Ken Coates has sent this letter to all the members of his European Constituency Labour Party, North Nottinghamshire and Chesterfield. It provoked a row which has led to his expulsion from the European Parliamentary Labour Party and probably from the Labour Party.
Dear Colleague: — During 1998 there will be a great deal of activity to prepare for the European elections in June 1999. I am writing to you because I think it is proper to inform all our members so that they are the first to know of some of the difficult choices we are being offered.
Without any consultation on the practicalities, the Government is introducing a new European electoral system which will be very undemocratic indeed. What will happen in 1999 is that people will go to the polls to vote, not for an individual candidate, but for a Party list to represent a massive region. In our case this will stretch from Northampton up to the Sheffield boundaries, and appoint six Members. Voters won’t be able to decide the order in which the candidates on the closed Party lists go forward. If normal numbers vote Labour in the East Midlands, the top two people on the Labour list may win seats. But who these people are will have been decided by a combination of Party leaders rather than by the electorate itself. Nor will electors be allowed to pick and mix between Party lists.
Unfortunately, this is not the only harmful change which we have had to deal with during the last few months. The Government has also decided that it will “reform” the welfare state, by reviewing the benefits of disabled people, cutting the benefits of single parents, abolishing student grants, imposing fees and ending grants for higher education, and refusing to upgrade pensions to relate them to rises in average earnings. All these measures hit poor people, to reduce the costs of welfare.
These welfare “reforms” could also lead to different kinds of charges within the Health Service, and have already provoked a great deal of disquiet in the schools, where teachers have been subject to very severe authoritarian pressures.
When I was re-elected in 1994, it was on an election manifesto drafted by the late John Smith, promising specific action in Europe to recreate full employment. I was enthusiastically in favour of this agenda, and indeed I had made a contribution to the drafting of the proposals which the manifesto included. During all the time since, I have worked very hard to try to implement those promises. Together with local Councils and voluntary bodies, I have ceaselessly campaigned for job creation in the Constituency. I have introduced two major Employment Reports in the Parliament which have been carried by very large majorities. I have initiated a prolonged dialogue between the European Churches on the problems of full employment. I have published several books, all on the same theme. And I have initiated the European Convention for Full Employment, which brought together nearly one thousand people from all over Europe to discuss how to implement the agenda of full employment. In short, I had no difficulty with the manifesto of 1994, and could, in good conscience, sign up to act upon it.
But I cannot sign up to support what we are now being offered: an agenda of cuts in the welfare state, penalties for poor people, and gross maldistribution of wealth throughout society. It is true that the Labour leadership changed its philosophy and policy after I was elected in 1994. But it could not change the historical fact that my contract with the electorate, the 1994 Manifesto, had been determined back in the days of John Smith.
But now the future 1999 contract to be proposed to the electorate will defend policies of which I am heartily ashamed. I cannot therefore offer myself for selection on the New Labour panel of candidates for the European Parliament. I have thought deeply about this, and at first I wondered whether it might be right to retire from parliamentary politics.
But for sure, there is a mass of unfinished work to do, for recovery of economic life in the coalfield, for defence of employment in coalmines, factories and offices, and for the recovery of an environment which has been badly damaged by a century and more of industrial greed.
That is why, given these present circumstances, I think I ought to consult all our members about what to do next. Is there an alternative course of action? I sense that members of our Party are in despair about some of the problems which I have mentioned in this letter. Surely there is something we can do about the fact that the Labour Party has been led so far away from the principles which drew us all to join it? None of us wants to found a new Party, but many of us think we need to reclaim our own party, with all its present mix of supporters and of different opinions. I want the Labour Party to come home to its own people. I want everybody to stay inside it and argue for the principles in which we all believe. We all need each other more than ever now that we face this crisis.
The question is, how can we register a protest about all these adverse decisions which are coming down from London? In the European elections, should we consider protest candidates to enable Labour voters to express their support for democratic elections, for the welfare state, for full employment, and for the redistribution of wealth? Might this help to persuade Labour to come home to its own people?
I am sharing this problem with you,. in the earnest hope that you will give me your frank advice about it. My feeling is that if we do not make a protest, many hundreds of our members will be so disillusioned that they will leave active political life, and our movement will be deeply damaged. Already we are suffering serious losses of membership. Might such a protest candidature give hope to people, and encourage them to stay and defend the things that they believe in? And could it give hope to other people outside our district, to register that Labour ideals are still alive, and that there are very many people who wish to defend them?
What do you think?
• Abridged slightly