Red Pepper, December 1997
The future of Wayne David as leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party hangs in the balance after he and EPLP chief whip Simon Murphy were forced to abandon the suspensions of the “Strasbourg four” dissident Labour MEPs last month.
At a meeting of the EPLP on 11 November, Labour MEPs voted overwhelmingly for a deal to reinstate the four – Ken Coates, Alex Falconer, Michael Hindley and Hugh Kerr – who had rejected a Labour National Executive Committee code of conduct because it banned them from commenting in public on government plans to introduce a “closed list” system of proportional representation for Euro-elections.
The four agreed to a memorandum of understanding drawn up by EPLP chair Roger Barton, supposedly clarifying the code of conduct but in fact modifying it to allow MEPs to speak their minds publicly on the government’s electoral reform plans and to express their opinions ‘within the Labour Party’ on the method for selecting Labour’s candidates.
The deal is a humiliating setback for David and Murphy, who had staked their credibility as EPLP leader and chief whip on the decision in October to suspend the four, believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of Tony Blair. Whether or not they were, the London leadership was taken aback by the strength of opposition to the suspensions not only among other Labour MEPs but also in the press. When Barton, a close ally of John Prescott, hatched his plan for a face-saving compromise, London supported him fully.
MEPs are now openly speculating how long David can last as leader of Labour’s 62 MEPs. First elected in 1994, he incurred Blair’s displeasure in autumn that year by defending Clause Four of the Labour constitution, but subsequently rallied to his side after half the EPLP were named as signatories to a pro-Clause Four Guardian advertisement. Last year, he was embroiled in controversy after he threatened Hugh Kerr with loss of the party whip for allegedly heckling Blair at Labour conference. David recovered sufficient left support to beat off a challenge to his leadership this summer from the right-wing Alan Donnelly – but his position is now “at best precarious”, in the words of one former supporter.
It remains to be seen whether the reinstatement of the four will lead to an improvement in relations between the EPLP and the Labour leadership in London. Many MEPs, by no means all on the left, have been critical of what they see as heavy-handed attempts by London, particularly since the election of a Labour government, to dictate policy to them.
Labour’s choice of a “closed list” system of PR for the 1999 Euro-elections is controversial because such a system would not allow voters to vote for individual candidates or to split their votes among parties. Moreover, suspicions are rife that Blair plans to prevent many existing MEPs from being candidates in 1999 – by imposing all Labour candidates with no ballot of members, by making sure that leadership loyalists take all the places at the top of each regional list, or by excluding “awkward” MEPs on disciplinary grounds. In the past couple of months, several sitting left-wing MEPs have been discussing the possibility of standing against Labour on a red-green list if they are indeed purged.
The deal on the code of conduct appears to indicate a new willingness by London to negotiate and compromise with the EPLP. But MEPs’ fears about the electoral system for 1999 and the selection process will not be easily assuaged. Something says that this story will run and run.