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British Parties Seek Referendum on Major


WHILE the opening shots in Britain's campaign for June 9 elections to the European Parliament were delayed by the untimely death of Labour Party leader John Smith, the campaign has already proven as lively as it will be brief. The battle for the 84 British seats is being waged on two fronts.

Prime Minister John Major, personally unpopular and heading a party deeply split on Britain's membership in the European Union (EU), is trying to persuade voters that his ruling Conservative Party is the true defender of British national interests in Europe.

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His opponents in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties want voters to regard the election as a referendum on Mr. Major himself and on his Conservative Party's record of governing during 15 years in power. They also say that Conservative policies have failed to advance Britain's European interests and have kept the country's wages low.

The election, Major insists, is ``not some trivial opinion poll'' about himself. The Conservatives will oppose ``attempts to create a European super-state'' and to ``dilute our national identity.''

Margaret Beckett, the acting Labour Party leader, insists the vote is about ``Major's inadequacy,'' ``the highest tax increases in British history,'' and ``the government's failure, time after time, to fight successfully for Britain's interests in Europe.''

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, has unveiled the most directly pro-Europe election manifesto, but in a recent news conference said that voters had ``a chance to pass a national vote of no confidence in John Major.''

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives are likely to lose as many as 20 of the 32 seats they currently hold in the European Parliament. The party did poorly in the April British local elections. Many voters insisted the main issue was Major's weakness as a leader and his government's high tax policies.

The Conservative Party's election manifesto betrayed a key problem: Major and Douglas Hurd, his foreign secretary, are committed to the EU, but three or four Cabinet members and about 40 Conservative members of Parliament call themselves ``Euro-skeptics.'' So instead of advocating European unity, Major has had to try to unite his own party around national interests.

The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, claim to be in favor of European unity and the Maastricht Treaty's ``social chapter,'' which safeguards workers' rights. One of Major's proudest boasts is that he secured an opt-out from the social chapter, making it possible for British companies to offer employees lower wages than in many EU countries.

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Most analysts say that although the poll ostensibly will be about European issues, Major's poor standing in opinion polls and unpopular economic policies make it inevitable that many voters will let domestic issues determine their choice. Peter Riddell, a leading commentator, summed up the situation: ``The outcome will be determined less by differences over Europe than by the electorate's verdict on the government's domestic record.''

Smith's death has jolted Labour Party confidence, and a contest within the party to replace him is heating up. But Major seems unlikely to be able to exploit policy differences among his Labour Party opponents. The two leading contenders for the leadership - Tony Blair, the home affairs spokesman, and Gordon Brown, shadow chancellor of the exchequer - are both solidly pro-European Union.

Mr. Ashdown's advisers are hoping that voters hostile to the Conservatives and unimpressed by the Labour Party will cast ballots for the Liberal Democrats, who currently hold no seats in the European Parliament.

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