Tuesday, June 22, 2004
European Constitution held hostage

Perhaps it is not too surprising that the twin pressures of public sector reform and victory in a referendum on a European Constitution will prove mutually exclusive. The recent electoral results for New Labour paradoxically demonstrated its strength and its weakness. With the overrepresentation of Labour constituencies, the Conservatives could obtain a far larger share of the vote and still lose the election. (I'd like to see Labour spin its web on that one!) Therefore, Labour's strength is that it is guaranteed victory at the next election, unless a catastrophe intervenes. Its weakness is that the party will lose the referendum on Europe, unless it marshalls all of its allies on a pro-European campaign.

The unions are aware that Blair has invested the government's prestige in the referendum campaign. Before they contribute time or money, they will demand a quid pro quo from the government. The present sounds from Amicus appear to indicate that their demands will include further concessions in labour relations and a watering down or reversal of the milkwater that is often presented as public sector reform:

But Amicus, which has 1.2 million members and gave £500,000 to Labour last year, said it still harbours grave doubts about Mr Blair’s plans and is worried by the tone of his plans for public sector reform.

"It will be very difficult for any trade union leader to persuade their members to be voting, or campaign for the constitution if it only creates a businessman’s Europe and not a working man’s Europe," said Derek Simpson, its general secretary.

"The government has got to make clear that it’s fully supporting the European social agenda and intending to give British workers the same advantages they have elsewhere in Europe."

He added that three other unions - the TGWU and the GMB - will follow his line. "It says everything that the only person to come out in favour of this constitution so far is Digby Jones at the CBI," he said.

Blair has already conceded that "when considering whether a strike is illegal, the European Court of Justice needs to give only "due regard" to national laws." The first of the 'redlines' has fallen in less than a week, demonstrating that the Prime Minister himself misunderstood or wilfully ignored the consequences of the negotiations.

This will provide further succour to the Eurosceptics who are coalescing in "Labour against a Superstate", uniting the traditional left such as Diane Abbott and Dennis Skinner with moderates like Frank Field and Kate Hoey from the centre-left who defend the supremacy of Parliament. This group faces an uphill struggle to gain support as other sympathetic MPs are unwilling to give voice to concerns that could undermine their ministerial hopes. The greatest obstacle facing the development of Labour Euroscepticism is government patronage.

(23.03, 22nd June 2004)


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