Despite ideological alignments, Labour has a long way to go before it is trusted by Gibraltarian voters

How will Gibraltar swing in the next MEP elections?

Photograph: Getty Images

Gibraltar won their right to vote in European Elections in 1999, and has since participated in two MEP elections (in 2004 and 2009) as a member of the South West England constituency. It has both times sided with the Conservatives. Dominique Searle, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, recalls why a backroom deal with Tony Blair might be the reason, and predicts where the parties will stand in the forthcoming MEP elections.

MEP election year, 2009

It was the bright blue spring of 2009 when a delegation from the British Conservative opposition party poured into Gibraltar with sweet words for the 18,000-strong electorate.

From the then shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague to Eric Pickles and Michael Ancram, there was a definite sense that the Conservative Party saw mileage - not only in trying to win local votes for the forthcoming European Parliament election, but in giving meaning to the vote back in Britain where it would be seen that loyalty to the Rock was part of embracing Europe, the Tory way.

The path to this significant display of wooing had been rugged, punctuated by several notable events.

First among these was Matthews v the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruling which found that, by failing to organise elections in Gibraltar for the European Parliament, the United Kingdom was in breach of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950. Until that point Gibraltarians had been disenfranchised, unable to take part in MEP elections. This long-fought right was earned just a year after the Conservative Lord Nicholas Bethell had been defeated by Labour in a bid to give Gibraltarians the vote.

Add to this picture that in 2001, following a ploy between Tony Blair and Spanish Prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, Peter Hain  - then Labour's Europe Minister - was tasked with developing a joint sovereignty deal by which Gibraltarians were to be faced with a fait accomplis plan over their future. In 2002 a referendum was held, in which 98 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to remain British. The sell-out deal eventually unravelled.

 

A politicised history

After three centuries of siege and political bludgeoning, Gibraltarians are a highly politicised population, a community genetically geared to battening hatches under siege and partying in moments of respite.

General elections on the Rock normally attract 80 per cent of the electorate, with referenda heading to 90 per cent. Our first European Parliament election in 2004 saw a 60 per cent turnout, which came close to double the UK norm. So, how would Gibraltar vote in 2009?

Despite clear support from Gibraltar's then opposition party, the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) who returned to power in 2011, Labour received just over a third of the Gibraltar Euro vote in that election, with a majority enjoyed by the Conservatives. Many saw this as a punishment for the joint sovereignty deal.

But was it that deal alone which created disillusion with Labour? Other political choices have had a part to play too.

Ahead of the first 2004 election, the constituency of South West England was expanded to include the territory, a choice which felt like Westminster’s fudge on Gibraltar’s legally enforced right to vote for an MEP. True, there are shared naval traditions and they have the nearest matching weather, yet is seems improbable that any part of the UK could really conceive the immediate electoral interests of the people of Gibraltar, hemmed between North Africa and a Spanish state.

This disconnect of distance often results in misunderstandings. For instance, our local press is flooded with missives from a bizarre array of political figures and right wing parties suddenly inclined to juggle the concerns of Devon farmers with skirmishes with Spain. Much of it, no doubt, is done with good intention. But how does the centre-left leaning Gibraltar populace deal with overtures from the BNP?  And does UKIP really comprehend that an opt-out of Europe by the UK would be a political and economic disaster for Gibraltar?

 

This year’s elections

In practice, if there is unity on an issue on the Rock then its political leaders can deliver a block vote. Translated to a European election in 2014 - with a 20,000 electorate registered, amounting to some 16,000 votes - in a marginal UK constituency this could be a game changer for the favoured party.

Today’s Gibraltarian’s have their own concerns. Whilst the practical difficulties of living with a neighbour like Spain are largely unaffected by  Britain’s diplomacy, it is true that David Cameron has been holding Britain’s ground on the Gibraltar issue, saying many of the things Gibraltarians want to hear. After his unprecedented appearance at Gibraltar’s National Day public rally on 10 September 2013, David Cameron and his Conservatives would seem well placed to hold their lead from 2009.

The Labour team has found itself saying the right things recently too, though in a rather quieter voice. It has ideological alignments with the current GSLP/Liberal Gibraltar Government, which is steeped in socialist and trade union tradition albeit with large seams, it should be added, of Third Way styled politicians. Despite this, the Labour party really has a long way to go before it is trusted by Gibraltarian voters.

As for the Liberal Democrats, MEP Sir Graham Watson is among a team of MEPs from across the British political spectrum who have long and loyally batted for Gibraltar in Brussels and Luxembourg, where we would otherwise be abandoned. This is why the Liberal vote almost matched Labour’s at the 2009 vote.

Those who cast their vote this May might well be doing so as much to assert that it was a hard-won right as to send a muted signal to the UK political parties about how we judge their loyalty and performance.

 

The next step - an MEP of our own? 

In the end however, the fault for the pantomime that plays on our rocky stage is entirely our own. Having won the right to vote for an MEP, and therefore the right for local citizens to stand as one, Gibraltar should not have succumbed to aligning ourselves as a quirky addition to one of an already Euro-cynical collection of constituencies where we can have no real impact in relation to our own concerns and objectives. I believe we should have continued the fight for at least one MEP of our own in a Gibraltar constituency. 

So why the surrender? The answer is probably the political vanity of successive Gibraltar Chief Ministers. A Chief Minister on the Rock is a powerful individual, whether autocratic or collegiate in approach - the sort that the Spaniards would call el que corta el bacalao - "he who cuts and therefore distributes the saltfish". In a small place, that also means having to journey a continuous labyrinth of mostly unreasonable and undeliverable personal expectations.

The significance of a CM’s job derives not from that largely municipal role, but from their ability and necessity to manage relations with both Britain and Spain. The kudos for a CM who can handle the longstanding complexities of negotiating our British and Spanish relationships is huge.

Imagine, then, the rival a standing Gibraltar MEP would present - an international platform but none of the headaches of day to day management of the Rock. It is perhaps a competition that the CM, as captain of this challenging ship, neither needs nor desires.

No doubt Spain would object to us having our own man in Brussels...so what’s new? We have already ruled out their offer to vote for a Cadiz MEP, rather than to vote with South West England.

It is arguable that the success of Gibraltar and the motor for its high achievement has been thanks to, and not despite, the tensions that derive from the complex UK – Spain –Gibraltar trio.

That is why a few ugly queues at the border, imposed as they are now by Spain, will never solve anything.

The only path to resolution and normality in this region is tripartite dialogue between UK- Gibraltar and Spain.

Dominique Searle MBE is a journalist and editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle

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