All the excuses cannot disguise this anti-European majority
It was not simply a matter of who was there to tell the story; it was more the absence of a story to tell
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Tuesday 15 June 1999
Take all those parties that are opposed to the single currency - from the Conservatives to Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party - and you get a total of about 52 per cent of the vote.
Of course the turn-out was dismally low. Of course, the outcome would probably have been different if it had been higher. This under-acknowledged psephological fact is nevertheless worth mentioning, if only because it underlines how brutally the pro-Europeans have been deprived of what they could naturally have expected to be their best defence against the Tories' jubilant extrapolation that the outcome of the European elections was a vote against British membership of the single currency. Ah yes, they would have said, the Tories, not to mention the UK Independence Party, have done worryingly well.
And, yes, we know that the national opinion polls are showing a hefty majority against the single currency - at present. Even among those who bothered to turn out to vote, however, the explanation would have continued, the two pro-European parties still handsomely overtook the Conservatives and their even more Europhobic soulmates the United Kingdom Independence Party. So, the spin would have triumphantly concluded, those who are enthusiastic about the single currency, or undecided - or at least not so concerned that it would persuade them to desert their party of first choice - remain in a majority.
The fact that this didn't happen - and nobody, whatever they may say now, expected it not to happen - and that this defence is therefore unavailable is one of the real shocks in last night's results. It will help to embolden Mr Hague to give us a lot more of the same. And it will give Mr Blair a lot to think about.
Some of the pleas of mitigation are more convincing than others. Some Labour MPs are clutching, preposterously, at the idea that proportional representation ditched them. If Labour would have done (slightly) better under the first-past-the-post system, then this is an argument that has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with exploiting the weaknesses of the present system. And if, as seems likely, Labour might have done even worse, it doesn't work even on that level. And if supporters complained about voting for parties rather than candidates, then that is a (perfectly valid) case against closed lists, but not against PR itself.
Then there is the question of whether Labour was seen as forsaking its core supporters on matters of domestic policy. This is certainly worth considering; the differentially higher turnout in Tory areas than in Labour ones is striking. One of the best things about PR is that Labour cannot afford to take for granted its support in safe Labour areas. Mr Peter Hain may have a point when he says the Government is too reluctant to boast of the redistribution it has carried out for fear of the reaction in Daily Mail-land. But to go further and say it needs to change economic direction is another matter; between 1974 and 1976 the Wilson government launched its biggest-ever spending spree, only to be confronted with huge mid-term and by-election and council losses.
Finally there is the real issue of the campaign, New Labour's worst yet. True, certainly, that a timid Labour campaign would have benefited from the strategic hand of a Peter Mandelson at the tiller. Gordon Brown, the victor of Scotland and the best electoral strategist in the Cabinet, was not much engaged. Nor, for that matter, was Downing Street.
When Mr Blair yesterday went politely close to implying that a greater problem than the mechanics of the campaign was his own absence from the fray because of Kosovo, he was almost certainly right. But it was not simply a matter of who was there to tell the story. It was more the absence of a story to tell. Labour did not give the electors a reason for voting for it. And the Tories did. The issue, and the one that Mr Blair will now have to think about, was Europe.
On the most radioactive aspect of this, the euro, Mr Blair's chronic dilemma is between jeopardising his own electoral strength by pursuing a - currently - unpopular cause, and using that very strength to make it more popular. Decisions have yet to be taken, and the euro's own future is uncertain, but for the moment, William Hague's newfound momentum makes it less rather than more likely that Mr Blair, rather than, say, Mr Brown, will launch the embryonic pro-euro campaign next month. And just a shade more likely that Labour will go into the next election doggedly sticking to its current "we back it in principle if and when it is in the national interest" posture, thus pushing a decision on EMU well into the next parliament at the earliest.
But this will not be enough on its own. The danger is precisely that Mr Hague will continue to seize the initiative, as he has in the last few weeks. Yet Mr Blair has both an opportunity and a model, if he chooses to take it. The opportunity, as the Prime Minister has already realised, is that the logic of Mr Hague's stubborn belief in renegotiating the terms of membership does indeed point to withdrawal if renegotiation fails - as it certainly will. The model is Scotland, where, after trailing behind the SNP, Labour won back the intellectual argument, not least by exposing the long-term logical outcome of the nationalists' position - namely independence. It urgently needs to try the same approach on Europe.
To do that, however, Mr Blair has to make more than the purely negative case he has made so far. He has to show what the rewards are for success in his winning his battle for the reform of the EU institutions, not to mention its economic policy. He has to remind the electors that the presence of German troops in the peacekeeping forces in Kosovo is indicative of a new and welcome cohesion in European foreign policy, of which he himself has been a principal architect. And, whether the Eurosceptic press like it or not, he will have at the very least to start reminding the electors of the real benefits - direct and economic - of joining a successful euro.
Mr Hague may yet turn out to have drawn the wrong conclusion from his signal victory - namely that the silent majority who abstained on Thursday are as hostile to Europe as those who voted.
But his conclusion will be proved wrong only if Labour fights more convincingly than it has done over the past few weeks.
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