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  1. Newstatesman Gibraltar
1 December 2015

Labour on the Rock

The result of the Gibraltar election could hardly have been more decisive, says Guy Clapperton – so what’s going to happen next?

By Guy Clapperton

In the end it wasn’t even close. The parties had postured against each other, the clashes over a number of issues came and went and the public voted overwhelmingly for the alliance between Socialist Labour and the Liberals, led by Socialist Labour leader and (still) Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Picardo announced plans for the election on 19 October during a speech for the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation. It was fully expected as the rules state a government has four years in power and must then dissolve Parliament for an election. There are 17 seats in total and the winning party must therefore hold nine of them. In this instance, the winners won ten as distinct from the Social Democrats’ seven. In terms of sheer numbers it looks like a little more of a wipeout, with 68.52% of the popular vote going to Picardo’s team, a swing of some 19.65%. This was roughly in line with a GBC poll published in November, which predicted a 67% majority.

The first lesson to learn for politicians and pollsters outside Gibraltar, and particularly in the UK, is that we could do with some of those pollsters. Predictions about the last UK general election in May were wildly wrong; whatever the Gib counterparts are having, we’ll take some of that! Obviously it’s easier to keep tabs on a population of 30,000 than one over 6m, but it’s an impressive outcome nonetheless.

Other notable elements to outsiders include the fact that the name of the winning party doesn’t necessarily mean automatically close ties with other Labour Parties throughout the world, and specifically in the UK. The current iteration of the Labour Party in Britain has made positive noises about Gibraltar, but in the early 2000s it was a different story. In the early 2000s, the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair were reportedly keen to do some sort of deal with the Spanish government on the sovereignty of the Rock – this account in the Independent suggests that Blair may have been actively opposed to the Gibraltarian view. Recent visits to the Rock by the New Statesman suggest that the hostile view of Labour at the time (including jeering of Straw by some residents) has left a residual wariness while visits from former foreign secretary William Hague were welcomed. This should hopefully have been allayed by more recent pronouncements from Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn.

However, the future may make the similarly-named parties uneasy with each other again. Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to an in/out referendum on Europe by the end of 2017, with many commentators predicting that it will happen in 2016. This might now be contingent on the outcome and consequences of this week’s vote on Syrian intervention but the intention is clear; there will be a decision. Cameron is believed to be pro-Europe but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been more equivocal, preferring to hold his counsel until Cameron’s negotiations have a clear result. It’s a matter of common sense not to answer a question before its terms are known, but Corbyn’s equivocation might lead the Gibraltarian Labour movement to ally itself more closely with the British Conservatives once again – if the Tories back the “yes” vote, that is. The issue could become more clouded still if Britain opts to remove itself from Europe; Gibraltar wants to stay in. Even if that is sorted out, a British departure could in principle trigger another Scottish independence vote (there is scant evidence to suggest that Scotland wants to leave the EU), and if Scotland were to leave then the structure of Britain itself would change. There would have to be some sort of reassessment of British territories outside the mainland after an event like that.

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A side issue on Europe is that UKIP suggested at one point that it would field candidates in the Gibraltar election. This didn’t actually happen in the end.

So in the shorter term it’s likely to be business as usual for the Chief Minister and his cabinet. He has announced one mini-reshuffle and is likely to announce further changes, the Gibraltar Chronicle states, but this is normal in politics. The Socialist Labour and Liberal Coalition has won a further four years in power so it’s effectively an uninterrupted government; the ramifications of what’s happening off the Rock are likely to make those four years feel particularly packed if you’re the re-elected Chief Minister.