Friday, 27 October 2000

A MOST UNPLEASANT WHIFF

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 October 2000

Like most other political journalists, over the past month I’ve spent rather more time than is healthy immersed in books that might be described as the continuation of internal Labour politics by other means – first Andrew Rawnsley’s chilling Servants of the People, then Julia Langdon’s somewhat disappointing life of Mo Mowlam, and now Geoffrey Robinson’s The Unconventional Minister.

Of the three, Robinson’s is the least revealing in conventional journalistic terms. The Daily Mail spent a lot of dosh on the serialisation rights, and it cannot be very pleased with what it got: the former Paymaster General’s account of how he came to lend Peter Mandelson the cash for his Notting Hill pad; a few snippets adding telling detail to what we already knew about the late-1997 crisis over Government policy on the euro; and, well, that’s about it apart from a lot of self-serving drivel. “My business dealings were never dodgy, I never tried to buy influence and it’s not fair that they’ve ditched me” pretty well sums it up.

But it would be a mistake simply to dismiss the book as a damp squib, showing at most that Robinson is a political ing√©nue and a Quixotic axe-grinder. Robinson’s memoirs might be short of hot poop, but the stench of ordure that hangs about them is so nauseating that it cannot be ignored.

Here, for the first time, we have a key New Labour player blowing the gaffe on the record about the internal workings of the Government. (The inverted commas are entirely appropriate, for there is nothing new about Robinson, an old Labour Eurosceptic Right-wing tribalist, apart from his money.) The Unconventional Minister confirms what we all knew but had hitherto been relayed only via unattributable briefings: that Labour’s upper echelons are dominated by competing cabals characterised by petty vindictiveness and personal hatreds. Robinson’s authentication of the viciousness at the top of New Labour – particularly when it comes to Europe policy – is invaluable.

And Robinson was a key player. He not only provided Mandelson with a lifestyle appropriate to his station and bankrolled the private offices of Gordon Brown (directly) and Tony Blair (indirectly, or so it seems). He also “delivered” the New Statesman to New Labour in 1996 by stepping in to buy it at the request of Brown and Blair, appointing their chosen candidate as editor and then pouring millions in to subsidise its losses. And for a couple of years his largesse supported a New Labour salon. In 1996-98, if you weren’t part of the Grosvenor Hotel set, you weren’t anyone. In 1997-98, during his brief spell as Paymaster General, Robinson was a senior member of Brown’s Treasury team with responsibility for a crucial area of policy, the private finance initiative.

Now, Robinson is not my favourite politician. I had dealings with him briefly after he bought the Statesman, when he reluctantly made me acting editor for a few weeks following the resignation of Steve Platt, whose deputy I’d been. I found the new proprietor rude, patronising and deeply unattractive politically: in fact, everything about him, right down to his pungent aftershave, gave me the creeps. It was a relief when the magazine’s new editor, Ian Hargreaves, unceremoniously fired me. And I must admit that, when I heard about the resignation of Robinson and Mandelson from the government in 1998, I ordered champagne (which was easy, because I was in a Soho restaurant at Tribune’s Christmas lunch).

But it’s not hard to see why Robinson still feels peeved at the way he was treated by New Labour. His reward for all those favours, all that disinterested generosity, was to be dumped without so much as a “thank you” – while Mandelson, whose failure to declare the house loan was a real scandal, returned to the Cabinet after a few months in the wilderness.

My hunch is that Robinson’s attempted revenge is unlikely to have much immediate effect beyond turning the stomachs of many of his readers: he certainly has not made Mandelson’s position untenable and – god forbid – might even have made a few people feel sorry for him. In the longer term, however, some good might come of his self-pitying tale. If nothing else, it should at least deter other plutocrats from flashing their wads around the Labour Party.

Friday, 13 October 2000

DAYS OF HOPE, HAZE OF DOPE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 October 2000

Tony Blair’s speech in Warsaw last Friday on the future of the European Union was supposed to provide him with a golden opportunity to display his statesmanship after a week of Tory amateurism in Bournemouth.

As it happened, however, events intervened to blow him off the front pages - and what events! First, Slobodan Milosevic met his well deserved end in Belgrade. And then the Tories imploded after several Opposition frontbenchers admitted past membership of the Camberwell Carrot Tendency.

Of the latter, more anon. But the failure of Blair's Warsaw speech to make a splash was a pity, not because it was brilliant – it was not – but because the issues he raised deserve discussion.

As regular readers of this column will know, I have been underwhelmed by this Government's performance on European policy. Everything started well enough in 1997, when Blair and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, made it clear that Labour in office would end the Tory policy of obstructionism on Europe. But from there it was downhill all the way. The Government failed to seize the opportunity in late 1997 of holding a referendum on British participation in the single European currency, and ever since has appeared increasingly uncertain on the issue, despite the best efforts of Cook, Stephen Byers and – ahem, but praise where praise is due – Peter Mandelson.

Just as important, even though the EU's institutions were going through an ever more apparent crisis of democratic legitimacy, and even though imminent expansion of the union made radical reform of its structures imperative, the Government failed to make any coherent statement of its vision of the future of Europe.

Warsaw was Blair's chance belatedly to put that right – and he fluffed it. He showed that he recognised the EU's biggest problems, which are the lack of transparency and democratic accountability in its decision-making procedures and the concomitant absence of a strong sense among the EU's citizens that Europe is theirs. But his proposed solutions were – are – way off the mark.

At their core is a retreat from supranational institutions into intergovernmentalism as a way of coping with enlargement. Essentially, he wants a bigger role for the Council of Ministers, a reduction in the responsibilities of the European Commission and a new second chamber for the European Parliament, drawn from the membership of national parliaments, to keep the existing directly elected chamber of the European Parliament in check.

The problem with this is simple: the root of the EU's crisis of democratic legitimacy is precisely the intergovernmentalism that Blair wants to enhance. The least democratically accountable institution in the triumvirate of Council, Commission and Parliament is on the face of it the Commission, which is wholly appointed and supposedly supranational. But the crucial thing about it is that it is composed of the placemen and placewomen appointed by national governments, which have deliberately refused to enhance its democratic credentials lest it prevent them from carving up all the business of the EU in the closed sessions of the Council – where the real power lies.

The only EU institution directly answerable to the citizens of Europe is the Parliament. And although it has asserted its authority against the Commission and the Council it has been consistently held back by national governments fearful of a democratic challenge to their right to rule the roost with their secret deals.

Far from requiring a check in the form of a second chamber along the lines suggested by Blair, the Parliament needs to be set free to become the tribune of the European citizenry, with powers to elect the Commission as a Cabinet and to legislate in those areas assigned to it by a future federalist democratic European constitution.

To give it such powers would be to create a truly European democratic polity – and people would soon recognise that it mattered rather a lot. As with local government, the way to respond to popular disenchantment with supposedly democratic institutions that in fact have very few powers is not to decrease those powers but to increase them and the democracy. Blair's scheme gets it completely arse about face.

+++

Back, though, to our dopey Tories. Who would have believed it? David Willetts as a one-time Furry Freak Brother. Lord Strathclyde as Cheech – or was it Chong? – coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys . . . Is that how you spell it? Sorry, my mind was wandering . . . Well, I've shared a fair few spliffs with sitting Labour MPs and have friends who have done the same with another couple of dozen, including Cabinet ministers. I have no intention of joining the Mirror's shameful campaign to out senior Labour tokers – but unless they cough up some bread for Tribune's new appeal for funds, and do it soon, it might be time for a few signed affidavits. We know who you are. A mere £100 guarantees anonymity. You think I'm joking?