How it all began
by Peter Wragg – Former Chair, Brussels Labour
The early years
In January 1973, shortly after Britain joined the European Community, a group of enthusiasts formed what was then called the British Labour Group (BLG) to bring together Labour Party members and supporters in Brussels. The driving force was Alan Forrest (at the time an official at the ICFTU), who became the first Chair.
From the beginning, the group regularly invited high profile guest speakers and the list was impressive. On 7 March 1973 the Belgian socialist and prominent European Raymond Rifflet (who had been Head of Cabinet to Commission President Jean Rey) spoke on ‘EEC Social Policy and the British Welfare State’.
On 29 March, George Thomson, the first British Labour Commissioner, spoke on ‘Socialism, Internationalism and the Common Market’.
In those days meetings took place in the Maison des Huit Heures, a trade union centre on Place Fontainas in the city centre. There were about 45 people on the mailing list, half a dozen of whom of whom are still members of Brussels Labour.
In one of the founding BLG documents, reference is made to the fact that contacts with the Labour Party would be informal. There appears to be no possibility of having the group “recognised”, it records stoically. This absurd situation continued until the late 1990s, when the Party began to understand that Britons living abroad could be a useful source of votes.
Despite non-recognition from Party headquarters, the BLG was able to make its presence felt. One of its early contributions was a submission to the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Direct Elections to the European Parliament, the first of which took place in 1978, and liaison between the European Parliament and Westminster.
Links with sister parties
The founding members also felt that the BLG should have contacts with socialist groups of other nationalities and Hans Beck, Chair of the German Social Democratic Group in Brussels was present at the first meeting. Contacts and joint events with our sister socialist parties are a continuing feature of the group.
The BLG was always keen to help the Party in election campaigns, and over the years has done so handsomely. Constituencies all over the UK have benefited from our help, much to their surprise in many cases! Early documents said that Brussels Labour could make a special effort in a marginal constituency like Dover, and it did so repeatedly, including in 1997. We also campaigned actively in the UK in the successful 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns.
A home for debate
For nearly 40 years, Brussels Labour has provided a ‘home’ in Brussels for Labour Party members and supporters. With the lifeblood of the group revolving around two strands of activity – debates and campaigns – there has always been something for everyone.
Political discussion has been the mainstay of our existence with regular guest speakers on the topics of the day. This might seem a statement of the obvious, but there are many branches of the Labour Party that have very little debate and new members often comment on this fact.
We have been lucky enough to invite a string of Labour front bench members (Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, George Robertson, Alan Johnson, Hazel Blears, Geoff Hoon, Charles Clarke, David Miliband, Douglas Alexander), and European commissioners (Catherine Ashton, Peter Mandelson, Neil Kinnock, Gunther Verheugen, Joaquin Almunia, George Thomson, Stanley Clifton-Davies, Bruce Millan.
We have also been fortunate to attract many MEPs (too numerous to list) to speak at our meetings, often to test new ideas or fly kites in front of an audience with the reputation of being knowledgeable in a wide range of policy areas.
Britain in Europe
Central to the political discourse has been the ongoing debate on Europe. In 1981 the NEC of the Labour Party put a report to Conference making the case for British withdrawal from the European Community. The BLPG responded by publishing a 40-page pamphlet arguing the case for staying in and joining with “other progressive forces” to bring about change.
Collectively, members have always had a depth of knowledge in European policies, and there have often been attempts to put this expertise at the disposal of the Party. In the late 1980s the BLPG Internal Market Study Group met regularly to examine EC policies and ways of reforming them. We even published a journal called the ‘Red Marketeer‘.
Supporting progressive causes
Brussels Labour has been at the forefront of progressive campaigns, including anti-racism (“Touche pas mon pote!”) and international solidarity campaigns. Members have been involved in everything from Nicaragua Solidarity to Civil Action Now for Bosnia-Herzegovina. A core group of Brussels Labour members were a driving force in Europeans Against Apartheid, a multi-national group that raised money to help support a ‘safe’ ANC Office in Brussels.
Nor did we ever lose touch with what was going on back in the UK. The 1980s were very hard for many people and Brussels Labour was able to help when some of them felt they had no alternative but to strike. Chief among them were the seafarers, ambulance workers and, of course, the miners.
There used to be a BLPG Women’s Group in the days when Joanna Tachmintzis was Chair. This was a time when the women’s movement in Brussels had a high profile through organisations like the Women’s Organisation for Equality (WOE). Some members will remember a very lively evening with Maria Tolly and her distinctive socialist and feminist songs. The only time that the BLPG has ever organised a concert.
The group’s vitality has always been drawn from its members; people coming forward to do things. Everyone in it is a busy person and we have always recognised that it’s not possible for each member to attend everything. People do what they can when they can. What brought them together was the desire to ensure a Labour government in the UK and the advancement of progressive, pro-European causes.