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A view from the inside

Carole Tongue on the first twenty years of Labour in Europe

Wreckers or Builders? A History of Labour MEPs from 1979 - 99 Anita Pollack John Harper Publishing £20

"Using a combination of her own experience, interviews with MEPs and others. and a thorough examination of the official European Parliament records, Anita has tracked the turbulent years from the first direct elections of 1979 to the change of electoral system in 99". So says Neil Kinnock in his Foreword to this first history of Labour MEPs.

This is no racy political memoire. My former colleague Anita Pollack has produced a serious account of these twenty years, but a readable one nonetheless. Her scholarship is to be much admired. There is much on the cutting room floor, she tells me, because of threats of libel from former Members, some no longer in the Labour Party. She has bent over backwards to be fair to all, finding something positive to say about almost all of them, which could not have been easy.

The book is in four parts, covering the four electoral periods during these years, and ends with a "Where are they now?" section. It charts the rise of the Labour group in the European Parliament from 17, to 32, to 45 and then 62. They were always a mixed bag, politically encompassing far left and pretty far right. They were disunited on Europe and the most divisive period was during the 1980s, with four changes of leadership in five years as the political balance tipped left-right-left, on narrow voting margins following the toppling of Barbara Castle as Leader. The least divisive period was 1989-94 when the Labour movement had been charmed by Jacques Delors and the new intake was largely in favour of constructive engagement in the European project.

Reform of Clause IV of the Party's constitution caused a huge fuss in the Brussels group and Pollack chronicles the differing points of view and how matters came to a head when 32 MEPs signed a statement appearing as a Guardian advertisement on a critical day for Tony Blair.

There were many battles along the way. Not only amongst the MEPs themselves, as is well-documented, but also with the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. They include reform and transparency, environment, anti-racism, animal welfare, workers' rights and opposing privatization of the post. One controversial policy that I was involved in was the infamous TV Without Frontiers Directive - effectively battling against the Murdoch empire and Hollywood in support of public sector broadcasting and for a majority space for British and EU TV drama and film programmes on our television screens. Together with our much-missed former colleague the late Phillip Whitehead, we took on one of the strongest lobbies in the world namely the Motion Picture Association of America. This struggle and many others are covered in the book.

After the Labour victory in 1997 policy freedom for the MEPs was more constrained and some areas of contention emerge including an exchange of letters with Tony Blair about Labour's position on Europe never before published.

The fraught selection process for the disastrous 1999 European election under the new Regional list system is described delicately. It was a heartbreaking time for many of us.

This is a book that will be invaluable for politics and European studies students, Labour activists and commentators.

Carole Tongue is the former Labour MEP for London East