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Count the protest votes

Ken Coates MEP

Last week I was notified by the newly appointed Registrar of Political Parties in Britain that my application to register the Alternative Labour List in time for the European Elections had been accepted. The Registrar holds a new post, specially created under the Registration of Political Parties Act, a rather illiberal measure recently enacted by the Blair administration.

Previously, the Registrar had informed me that it would not be possible to run a slate in the European Elections under our chosen name, that of the Independent Labour Network. This fell foul of an ominously entitled Statutory Instrument, drawn up in the Home Office, and enacted without debate. The Prohibited Words and Expressions Order sets out, in appropriately bureaucratic language, all the names and conjunctions of names which are forbidden to would-be candidates in all future elections. At the same time that our own chosen name was rejected, it was apparently decided to ban a number of Socialist Parties, and the Scottish Green Party. Appeals and legal actions have lifted most of these bans, but some remain in force. All are wrong, and indefensible.

Before this upsurge of control freakery, New Labour had changed the voting system for the European Elections. They abolished individual European Constituencies, and instituted list voting by region. Henceforward, regions would elect groups of Members, under a "closed list" system. This asks electors to vote for the name of a Party, not for an individual candidate. Parties must list their candidates in their own preferred order, and voters will not be able to vary that order, preferring those lower down, or demoting those higher up. For the first time in Britain, a political Party will be able to nominate its Members of the European Parliament, without the electors having any choice about who, if anyone, they might prefer.

Party rules, and individuals are ciphers. In usurping the power of the electorate, the Parties are under no obligation to increase their own internal democracy. Some British parties have adopted more or less democratic methods of ordering their candidates for the new lists: but New Labour has chosen to do this in a wholly arbitrary way. People have been appointed to head lists in regions where nobody has nominated them. Others have been transplanted from one region to another. Some who have performed distinguished service have been ranked impossibly low, and effectively dismissed from the Parliament. Sue Waddington, whose close interrogation of the European Commission helped to precipitate the crisis in which the whole Commission resigned, has been relegated by New Labour to an unelectable position, although, undoubtedly, given the chance, the voters of Leicester would be very happy to recognise her merits and return her.

Hugh Kerr and I opposed these undemocratic proposals from the beginning, and together with others we were suspended from the European Parliamentary Labour Party because we would not sign a gagging order. Subsequently, we were ejected.

My own view is that the British Labour Party has been hijacked, and that protest votes are necessary to recall it to order. There are three key issues involved in this abduction, which invite a threefold protest.

Firstly, the onslaught on democratic practices is creating a new kind of authoritarianism, masked by Orwellian Newspeak. In this way, the institution of closed lists for the European Elections has been explained away by comparison with electoral systems elsewhere in Europe. But in Germany, the federal constitution ensures a real devolution of power to the regions, and it is quite unthinkable that Party officials could transplant leaders from one region to another, or impose leading figures at will. And in France, the internal democracy of the Socialist Party guarantees a form of representation to different political currents. But in Britain, ideas of any kind are not nowadays allowed, and certainly disagreements with the leadership are matters for condign punishment.

New Labour authoritarianism shows itself in the rigging of the elections for the leader of the Welsh Assembly, and the reinvention of the trade union block vote by a leadership which railed against this for many years.

New Labour excludes inconvenient Scotsmen from its lists for the Scottish elections. It bans the most favoured candidate for the mayorality of London. It seeks to impose a mayoral system which would root out the powers of Local Authority committees: but none of this has been discussed or decided within the appropriate fora of the governing Party.

At the same time, New Labour grows closer to a part of the Liberal Democrat hierarchy, and to certain senior Conservatives. Whether these allies will accept the authoritarianism of Mr. Blair remains unclear. But there is every reason to worry about the future of democracy, as these developments unwind. A protest vote, it might be hoped, would encourage those democrats who are troubled by these phenomena to speak out, and assert themselves.

The domestic agenda of New Labour turns around noisy affirmations of the need to "reform" the Welfare State. Once again, George Orwell is King. Cuts in widows' payments are announced as an extension of payments to widowers. But the extension will be small, and the cuts will be large. Reforms of the benefit system for disabled people are trumpeted. But the bottom line is that it is expected to save 750 million in this process of change. There is not one leading member of the Labour Party who did not promise repeatedly to anchor pensions to what is called the Castle Formula. This was established by Barbara Castle, in the Wilson Government. She linked increments in pensions to increases in the cost of living, or average earnings, whichever turned out to be the higher. Mrs. Thatcher broke this link, and the value of the old age pension has since systematically declined. But New Labour will not restore this linkage, and instead is moving into means testing, and an attack on the principle of universality in the provision of pensions.

In the same way, there is not one member of the New Labour front bench who is not the product of free higher education, and who indeed did not benefit from Britain's advanced system of student maintenance through grants. With their feet up on the front bench, arms folded, all these heroes were as one when it came to imposing fees on other people, and annulling grants for higher education. An immediate casualty is a sharp decline in the number of mature students. They simply cannot afford to take up university studies under present conditions.

My files are full of cases of disabled people who have been barred from benefit as a result of Government crack-downs. One of my constituents had a triple transplant operation, heart, liver and lungs. Few of these operations have ever been successful, but his was. That is to say, he survived. But because he survived, he had his benefits stopped, and soon afterwards he lost allowances for Motability, which paid for the car which gave him mobility, and his wife lost her carer's allowance. He wrote to the Prime Minister, but got no answer. I met him when he contacted me after resigning from the Labour Party.

It seems very clear to me that there are hundreds of thousands of sufferers from this kind of "reform". Only if they protest is there any hope of calling the Labour Party home again, to consider the fates of those upon whose backs it rose to office. Other abandoned electors include most trade unionists, and vast numbers of employees in the public services.

These people would all have been beneficiaries of Old Labour's commitment to a social Europe. But New Labour seeks only to dilute and arrest progress towards greater social cohesion on a European scale. For many of us, the construction of Europe was about recreating the possibilities of full employment. I have fought for years to commit the European Parliament to a programme of full employment, and to organise the European unemployed into a lobby which was capable of speaking for itself. But New Labour wasted not one second to rejoice in the recent fall of Oskar Lafontaine, and the apparent defeat of hope for a neo-Keynesian European solution. We must all hope that these obscurantist celebrations were premature, and that the ghosts of Delors and Lafontaine have not been laid forever. But protest votes are in order in Britain, wherever there are Europeans who see their ideal as one involving greater social freedoms, enhanced human rights, and civilised employment standards; and wherever there are Europeans who put social protection ahead of individual enrichment. A full employment Europe, and a Green Europe, are still goals, not achievements. But in Britain, true Europeans, who have a generous vision of our continental convergence, might think that this means that a protest vote would be timely.

In a nutshell, these are the issues which seem to me to be most important in the forthcoming European Elections in Britain. I do not know whether the Labour Party can be recovered for its old ideals. If not, the time will come when we have to reconstruct it, and start out again to recover a space for idealism in this power-crazed environment.

But first, we must count the protest votes, which might help us to map the way forward.

1999