Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, March 1999
With only three months to go before Britain’s first proportional representation elections for the European Parliament on 10 June, Labour has barely started planning its campaign – leading to mounting anger among candidates and activists.
‘It’s almost as if the leadership wants the party to be humiliated,’ said one would-be MEP. ‘Millbank has put no effort at all into the Euro-elections. All it’s worried about is the local elections and Scotland and Wales in May.’
At Labour’s joint European and local government conference in Manchester last month, Tony Blair was warmly received when he called for a vigorous party effort in all this spring’s elections. But the show of enthusiasm masked widespread pessimism about Labour’s prospects in the European elections.
The adoption of PR means that Labour will inevitably lose European seats. Even with 50 per cent of the vote, it will take 20 fewer seats than the 62 it won under first-past-the-post in 1994.
What is causing activists most concern, however, is the apparent expectation of Labour headquarters that the Euro-election campaign in England will be able to ‘piggy back’ on the party’s efforts for the local elections a month earlier.
In order to minimise its losses of council seats, Labour is adopting a version of the ‘key seats’ strategy that won it such a handsome Commons majority in May 1997. It is concentrating on retaining the support of affluent former-Tory voters in marginal seats and ignoring its core working-class support in safe seats.
The problem is that the Euro-elections will take place under PR – and every vote counts. Labour could do badly if it fails to mobilise its core support, particularly if, as expected, turnout is low.
Labour’s Euro-campaign is particularly poorly prepared in London, where there are no local elections this year. One reason is that the campaign in the capital has been made the responsibility of Pauline Green MEP, who plays a major role in the European Parliament as leader of the Party of European Socialists and is unwilling to delegate the campaign to anyone else.
Another reason is the preoccupation of the London Labour leadership with preventing Ken Livingstone becoming Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. In the words of a senior party figure, ‘Charles Square [the London Labour headquarters] is working full time on the “stop Ken” campaign. They’ve not even done the basics on the Euro-campaign. I’d not be at all surprised if we lose a seat we could have won to the Greens.’