ast 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
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
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.