Gibraltar is keeping a close eye on the British election – but it doesn’t get a vote

What do you make of this Farage then? cenz, CC BY-NC-SA

Given that the current government of Gibraltar is a coalition between the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party and the Liberal Party of Gibraltar, you might be forgiven for thinking that the people of this British overseas territory might express sympathy with the politics of the UK Labour party as the election approaches.

Even though Gibraltar is located just off the coast of Spain, it remains part of the UK. This is a point of continued tension between the two countries, even though Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to maintain the status quo in a referendums in 1967 and 2002.

Gibraltarians can’t vote in the UK election, although they do vote in European elections (as part of the South-West England constituency). And make no mistake, what happens on May 7 will have serious consequences for them.

What Gibraltarians want out of a UK government and what they look for in their domestic politics are two very separate things. In essence, Gibraltarians want a UK government that looks unlikely to do a secret sovereignty deal with Spain.

This nearly happened in 2002 when the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, floated the idea of an “Andorra solution” to resolve the long running dispute over the future of Gibraltar. The deal would have seen sovereignty over the territory shared jointly between Britain and Spain.

British but also European. David Cheskin/PA

When people in Gibraltar discovered the content of these negotiations, they were shocked. To many, joint sovereignty looked suspiciously like a first step to complete Spanish sovereignty. The hastily organised referendum on the proposal, organised by the government of Gibraltar, rejected the plan by 17,900 votes to 187.

In Gibraltar, the legacy of the failed Andorra solution proposal has been negative feeling towards the UK Labour party. Nevertheless, in a recent article with the Gibraltar Chronicle, Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, said the people of Gibraltar could “sleep easy” in the knowledge that he would work to ensure that a Labour led government would respect their wishes when it came to negotiations with Spain. However, the Labour Party makes no reference to Gibraltar whatsoever in its manifesto.

The Conservative Party has, by contrast, always enjoyed more favour. The 1982 defence of the Falklands Islands is held in Gibraltar to be a robust defence of UK overseas territories. In its own 2015 manifesto, the Conservative Party makes an explicit pledge to “protect the democratic rights” of both Gibraltar and the Falklands and allow them to remain British “for as long as that is their wish”.

With Argentina once more pressing on the issue of Falklands sovereignty, and Spain putting pressure on the free flow of traffic over the Gibraltar frontier, Gibraltarians would normally welcome a Conservative government.

But here’s the rub: with the Conservatives committed to a referendum on the European Union, a Conservative victory might well spell the end of UK membership. And that could have disastrous consequences for Gibraltar.

Gibraltar joined the European with Britain in 1973, but it is not a separate member. In other words, if the UK leaves the EU then Gibraltar leaves too.

A decent amount of Gibraltar’s trade is still done with Britain, but a substantial amount is done within Europe. Without access to the European free market, the Gibraltar economy would be severely damaged.

Gibraltar has always seen its interests as being firmly linked to those of the UK but it would certainly want to find a way to stay in the EU if a Brexit were on the cards. Whether or not this could be done is uncertain, perhaps even doubtful. But it would certainly want to try, and it may well make common cause with Scotland and Catalonia who are both potentially looked for individual membership of the EU separate to their present metropolitan governments.

So while many people of Gibraltar may, on one level, favour a Conservative government as the outcome of the 2015 election, the doubts about the EU that such a victory would bring could change all that. In the circumstances, it would appear that a Labour victory, for all of Labour’s baggage, would be a good outcome for Gibraltarians.

To go one step further, given the regional and national devolution issues involved, perhaps the best outcome would in fact be a Labour-Scottish National Party coalition.