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Dr Lee Rotherham: Tony Blair, EPP exit and glass houses

Rotherhamlee_2Dr Lee Rotherham is a former adviser to three Shadow Foreign Secretaries, and co-author of the Bumper Book of Government Waste.  In this article he catalogues the backgrounds of certain unattractive members of the Party of European Socialists.  His conclusion:

"The reputations of Blair’s PES allies are much shakier than Cameron’s friends promise to be. Clearly there is enough muck to go round, and if the Conservative-led Eurosceptic alliance is now indeed formed in Brussels, New Labour would do well to keep out of any ditches."

The debate over Conservative membership of the EPP is now beginning to sound like a broken record. Even to raise it these days makes you seem like a bigger bore than the one in Geoffrey Robinson’s back garden.

And yet… and yet…

With the arrival of July, we are potentially but days away from the moment when policy will (finally) be set. We will clearly see set the deadline for leaving the EPP. The battle now, of course, is whether it will be marked for the near future, or for 2009. If the latter, it might as well be never at all.

The arguments for leaving remain unequivocal. Financially, structurally, ideologically, psephologically, campaign-wise, we will be better off. No need here to reiterate past arguments (but see this from Dan Hannan and this from me). Anyone still unsure can spend some time scooting around the quotes and the in-depth analyses to be found on to boot. Frankly, how often do you get whistleblowers telling political groups that they’re useless anyhow? We heard it when we looked into the track record of the EPP.

I’ve been involved on two occasions now of putting together a list of respectable parties we could link up with. I had no real ambition this time to repeat the experience, which was previously so ultimately frustrating and unrewarding for all concerned. After all, when you have  had two MEP leaders stood three feet away from a Shadow Foreign Secretary’s door and he changes his mind and cancels owing to a row in Shadow Cabinet, then you lose a lot of the incentive to repeat the exercise. The work’s been done; everyone knows what to expect; everyone knows what’s needed. What’s needed is simply the nod from the Conservatives. From past experience, and from recent conversations, the jigsaw has been laid out and all the pieces are there, ready to fall in place.  It requires a single public sentence from Cameron or Hague.

But what I am more than happy to write about is the sheer hypocrisy, the absolute blinding gall of those who point at specks of dust when there are motes in their own eyes.

To those of the Conservative MEPs who are compiling a list of reported failings with our putative allies, I say, Take Note. If you find yourself staying within the EPP on grounds of principle, then you will find the track records of your bestest and dearest friends, once their parties’ histories become better known in journalistic circles, five times harder to bear association with. And don’t think you can hide the Europe issue under a bushel, given that the next UK General Election and the next Euro-elections may well coincide.

Tony Blair, bless his cotton socks, and his whips have been having some fun with suggestions that future allies of the Conservatives will be a crew of fruitcakes. Guardian readers who knew no better could be forgiven for thinking that there are only ten Eurosceptics in Brussels, mostly called Igor. Some of them live in a haystack and complain about industrialisation, starting with the Newcomen Engine. Another crew wander around in Amish costumes and burn recalcitrant lollipop women on the Sabbath as witches. Another delegate wants the restoration of the thumbscrew for people who sneeze at cocktail parties. And there’s a pair of juggling dwarves who swing from trapezes, slung beneath a zeppelin that bombs Walloon villages in protest at the Schleswig-Holstein issue.

No. Sorry. Not good enough. Get your facts right, then get real. If you want true guilt by association, there’s plenty of mud to go round.

It’s a merry group in which New Labour find themselves. Of course, there are plenty of principled people in the PES (Party of European Socialists) who believe in the common weal and improving the human lot. But there are also parties and individuals who have a track record of corruption, venality, Warsaw Pact sycophancy, or plain lethal incompetence.

Let’s start with the Portuguese contingent. The Partido Socialista was founded in April 1973 in German exile, by the underground activists of Socialist Action. It’s first General Secretary was Mário Soares, who remained in post for over a decade, and became an enduring feature of the Portuguese political scene. His credentials were impeccable. While a student at University, Soares joined the Portuguese Communist Party, and became responsible for the youth section. An observer won’t hold this flirtation too much against him. After all, other politicians have also emerged from Marxist backgrounds, and yet then went on to become great figures of the political Right. Think of Jacques Chirac and Michael Portillo.

Our challenge comes instead from the question of competence. In the provisional government which was formed after the revolution, Soares became the minister responsible for negotiating the decolonisation package. Three-time premier, Soares presided over the granting of independence to the country's African colonies. As models for orderly transition of power and responsible decolonisation, the best you can say is that the process ranked above the Belgian Congo. The obsession with speedy evacuation from the ideological embarrassment of five hundred years of colonial history played no small part in the unfolding tragedy of Portugal’s African possessions, most notably Angola and Moçambique. The resulting power vacuum also played a key element in the tragedy of East Timor. Hardly a good role model for politically correct post-colonial New Labour to hang around.

Then there are the Czechs. The Czech Social Democratic Party is the country’s Social Democratic crew. The Czechs have a pretty good reputation for fairly sensible government, well adapted to Western European norms. And yet we note that the Social Democrats supplied Milo Zeman as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, and that his government was associated with a number of reported corruption scandals that remain unresolved today. I think I’ll let you Google that one.

Turning to the Slovaks, SMER-SD (which I don’t pretend to understand the abbreviation of) emerged from the Party of the Democratic Left, itself active in Slovakian politics from 1990 to 2004. It was social democratic, but founded out of the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS). The old KSS functioned as a regional affiliate of the Czech Communists, not as an independent political institution. So what we have is another PES affiliate with Warsaw Pact credentials. Just so we remember what those credentials are, let’s remember the examples of Jozef Lenárt and Milos Jakes. At the heart of government in the Prague Spring, they were years later accused of attending a meeting at the Soviet embassy in Prague on the day after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, planning to establish a new workers and farmers' government. This is the line of political heritage: while Alexander Dubcek was cleaning school corridors, these people remained running the country and running the Party.

Now let’s turn to the Hungarians. The Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt, MSZP) is the part-successor of the communist Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (or MSZMP), which ran Hungary between 1956 and 1989. Those links remain controversial, not least the fact that a number of the people involved were carried over. Take, for instance, the case of
Ferenc Gyurcsány, the incumbent Prime Minister. He is reported to have started out his political life in the KISZ, the Organisation of Young Communists. For four years he was said to have been vice president of the organisation's committee in Pécs, before moving on to become president of the universities and colleges’ central KISZ committee, ending up in 2002 as the chief advisor of Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy.

Here we pause to look at his MSZP boss. Between 1966 and 1982, Medgyssey had held various senior positions in the Ministry of Finance.  One newspaper, which we acknowledge is linked with an Hungarian opposition party, has claimed that Medgyessy had acted as a counterespionage officer in the Ministry for Internal Affairs prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Medgyessy appears to have admitted to this, stating that his role was in acting against the KGB and in the interests of an independent Hungary.

Back to Gyurcsány. One of the attacks made upon him by the Right is to question the provenance of his personal wealth, and in particular whether he was guilty of tax evasion. These, in fairness we observe, have been strenuously denied by the Prime Minister. His personal acumen has also been questioned in the diplomatic circuit, where is has been reported that he cracked a joke referring to the Saudi football team as terrorists, which caused a diplomatic rift for a while amongst the Ferrero Rocher community.

The Democrats of the Left (Democratici di Sinistra, DS) is the main Italian left-wing political party. It evolved from the PDS (Partito democratico della Sinistra), which in turn was the consequence of a rebranding of the Italian Communist Party. The socialist rose was once a hammer and sickle. On the plus side, at least they tend to fight corruption.

The Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party is a party with a convoluted history. The Central Committee of the old LSD is said to have come under Bolshevik control in 1915, but the Mensheviks re-established the LSDSP as a separate party in 1918. The LSDSP went into exile during the Soviet establishment. In the early 1990s, it faced serious internal splits. At one point, Latvia had three social democratic parties, two of them being descendants of LSDSP and the third being an offshoot of the former Communist Party. Eventually, all three parties merged. Scratch the surface deep enough, and you will see a troubled past.

And now we come to some of the more entertaining candidates. In Poland, the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD) was set up in 1999 with a large membership base formerly from the SdRP (Socjaldemokracja Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej - Social Democrats of the Republic of Poland). SdRP had been one of a group of socialist and social democratic parties that formed the Alliance of the Democratic Left as a left-wing coalition for the 1991 elections. Reports suggest that membership drew heavily from traditional Communist and United Workers Party base, which ruled Poland before 1989. The coalition is also rumoured to have received financial aid from Moscow.

One SLD leader was Józef Oleksy, who is reported to have been between a very longstanding member of the communist Polish United Workers' Party. As Prime Minister of Poland, he was forced to resign over alleged connections to the KGB. Another controversial key party figure and PM was Leszek Miller, who was named with others in the case of the “Moscow loan”, a complex and entertaining web of intrigue.

But there are also the friends who aren’t even in the European Parliament yet. Romania and Bulgaria, as applicants, send observers to Brussels, and the Socialist elements are cordially embraced in the PES. So who are they?

The Social Democratic Party of Romania (Partidul Social Democrat, PSD) is a major opposition grouping. This one will make your toes curl and your hair frizz.

In 1992, an internal power struggle within the National Salvation Front resulted in the less reformist group backing Ion Iliescu withdrawing from the FSN to found the Democratic National Salvation Front. In turn, this would become the PSD.

Adrian Nastase was the PSD candidate during the 2004 Presidentials. As with many other Romanian politicians, Nastase was a member of the Communist Party during Ceausescu’s time. Indeed, he is even said to have been a national delegate to international conferences on human rights. Critics of his claim that he published a number of pro-Communist articles in the national press and defended the Ceausescu record. (Just to recall here for a moment: this is a culture that brutalised minorities and bulldozed churches.)  He is also reportedly on record as a critic of Perestroika, has had claims of corruption levelled at him, and is said to have planned interfering with the judiciary and the free press, in order to suppress investigations into corruption. I pass over the bribery allegations involving his government.

Ion Iliescu himself is often at the receiving end of allegations made by political opponents. Aside from the claims of corruption by those around him, there is the ugly report of the Bucharest students incident. The FSN leadership were accused in 1990 of twice drawing in a mob of miners armed with clubs and pick handles to physically break up student demonstrations. A number of people are said to have been killed in an orgy of violence and destruction, and a number of political party offices, universities and museums are alleged to have been ransacked. Iliescu, at the close of his term of office, granted the miners’ leader a presidential pardon.

The other set of PES observers comes from a neighbour. The Bulgarian Socialist Party is a successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party. This, you may recall, is an institution synonymous with the words “poisoned umbrella”.

The current Bulgarian president, Georgi Parvanov, is said to have been a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party since 1981. Parvanov is somewhat tainted by the media coverage of the so-called "Gotse" file, which in his defence Parvanov claims merely traces his work as scientific consultant and editor on a history book, which he later learned involved the secret services of the communist regime. Critics, however, have suggested that only agents working with the secret services had files, and have highlighted a report that the premier has suggested burning all such files as an act of national reconciliation.

What on earth are we to make of all that? I do not doubt that expat readers of this blog, with a far greater insight into the workings of the political parties concerned, will be able to explain far better than I the complexities of many of these cases; can detail, and indeed rebut as the fallacies of political opponents, a number of these sketched reports.

That misses the point. The reputations of Blair’s PES allies are much shakier than Cameron’s friends promise to be. Clearly there is enough muck to go round, and if the Conservative-led Eurosceptic alliance is now indeed formed in Brussels, New Labour would do well to keep out of any ditches.

A word, then, to New Labour whips about Tony Blair’s corner in all this. To quote that great French philosopher Charles Péguy, “Il a les mains propres, mais il n’a pas de mains."

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