BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 05.05.02

Film: EUROPEAN LEFT FILM. Paola Buonodonna reports on the swing to right wing parties in European elections. What are the lessons for the Labour Party in Britain?

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 too. 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 right-wing. 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 that argument. 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 faintly ridiculous. 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 voters. 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.