who said what to whom and who behaved like a complete shit can be left to the squabbling principals and their interlocutors. What is important is that Brown won the argument against stiff opposition from the pro-euro camp (or, more accurately, those who thought the issue should be kept open), led by Peter Mandelson – and that now the chancellor is more than happy for the world to know not only that he stuffed Mandelson but that Mandelson has been making trouble for him ever since.

Meanwhile, a long-brewing crisis in Britain in Europe has come to a head. BiE was originally set up by the European Movement and others as a nominally cross-party outfit, backed by business and pro-European unions, to campaign for joining the euro. But it has consistently done the bidding of new Labour: even before its launch last year it was persuaded by Tony Blair to tone down its message so as to become a champion merely of British membership of the European Union. Last month, BiE’s high-ups announced a de facto suspension of activities until after the next election – to the consternation of ordinary supporters but with the backing of Peter Mandelson (funny how the same names keep cropping up).

Almost simultaneously, Tony Blair announced that he would vote no to euro membership if a referendum were held right now – and with that, the newspapers filled with mysteriously sourced speculation that, because Philip Gould’s focus groups were so unsympathetic, Brown was adamant that euro membership was not on and Alastair Campbell, John Prescott and others supported him, Blair had been persuaded to match the Tories’ promise of staying out of the single currency until the election after next.

We will find out soon enough whether all this is a matter of excitable journalists putting two and two together to make six. What is clear, however, is that, even if Labour does not rule out euro membership for the next parliament, it will almost certainly make little effort to persuade the sceptical British public of the case for the single currency between now and the election – which makes a referendum on the euro early in the next parliament somewhat unlikely. And this in turn makes it more likely that the referendum won’t take place at all before the election after next, regardless of what is in the Labour manifesto.

Whatever transpires, it is hardly surprising that other EU governments are becoming increasingly dismissive of Labour’s protestations that it wants to play a constructive role at the heart of Europe – and their mood has not been improved by Blair’s much-hyped speech in Warsaw last month on institutional reform of the EU to cope with enlargement.

Billed as the British contribution to the great debate inaugurated in the spring by German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and French president Jacques Chirac, Blair’s speech made some important points about the EU’s urgent need for greater transparency and democratic accountability. But his proposed solutions leave a lot to be desired.

Blair put forward three key reforms: a greater role for the Council of Ministers; a reduced role for the European Commission; and a second chamber for the European Parliament drawn from the membership of national parliaments to keep the existing directly elected chamber in check. In essence, his argument is that the supranational institutions of the EU should yield power and influence to intergovernmental institutions, on the grounds that national governments enjoy popular legitimacy that the supranational European institutions do not.

The problems here are twofold. Firstly, at the centre of Blair’s proposals is a misidentification of the locus of the EU’s democratic deficit, which is not in the role of the Parliament but in the lack of accountability of the Commission and, especially, in the secretiveness and horse-trading that characterises the intergovernmental Council of Ministers. Only an increase in the powers of the Parliament could really address this problem – yet this was explicitly ruled out by Blair.

Secondly, although Blair’s intergovernmentalism is viewed sympathetically by the French, it is anathema to the Germans and nearly everyone else – while his downplaying of the role of the Commission is anathema to the French. So his vision is not merely wrong in principle but poor Realpolitik.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Labour’s European policy is a shambles.