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What future for the Labour Party?

MY new satellite television brought me instant live access to a huge jamboree that was both spontaneous and carefully stage-managed at one and the same time. It could have been a pop concert or the celebration at the |World Series' in baseball (which involves solely the USA). One sees an apparently wide spectrum of American society all holding placards, while waving, jumping, shouting or shimmying in support of the new Democratic Party's nominee for the Presidential candidacy. For those who have attended endless boring sequences of speeches at Labour Party Conferences it is hard to recognise this as a political event. It is also difficult to believe that this is the convention of a party that has lost five out of six of the last Presidential Elections.

There is however one significant difference from the Labour Party in Britain. This broad coalition can still dominate Congress. It still holds numerous levers of real power. Above all, even if it is not, it appears to be credible and electable. It unites a remarkably wide variety of interest groups and makes its appeal to curiously different geographical and sociological targets. The main appeal is to the middle class but the |minorities' and the poor are not forgotten. Its main target is middle America but it points strikingly -- particularly in the choice of Al Gore -- to the South, as well as to the cities that traditionally house the Democratic faithful.

If it seems infantile, one must remember that America is still a young country. It arouses at one and the same time a European contempt and a sort of envy. While one delegate pledges his support on the basis of the ability to spell potato -- lacking in the current Vice President of the greatest power on earth -- a more sophisticated and serious note is conjured by the spellbinding oratory of Mario Cuomo. This very odd mixture of sophistication and total lack of inhibition is peculiarly American. It is a mystery until one begins to understand that Democracy itself is being celebrated. There is still an almost disarmingly naive patriotism and belief in a unique way of life. One may sneer but it proved to be the main bulwark in the war against European fascism two generations ago. Nor should it be forgotten that both before, during and after that war the Democrats were the natural party of government.

The following day, or was it two days later, since it is difficult to synchronise hours across the Atlantic, the news of John Smith's and Margaret Becket's election as leader and deputy leader of the British Labour Party was wedged somewhere between the news of Nick Faldo on the golf course and the horrors suffered by Bosnian refugees. This must have been the most boring, pre-determined and uninspiring leadership contest ever held by a political party in the United Kingdom. This was the election of a leader who has to take Labour from four successive defeats to the promised land of victory. In its timing, presentation and content it was almost as if the Party had conspired with itself to produce such a low profile that this was more Mr. Kinnock's funeral than the emergence of a new leader who was going to change the face both of the Labour Party and Britain. The two events were not just an essay in contrasts. In the case of the Labour Party it seems that in looking to the future, it was taking further steps into the past. The very fact that the deputy leadership contest placed John Prescott in a not unrespectable second place demonstrated that Labour had learned nothing from the past and was intent upon returning there. At the very least, Bryan Gould was asking for ideas to be considered.

This poverty of ideas was demonstrated in a petty and petulant letter from Gerald Kaufman to a national newspaper rubbing in (as he thought) the fact that the Labour Party had polled twice as many votes as the Liberal Democrats and had made advances beyond their catastrophic defeat in the previous election. That he was not comparing like with like seemed to be irrelevant to him. That Paddy Ashdown had taken the Liberal Democrats from the verge of extinction to the largest number of seats won by a third Party in modern times, notwithstanding the electoral system, was totally ignored. At least Mr. Smith acknowledged that he wanted to represent not only the 35 per cent who had voted Labour but the 58 per cent who had not voted Conservative. That it was the same Mr. Smith who drove many potential Labour and indeed even more Liberal voters into the arms of the Conservatives is yet another indication of Labour's failure to learn its lesson.

It was Mr. Smith's alternative Budget that set the figure for financial infamy at 21,000 [pounds] per year and the figure for punitive sanctions at 27,000 [pounds] per year. The fact that even the latter is not a particularly remarkable salary in the expensive South East of England totally escaped the man who spends his spare time scaling the mountains of Scotland. Moreover, what he and others like him failed to understand is that there are millions more who aspire to earn such salaries but who do not earn them. It was this fear that honest endeavour would be penalised by a marginal tax rate of 59 per cent that made many who would never consider voting Conservative in their lives, heave a sigh of relief at Labour's defeat. It is purely anecdotal that I report that for the first time in my memory, (since 1945 when I collected numbers for the Labour Candidate at the age of ten), not a single member of my immediate family voted Labour. That I doubt whether any of them voted Conservative either is a tribute to the radical vision and totally remarkable campaign of Paddy Ashdown. The Kaufman letter totally ignored the fact that many potential Liberal voters turn-,d to the Tories for fear of what a Labour victory might mean to them. This was particularly true in those areas of the country where the Liberal Democrats are now the natural party of Opposition but have not yet broken through in Parliamentary terms.

Although Bill Clinton led in the wake of his Convention victory, that lead may well evaporate just as Labour's did and the question that has to be posed in addition to Labour's ability to overcome its internal problems is that highlighted by Professor Galbraith. In a society where more people are satisfied with their lot than are not, how does a party of the Left which wishes to change society ever succeed? Given that the unemployed, the poor and the marginalised in our society are the most likely to refrain from voting, how can Labour or indeed any Party opposed to the status quo gain power, other than in the most extraordinary of circumstances? One might have thought that the British recession would have constituted such circumstances, but in the event it did not. If it did not then, one has to ask when will it be possible? Moreover, would it be possible when led by the very persons who failed to understand the demographic and social changes that Britain has undergone together with most affluent Western societies.

The obsession with the numbers game undoubtedly demonstrates that most machine politicians are ill-equipped to understand the realities of what motivates human beings in the political field. In that respect Bryan Gould at least made an effort and Jeffrey Rooker in his recognition of what will happen following boundary changes indicated the problem faced by Labour following its 1992 defeat. Such voices did not find favour. One problem above all is that in the absence of electoral reform the 58 per cent to whom John Smith referred are not going to rule over the 42 per cent who do rule. Those elected by that 42 per cent are not going to change the system unless there is such a ground swell of opposition that they are forced to do so in order to cling to a vestige of the near total power that they hold. Although European Social Democrats and their allies have similar problems to those faced by the Labour Party, that is one problem they do not have to overcome and which frequently permits them to share in government if not to rule outright.

How can John Smith turn round the situation. Unfortunately one must start with the fact that John Smith was not the right person to turn it round. He should have led Labour into the last not the next election. Had Labour skipped a generation to Brown and Blair the chances might have been a good deal better, although the Shadow Cabinet will have a much brighter, younger and more feminine complexion. Above all, their problem is how to reconcile the aspirations of a growing middle class with those of the Trade Unions which also encompass large sections of that class and the under-privileged fifth of the nation which has suffered in absolute terms in the Thatcher years while watching the rest of the nation grow progressively richer. That it failed to do so when real unemployment stood at three million, businesses were falling like ninepins and home owners were having their houses repossessed at record rates, must be the starting point for any analysis undertaken by the gurus who have to advise Mr. Smith and his colleagues. True, they are seen as guardians of the National Health Service, but of little else. John Smith's first task will have to be the issue of |one man -- one vote' which was the straw that broke the back of that section of the Labour Party which created the Social Democratic Party. The nonsense of the block vote within the electoral college and its use in the selection of candidates is a real barrier to the broader alliance required by a Party nearly a century removed from the Taff Vale decision which created the need for a Party primarily representing the Unions.

Perversely, the Unions could find that their power is enhanced if they were not seen to be either the paymasters of or in the pockets of Labour politicians. By the same token there could be a strengthening of ties with individual members of Trade Unions rather than the artificial ties that exist through the leadership of these giant organisations. It would also strengthen the argument against donations made by companies which profit from the consumer donating large sums to the Conservative Party without real choice by individual shareholders who cannot contract out. Indeed, the whole question of funding of political parties within a democracy might then be approached by Labour who would come to the issue with clean hands. It will also be necessary for Labour to broaden the coalition of interests shorn of the trappings of centralised Socialism while wedded to the concept of a fairer distribution of wealth and compassion for the under-privileged.

Above all, John Smith will have to follow in the footsteps of Liberal Democrats and organisations like Charter 88 in the recognition that political change in Britain is unlikely to occur without serious constitutional change. Whether on the issues of the electoral system, the House of Lords, a Bill of Rights, reform of the judicial system, devolution of power to the nations, regions and districts of the UK -- the high ground the Labour Party has lost has to be scaled. Labour has actually suffered from the fact that in many parts of the country it is the single party of government. In many areas the Labour Party is no more than a corrupted one party government wielding patronage and insensitive to the need for choice in such areas as housing and the Social Services. The failure to create choice within a public sector was one of the failings of post-war Labourism. Thus, even though it may seem a nonsense to denationalise monopoly utilities, nationalisation became a dirty word. No matter that British Telecom, the new Gas, Electricity and Water companies are making vast profits for shareholders and inflationary increases of pay to their Board members, there is no ground swell of opinion asking for these bodies to be renationalised. There is a real task in creating methods of protecting the consumer against these private monopolies.

Thus the transformation of Labour from the Party of the producer to the Party of the consumer at a time when numbers employed in production are decreasing steadily is not only a moral but a practical choice if Labour is to survive in the next century. One of the most difficult tasks before John Smith will be to build bridges to, rather than score points off, the other non-conservative parties with which Labour competes for votes. There can be little doubt that the Conservatives scored heavily by reason of the Scottish Nationalist vote in what was essentially a four Party contest north of the border and in parts of Wales. If I selected one letter to a national newspaper to illustrate the obsession with numbers, that same letter illustrated the patronising approach which alienates eight million electors who did not vote Conservative.

The difficulty with pacts is that the Liberal vote, if not the activists, comprise very many who would prefer to vote Conservative rather than Labour at the present time. By the same token, in large swathes of England the Liberal Democrat Party is the only real opposition to the Conservatives and indeed is dominant in some of the Celtic fringe and in parts of the South West. In many areas it has attracted a segment of the younger voters that Labour has failed to reach. Sitting in a pub in the port of Rye and hearing the enthusiasm of the teens and twenties discussing the possibilities of Liberal victories in the local elections I found myself enthralled at the sort of discussion that in my younger days took place in similar watering holes which young people frequented in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield or Nottingham. It is rather sad that while Labour remains dominant beyond reach in its urban heartlands, its support is as much a traditional knee jerk reaction as was the support for its opponents in the well heeled suburbs of most of rural and Southern England. The fragmentation of political allegiance that now exists is a far cry from the battle of the two monoliths fought in the Forties and Fifties and even the Sixties. It reflects the diversification in types of employment and the collapse of many of our old industries. That has been accelerated by the likes of Arthur Scargill as much as by Mrs. Thatcher.

The courage to admit one is leader of a Party that does not embrace in large measure a significant section of England is unlikely to be found even by the solid Mr. Smith and even less by Margaret Becket. It should not be forgotten that she was the Labour MP who eventually ousted Dick Taverne following his victory as a Social Democrat some years before the Social Democratic Party existed. That it still exists either as a state of mind or as an element within the Liberal Democrats ought not to be forgotten.

Personally, I am pessimistic about the possibility of a victorious Party on the centre-Left in Britain before the turn of the century. That can only change if Labour does not make the aspirations of its natural supporters something that they ought to feel ashamed about. It will not succeed so long as people like Michael Meacher feel that they have to establish that their credentials are humble. It will not succeed while a large part of it looks backward over its shoulder to the halcyon days of opposition to anything European. On almost every major issue Margaret Becket was on the side of the reactionaries rather than the forward looking section of her Party. John Smith was of the solid centre presenting a reassuring image although only becoming fashionable about six months before the General Election when Neil Kinnock was recognised to be the liability that he clearly always was. However, by taking on the wider elements of the Party where he was a successful in-fighter, he did at least make the Labour Party on the surface look to be a credible alternative.

On this John Smith has to capitalise. His task is made more difficult by the fact that he faces not the radical doctrinaire party of Lady Thatcher but the much more appealing one nation party of a more conciliatory Mr. Major whose concern for sport, the arts and quality of life have brought him closer to the heartbeat of ordinary British people drawn from widely diverse social, geographical and even ethnic groups. In one sense this very moderation of the Post-Thatcher Conservative Party makes Labour even less likely to succeed than the American Democrats faced with the woolly but dyed-in-the-wool conservatism of the Republican Party. The duality of a party wedded to the British Liberal and Social Democratic traditions on the one hand, and the traditional values of Labour on the other is so diverse that only a leader of vision could straddle that divide and create a new vision for a Left centre alliance akin to the Lib-Labs of old. In a sense we need perhaps to return to traditions further in the past than those which from 1945-1951 acted as a beacon for John Smith's Party.

Paddy Ashdown could only present it in the context of leadership of the smaller opposition party attempting to hold the balance of power while creating a new political and constitutional framework. Without that new framework it is hard indeed to visualise the leader of the larger faction with its traditionalists baying at his heels, plunging into the unknown in an attempt to bring together a coalition of interests broader than anything Britain has seen since his own Party was born. That task will be tougher than the mountains Mr. Smith has climbed following his courageous fight for fitness following his heart attack.

There will be many who will wish him well but it is doubtful whether a politician with his background will have the vision to look at the Britain of say 2005 rather than hark back to the peak of Labour's success in 1966. Perhaps if Governor Clinton and Senator Gore can demonstrate that it is possible for the Left of centre to triumph in the United States, the transatlantic shockwaves may break upon the shores of our island. If it does not succeed there then Professor Galbraith may prove to be the true prophet of a pessimism that will only be shaken by a generation whose values have yet to be formed in the context of a society that does not yet exist. Rather than Labour's marching forward while looking to its relatively recent past, it might do better by returning to a more distant past of a broader coalition in order to understand the future. After all, the creator of The Time Machine was a supporter of the Party, the leadership of which Mr. Smith and Mrs. Becket have now inherited.

[Paul Rose is H.M.'s Coroner for the Southern Area of Greater London and was Labour MP for Manchester Blackley from 1964-1979 before deciding to leave parliamentary politics.]
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Author:Rose, Paul B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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