Winning Power: The Mid-Term Challenge
Speech by Edward McMillan-Scott MEP (Yorkshire and the Humber), Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth: 1 September 2001
WINNING POWER: THE MID-TERM CHALLENGE
The last four years have not been easy ones for the Conservative Party, north or south of the Border. The major bright spot was the European election of June 1999: we won decisively and our manifesto united the party.
In general elections, we have suffered two very serious defeats, at the hands of an electorate not especially impressed by our message, or so far our attack on the Labour government.
We need to ask ourselves some pretty difficult questions, and give honest answers to them.
Only if we do, can we reinvent ourselves as a serious and attractive Opposition, and then as a credible and successful alternative government.
In London, the whole focus is on a general election which could be four or five years away.
And obviously that is a critical contest, because it is our vehicle to regain power nationally.
But the mid-term contests coming sooner than that must be our Party's immediate challenge: doing well in 2003 or 2004 will make a big difference to whether we are in a realistic position to win the general election in 2005 or 2006.
After the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003, the next national poll will be the European Parliament election to be held in the spring of 2004.
We understand that, as well as the London Assembly election, Labour may also schedule the first elections to the House of Lords at the same time, as the Commission chaired by Lord Wakeham has proposed.
So in the spring of 2004, Tony Blair could hold a 'super Thursday' election: a defining moment in the life of the Labour government and the Conservative Opposition.
These mid-term elections will not only be the spring-board for our political recovery, they also matter in themselves.
Who governs Scotland, who controls the European Parliament, who represents the regions in the House of Lords: these choices will make a difference to the lives of millions of our citizens.
And the elections for our local authorities taking place throughout the period are beginning to matter as much to the voters: they often do not care much who makes the decisions; it is what they deliver that matters to them, and delivery is often very local.
The metropolitan media elite in London SW1 may not have registered the fact yet, but Britain today is a multi-layered, multi-national political system, of which the House of Commons is only a part, even if it is the most important part.
The mid-term challenge I am talking about is real politics; it is the battlefield on which we must prepare to fight.
If you look back on William Hague's time as Opposition leader, his greatest moment, I would argue, came two years ago, at the last European elections.
Against all expectations, confounding all the pundits and polls, we won more votes than Labour in a spirited campaign which offers a model of how to fight and win a mid-term contest.
As someone closely involved in that campaign, and in leading the group of elected politicians at the most difficult and sensitive coalface for our party - in Europe - I would like share with you some of the lessons.
They may help us win again - and this time, crucially, teach us how to use that mid-term victory more successfully than we did in 1999, as the catapult for regaining national power at Westminster.
First, we fought in 1999 as a united party in which candidates of different views on some European questions agreed to stand on a common platform. We saw loyalty to the party as more important than personal manifestos or posturing.
Second, we invested a huge amount of time and effort in putting together a manifesto which was practical and deliverable, and which addressed actual issues of concern to the voters.
We presented specific proposals on controlling fraud and waste, reform of the CAP and Common Fisheries Policy, developing the single market and improving consumers' rights, as well as promoting economic reform and the free trade agenda. These met real needs - and still do.
Third we found a language - doing less better; 'In Europe, not run by Europe'; smaller government and bigger citizens - which chimed with the mood of the nation on Europe.
We also talked about Europe, unlike the other parties, and treated our electorate to an intelligent discussion. In doing all this, we deliberately did not present ourselves as ideologues or theorists. "In Europe, not run by Europe" was a slogan, not a straight-jacket.
We assumed that most of the British people wanted to stay in Europe - and to make a success of our European involvement - but that most people did not want Brussels running their daily lives.
We did not position ourselves as an anti-European party, but as a reformist party, anxious to put Europe back on the right track, and ensure it did not slide into socialism. The policy positions we adopted were carefully-balanced and inclusive. They aimed to appeal to the widest range of views within our own party, and because that diversity reflects opinion in the country, to the bulk of the British people as well.
That strategy doubled our MEPs to 36, got us 36 per cent of the vote against Labour's 29 per cent and gave the party a leading edge over Labour in the very area which had lost us the 1997 general election: Europe.
After 1999, things did not go as well as we might have hoped. Whether on Europe or some domestic issues - be it drugs, the public services, asylum seekers - there was a hardening of policy content and of policy tone.
For whatever reason, we started to look less inclusive and more sectional, less of a party for all the people and more one of a particular political sect.
That was not a good strategic move. The result was that, despite widespread popular disillusion with New Labour this June, we failed to move public opinion our way.
In so many areas, we did not play to our strengths.
On Europe, to take the example I know best, we failed to point out our successes.
We forgot to say that we have won in Europe. We won the Cold War, on the one hand through our support for NATO, on the other through the economic strength and appeal of free market economics.
We defeated the protectionists and won the battle to make enlargement of the EU to the new democracies - which we nurtured - the number one priority for this generation.
We won the arguments over fairness in the EU budget; we won the arguments for a real Single Market and we won the case for a clean-up of the EU itself.
We could have said, in our manifesto, as I have been saying for years, that we would give Britain the best of Europe. Some continental health, education, transport and environment policies are better than ours. We lacked the courage to say so - until now.
Instead, the party rapidly moved beyond the 1999 Euro-manifesto and embraced a Euro-sceptic agenda.
Since the Euro-election there has been no speech by a front-bench spokesman explaining why Conservatives want to be "In Europe". Instead, their output has exclusively focussed on not being "run by Europe".
Our front-bench spokesmen pledged:
- to introduce reserve powers in UK law against European Court rulings,
- to veto any further transfers of power to the EU,
- to allow groups of other EU countries to develop policies on their own,
- to hold a referendum before any new EU treaties in the future,
- to draw defence arrangements agreed by Blair back under NATO,
- and to renegotiate the treaties on development policy, agriculture and fisheries.
Despite being a member of the Shadow Cabinet's Europe committee, I was only fully consulted on the first of these changes, something I regret.
Whatever their merits, nor did these initiatives benefit from much prior discussion. There was too much freelancing.
The policy of generalised renegotiation of our relationship with the EU was the core of William's 'foreign land' speech at Harrogate in March. It was a speech too far.
We had renounced use of the "R" word in the Euro-election as, to quote a Central Office policy chief then, a 'gift to Labour', because they would paint us as the quit Europe party.
Whoever wins the leadership needs to learn from this kind of experience. They must be true to their word that they want - as both have said so emphatically during the leadership campaign - as wide and inclusive a process of policy-making as possible.
Our experience in the European Parliament shows that, on the day-to-day questions, we can apply our Conservative judgment without rancour or division. We are the living proof that the manifesto which united us at the Euro-election has provided the guidance to make us the most disciplined and coherent national group in Strasbourg.
Of course there are EU questions which transcend the day to day issue-based decision-making process.
Perhaps the most important is membership of the single currency. Another is the development of a real EU defence policy which could replace or displace NATO, or the evolution of an EU system of justice which suspended habeas corpus and reversed the burden of proof, or the levy of an EU tax.
All have constitutional implications and all should be the subject - in my view - of referenda in this country. There will be Conservatives on either side of the argument: but there will also be socialists, liberals and nationalists on either side too.
Unlike Norway's ultra-conservative Progress Party - whose leader Carl Hagen told me had no policy on Europe "because we cannot agree" - the Conservative Party now has the chance, through the tolerance of whichever leader is elected, to stick with "In Europe, not run by Europe" as our watchword, and allow day-to-day judgment, not dogma, to determine our approach on individual issues.
My experience suggests that prior consultation and extensive discussion, working out the problems and pitfalls with policy proposals and getting genuine agreement where possible, pays off.
It's what I call 'joined-up Opposition'. I strongly recommend it.