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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

Blair's Euro-poll shock

JUNE'S EUROPEAN elections were a disaster for Tony Blair's New Labour Party. The returning 'war leader' won an even lower share of the vote (28.1%) than that secured by Michael Foot's 'Old Labour' in the 1983 general election, in the aftermath of Thatcher's Falklands victory.

Particularly striking was the collapse of Labour's working class 'heartlands' vote. In seats where it had won over 60% at the 1997 general election, its vote this time fell by 23%. In contrast, in Tory strongholds, where the 28% turnout was higher than the national average (23.3%), Labour's vote fell by just four points.

But it wasn't only that working class Labour voters stayed at home. Of those who went to the polls, many voted for other parties. Just 58% of those who had voted Labour in 1997 who turned out in the European elections, voted Labour this time. The main beneficiaries were the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru who, respectively, came within 1.5% and 2.3% of overtaking Labour in Scotland and Wales. The Greens also picked up Labour voters, polling 625,000 votes (6.3%) and winning two MEPs. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), standing under the slogan, 'Keep the pound, leave the EU', won 696,000 votes and three MEPs.

Overall, the Tories were the clear election winners, with 36% of the poll. But what does this say about their chances in the next general election? While they recorded their first victory in a national poll since the 1992 general election, showing that they cannot be written off indefinitely, theirs is a very limited revival. Because of the low turnout the actual number of votes won by the Tories - at 3.5 million - was 700,000 less even than their disastrous showing in the last European elections in 1994. To win a general election they need to find another 10 million or so voters. As the pro-European ex-cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell warned Tory leader William Hague after the elections, the Tories need to "extend our support beyond the hard core which we succeeded in mobilising last week" on a Euro-sceptic line. (Guardian, 21 June) After all, June's opinion polls had seen opposition to the single currency rise to 61% but only 8.3% of the registered electorate turned out to vote Tory.

  Their European poll success, however, will re-inforce the 'English nationalist' Euro-sceptic element within the Tory party. Immediately after the election some of the new Tory MEPs clashed with old-guard pro-Europeans over whether to stay in the 'too-European' People's Party (EPP) group in the European parliament. This question will re-surface as the EPP supports the forthcoming EU Inter-Governmental Conference proposals to cut one of Britain's European commissioners and increase qualified majority voting at the expense of national vetoes. The inevitable clashes over such issues, moreover, will be played out in front of the UKIP MEPs, keeping the pressure on the Tories to maintain a Euro-sceptic stance.

Hague himself responded to the European election victory with a shadow cabinet reshuffle which saw a further consolidation of the Euro-sceptic right. Peter Lilley, a 'thinking Thatcherite', was dumped after making a speech in April which tried to re-position the Tories into accepting that the state must be the main provider of health and education services. In came Maastricht rebel Bernard Jenkin along with Angela Browning, who achieved notoriety for leading the attack on the Tories then 'wait-and-see' policy on the single currency during the last general election.

The reshuffle was followed by the expulsion from the party of the ex-MP Julian Critchley and former cabinet minister Lord Gilmour, for backing the breakaway Pro-European Conservative Party in the June elections. The Pro-European Conservatives, despite such Tory grandee endorsement and substantial business funding, polled just 138,000 votes (1.4%). Gilmour responded to his expulsion, tellingly, by pointing out that the drying up of the traditional sources of big business funding for the Tory Party had begun to change its character. The Conservatives, he wrote, had now become "unhealthily dependent upon the financial support of one or two downmarket anti-European millionaires" who "should not influence the policy of a great party" but who had done so since Hague had taken over. (Guardian, 23 June)

These comments illustrate the difficulties the Tories face in their efforts to recapture their previous position as the favoured political representatives of big business. The majority of the British ruling class believe (wrongly) that EMU will not break-up (with states defecting from the euro strait-jacket etc). They accept Blair's 'wait-and-see' approach to UK entry, given the divergence between the economic cycles in Britain and continental Europe. The CBI, for example, weighed in during the election against Tory attacks on the government's 'national changeover plan' to prepare business and commerce for the euro.

  Moreover, there are broader interests of British capitalism at stake in 'Europe' than just the single currency. Kosova, for example, revealed the dependency of the EU states on US military strength. While EU members combined defence spending is 60% of the US figure, they have barely 10% of the US capacity to deploy and maintain those forces 'out of area'. Despite the wishful thinking of the EU commission president-elect Romano Prodi, the recent abolition of the non-EU Western European Union military alliance and the creation of a new EU 'high representative' for common foreign and security policy, are not the first steps to a common European army. Nevertheless, the different national capitalist classes of Europe feel compelled to attempt to 'co-ordinate' diplomatic and military activity to project their political weight onto the world stage. Yet, as the Kosova conflict raged, even tentative steps in this direction were attacked by the Tories in their Euro election campaign.

The former Thatcherite professor John Gray exaggerates when he writes that the Tories, "once the political wing of a British ruling elite", are today "not much more than an English nationalist rump". (Guardian, 1 June) But Blair, at this stage, does reflect more the attitude of the majority of the British ruling class. And, too date, he has managed to push through his domestic and international agenda.

After June's elections, however, Blair is something of a tarnished king. The 'Blair project' included electoral reform, for example, to secure a 'progressive alliance' with the Liberals and keep out the Tories 'for a generation'. The European elections, following May's elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, have created such an opposition within the parliamentary Labour Party to electoral reform that Blair will not now be able to proceed to a referendum on this issue this side of a general election. Other parliamentary rebellions, on welfare 'reform', the asylum and immigration bill, cuts in legal aid and other issues, are inevitable in the months ahead.

Far more important, however, will be the developing opposition outside, including the disaffection of wide layers of youth reflected in the 'stop the city' demonstration on June 18. In the European elections the main manifestation of this underlying mood of discontent was the unprecedented level of abstentionism. But the European elections also saw an important socialist vote recorded. The Scottish Socialist Party, building on Tommy Sheridan's election to the Scottish parliament, this time polled 39,720 votes, doubling its percentage share to 4.02%. An Alternative Labour list headed by expelled Labour MEP Ken Coates polled 2.4% in the East Midlands while another expelled MEP, Christine Oddy, stood, at the last moment, in the West Midlands. Although this cut across the vote for the Socialist Alliance list headed by Socialist Party member Dave Nellist (which polled 7,203 votes), the combined vote for left of Labour candidates in this region was a credible 5.8% (49,309).

Even before the recession in the British economy bites, Blairism has lost its 'aura of invincibility'. This can only give encouragement to all those fighting to build a socialist alternative.

Clive Heemskerk

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