PAOLA BUONADONNA: Tony Blair was swept to power
in nineteen-ninety-seven on the crest of a wave of centre-left triumphs,
now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Right-wing coalitions dominate
Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal. The left is under threat in France
and Germany too but the next electoral fight will take place in the Netherlands.
The people of Maastricht and voters throughout the Netherlands will be
going to the polls in ten days' time and the mood in the political circles
of the left is sombre. They share the shock felt in the rest of Europe
at what happened in France two weeks ago and they wonder if something similar
might not be in store for them. In a highly unusual move, Tony Blair is
planning to fly over here and campaign for his political allies, amidst
concerns inside Labour that a shift to the right in Europe might have an
impact on the party back in Britain.
JOHN EDMONDS: The lesson from Europe I
think is that vagueness doesn't work, that the left has to have distinctive
policies and to say 'we're a bit like the right but we manage quite well,
but that's our only difference' I'm afraid that's not enough to win elections.
It doesn't enthuse the electorate and it doesn't enthuse your own supporters.
PETER MANDELSON: Unquestionably those that have
lost in Europe have lost because they're not New Labour enough, they haven't
drawn the right lessons, applied the right ideas, they haven't been parties
prepared to modernise their social democratic thinking and look to the
future and address those issues, including those emotional issues the electorate
demand and as a result they've paid a huge electoral price.
BUONADONNA: The Dutch Labour party have
had a brutal wake-up call recently when the government led by Wim Kok had
to resign following blunders in Bosnia. Today in Maastricht, a new leader
will boost morale with speeches and entertainment. But don't panic - Tony
Blair remains a powerful ally, ready to share his victorious strategy with
his Dutch colleagues.
DICK BENSCHOP: It's very important, not
just an act of solidarity, to show that it matters for him as well which
course the Netherlands will take, which is important for Blair, British
government, Britain in terms of where Europe goes, but it's also important
to show that modernised social democracy of which I think both Labour Party
in Great Britain and my own Labour Party here in the Netherlands are two
prime examples, that they can withstand this challange, and even in those
changed circumstances, in this other climate.
BUONADONNA: And this is the challenge -
Pim Fortyun, a flamboyant right-wing populist, has already conquered Rotterdam
with his anti-crime, anti-immigration rhetoric. Now, this prosperous, traditionally
tolerant country could give him enough votes to put him in government,
a powerful threat to Labour who've been in power here since nineteen-ninety-four.
PYM FORTYUN (INTERPRETED): All I'm doing is making the problems
of a multi-cultural society open for discussion which is something that
left church, which is how we refer to the Dutch Labour Party in Holland
and the extreme left have been making impossible for decades now. And
the people are delighted that they are now able to discuss these things.
It is of course too absurd for words that such a taboo has existed for
so long in a democratic country with democratic leanings but if I have
understood correctly this same taboo still exists in the United Kingdom
BENSCHOP: Fortyun offers nostalgia,
going back to the fifties, when things were small, when there were no foreigners
but that's not the way forward for a modern society. My party, social democracy,
is offering a way forward for modern, strong and social Netherlands, and
that is the choice.
BUONADONNA: Labour are worried because
they have seen their left-wing colleagues in Europe fall victim to lethal
mix of apathy and mistrust. Many in the party blame this on the failure
of the centre-left in Europe to enthuse their voters with traditional left-wing
policies. But others argue that voters here in the Netherlands, as well
in France and in the rest of Europe are genuinely worried about crime,
immigration, asylum - the core issues of the right - and that it's vital
for the left to engage in this debate.
The new Dutch Labour leader Ad Melkert will have to figure out how to
neutralise Pim Fortyin on crime and immigration. In Britain Labour has
taken on these issues early on and now doesn't shy away from referring
to swamping immigrants and cutting benefits for truants.
MANDELSON: These are issues that have huge
emotional resonance with the voters and if the left doesn't address them,
then they're going to sever that, their connection with the voters on that
ground and open up and cede enormous amounts of political space to the
BUONADONNA: But in the long term, it's
very hard for left-wing leaders to upstage the right when it comes to its
basic themes and many in Britain feel uneasy about even trying.
CLAUDE MORAES: The concern with trying
to sate the appetite of the right, particularly the far right but also
the mainstream right in Europe is that you will never outdo them, we can't
out-tough the right on issues like asylum and crime. As soon as you go
down that road they will pick another issue. In France for example immigration
was the watchword, now crime is code for essentially black crime in places
like Paris and Marseille. So we need to ensure that we don't try and outdo
them but provide distinctive leadership on these issues from the centre-left.
BUONADONNA: After the speeches, it's time
for a little relaxation Dutch style. While there's no doubt New Labour
are good at spinning, some in Britain feel that New Labour policies are
actually responsible for the demise of the Left in Europe and it's time
Labour went back to its core issues.
EDMONDS: New Labour is dead. It's
a strange event because I'm not sure that all the supporters of New Labour
realise that they've got a corpse on their hands but you've got to redefine
now, re-invent the Labour government, and drawing the lessons from Europe
that means a much more positive agenda. Talking about society as a whole,
talking about the general good, public transport, public health, all of
those things that people value, means they've got to be paid for, and that
means an increase in taxes. Argue the thing strongly enough and we'll win
MANDELSON: New Labour must be doing something
right and the idea that we should look instead to experience on the European
continent, who have displayed an ambivalence in modernising in their social
democratic ideas, who haven't come terms with changes in the economy and
society sufficiently, who have not created sufficient connection, you know,
with the new electorate, and have paid a huge electoral price as a result,
that, that, the idea that we should take lessons from them strikes me as
BUONADONNA: As election day in the Netherlands
draws closer, the Dutch left have moved their campaign to Utrecht. Many
in the British Labour Party are worried that if a right-wing coalition
wins the day here and then in France and Germany they're going to find
themselves increasingly isolated in the EU. They also fear that the nature
of the EU agenda will change. Europe could become much more inward looking,
less concerned with civil and social rights and less keen to open up to
new members, robbing the Union of much of the appeal it has for left-wing
EDMONDS: The European Union will
only become more popular if the European Union is seen to deliver positive
things for people Britain. A social action programme, better social protection,
better information at work, better training, better protection against
unfair dismissal, all of that is positive which British people will support.
But of course if we have the right-wing agenda and if Tony Blair supports
it, then the European Union will just become more unpopular rather than
regain its popularity again.
BENSCHOP: I'm a bit afraid that
if not just the centre right but the extreme right or the populist right
in Europe gains, carries the day, gets influence on governments, that there
will be a new type, a new atmosphere in Europe going around, of not working
together, being interested in your own national interest and not caring
for the whole of Europe any more, and if that would be the case that would
be very detrimental.
BUONADONNA: Utrecht seems far removed from
the dramas of international politics but the Dutch government is a key
ally for Britain on the issue of economic reforms. Today visiting party
leaders will repeat their mantra of flexibility combined with public services.
But other centre-left colleagues in Europe have dragged their feet. Some
say Tony Blair might find it easier to complete his liberalising agenda
in a Europe dominated by the right.
SIMON MURPHY: The Prime Minister has been
very clear that he regards as a very important priority reforming Europe's
economy so that we can actually create more job opportunities. And I think
there has been a perception, perhaps based in some reality in the past,
that some of the centre-left governments haven't been as enthusiastic about
delivering through on the reforms necessary to achieve that aim. Whereas
it may well be the case, and we'll have to see over a period of months
and years now, whether those new centre right governments actually do want
to deliver that more speedily and in a more effective way.
JACQUES RELAND: The economic agenda which
Tony Blair wants to see implemented in Europe will be much easier to achieve
with Europe dominated by right-wing governments. Now that Europe has no
longer a country like France blocking some of this agenda and that Shroeder
is in a difficult position at this stage, Tony Blair can easily lead the
way towards a more flexible deregulated market oriented Europe.
BUONADONNA: The alliance between the British
and Dutch Labour parties is based on similar views of social democracy,
down to the use of the pledge card. But Labour MPs and MEPs are becoming
impatient about the increasingly strong links with right-wing leaders such
as Aznar in Spain and Berlusconi in Italy and fear that things can only
get worse if the right wins elsewhere.
MORAES: There will be a real problem
of perception here, on the one hand Tony Blair has to be at the heart of
Europe, that means he has to work with leaders like Aznar and Berlusconi;
however, we mustn't cross the line and be seen to be buying into their
agenda necessarily but keep a distinctive centre-left agenda and that's
something that has to happen as the pendulum swings to the right and we
may see more right-wing leaders in the European Union, it's important to
keep our distinctive approach on the centre-left.
MANDELSON: Now, Tony Blair has been criticised
for striking up a partnership in alliance with Aznar of Spain or Berlusconi
of Italy and no doubt there will be criticisms elsewhere, but he has to
work with, you know, who is there and not with who he ideally, you know,
would like to be there and he has to form a coalition, a strong body of
support amongst heads of government for the policies and the direction
which Britain believes the European Union should go in and that's what
he's doing reasonably successfully.
BUONADONNA: Many in the Labour party are
greatly concerned about developments in Europe. Tony Blair may feel less
vulnerable to a swing to the right and be willing to work with continental
right-wing leaders but if this is seen to dilute what Labour stands for,
he might find himself fighting a battle on the home front.