Political Commentary: Time for Labour to talk tactics

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MINERS in this country evoke sentiment and history. In one of Harold Macmillan's last speeches to the House of Lords, he struck a national chord during the year- long miners' strike of 1984-5 with the declaration that these were the 'men who beat the Kaiser'. In the same period, Eric Hammond, the electricians' leader, neatly exempted the miners from the criticism directed at their leaders by borrowing the phrase that had been used to describe troops and their generals in the same war. They were, he said, lions led by donkeys.

Today, the donkeys having vanished or shed much of their donkey-ness, we are left with the lions. The real surprise about the reaction to the pit closures last week was not the wave of emotion which jammed the switchboards of Conservative Central Office and constituency associations in Sussex as well as Yorkshire, but the fact that the Government - and most commentators - failed to anticipate it.

Public sympathy may not yet be enough to save the miners' jobs - indeed, the success of Labour's motion this week will largely depend on the much colder issue of how far the party can win the powerful economic argument against closure in the four days left. But in that argument the Government will be aware of another, deeper worry. In the depths of the recession, the free market (and in this particular case, a rigged free market) no longer holds the appeal it enjoyed in the Eighties. And the free market, above all else, is what this government stands for. Or at least the free market up to a point, because the principle can be breached when it threatens to become politically unacceptable.

A good example is mortgage interest relief, which interferes with the market mechanism in housing and costs the country pounds 7bn a year; money which, as George Walden once pointed out, could fund what would be the best education system in the Western world. In contrast to the pit-closure issue, there is a consensus about this. There is scarcely a serious politician in any party who does not think that mortgage tax relief is an intolerable distortion of the housing market. Its removal is a matter of Treasury orthodoxy, unsuccessfully advocated by Nigel Lawson when he was Chancellor. Yet John Major would as soon abolish it as take part in the next mission to Mars. Even if you accept the Government's much- disputed figures, shutting the pits, even in the long run, saves only a fraction of that sum; but in terms of political cost it looks this weekend nearly as catastrophic.

But is the political opposition reaping the benefit? It has become fashionable to question the role of Labour in the events of the past few weeks, and to exhort the party to prepare to 'bring the Government down' as if Labour had only to recover its political machismo and Mr Major's administration would fall. The idea that Labour has somehow fallen short in its role of opposition is underpinned by the impression that it is the Tory press and Tory MPs who have been giving the Government the real run for its money. It is not absolutely confirmed that the Prime Minister was overheard describing the Daily Telegraph as a 'poisonous' newspaper. But the fact that it is widely believed illustrates the sense of betrayal in the Tory high command.

You could argue that, with the Sun and Winston Churchill doing the work for it, the Labour Party would be foolish to enter more than an occasional chorus of 'hear, hear'. With Maastricht, however, the question of Labour's tactics has a sharper edge. Last week the Cabinet decided that 10 November would be the best date for bringing back the Maastricht treaty legislation, a fact that the row over the pits has buried well down the page.

The first reason for this was that the party conference was judged a success on the Maastricht issue and that ministers should face Parliament while there was still wind in their sails. The second was essentially European; the complexities of reaching agreement with Britain's partners on a form of words which would underline national sovereignty were still being exacerbated by Britain's delay in ratifying the treaty. (Not to mention, according to one hostile Whitehall account, some injudicious remarks made by the beleaguered Norman Lamont at the meeting of European finance ministers in Washington after Black Wednesday, which gave the impression that the British Chancellor was not serious about Europe.) By deciding to ratify earlier than expected, Mr Major certainly hoped to improve the chances for the Birmingham summit.

As it happens, the Birmingham summit would have been something of a damp squib even if it had not been overshadowed by the coal crisis. After Britain's withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism, and the French referendum, it seemed logical to call an emergency summit. By the time it took place much of the momentum had dissipated, through no particular fault of Mr Major's. On the confusing topic of subsidiarity, Edinburgh is now the crucial summit, and by that time the Prime Minister boldly hopes to have completed much of the committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

The first point to make about Labour's position is that John Smith has surely been sensible to keep his options open. To say now that he will seek to defeat the Government over Maastricht would present Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, with the ideal weapon for bringing the waverers among the Tory Euro-rebels into line. The whips are already telling MPs that they might help to bring a Labour government to power - and one substantially more committed to Europe than their own - if they vote against the Bill; any public suggestion by Labour that they intend to do so would give them powerful collateral.

The second point is the danger of Labour losing its pro-European credentials. Say Labour were to defeat the Bill in the third reading, but Mr Major went on to win a vote of confidence. The Government would still stand, but Labour would be blamed in Europe for junking the Bill.

Nevertheless, there has been a subtle change in the climate, which the events of last week have helped to precipitate. Euro- sceptics left in the Shadow Cabinet, such as David Blunkett and John Prescott, will press Mr Smith to frame amendments at the committee stage which will attract the Euro-rebels. Mr Smith may well resist that, preferring instead to stick to the line that all the Tories need to secure Labour support is to include the social chapter - a proposition that naturally does not interest the Tory Euro-rebels.

A crucial point is how far Mr Major makes the Maastricht vote itself an issue of confidence. The exquisite dilemma for the Government is that the more it does so, the more likely it is to pull its own rebels into line. But the more tempting it also is for Labour to vote against it, doing so while arguing that the issue is no longer the Maastricht treaty but the whole standing of the Government, not least in Europe itself. Indeed, Labour could under such circumstances argue that a Labour government which believes in the social chapter and even a single currency, and not a divided Tory one, is the natural inheritor of the Maastricht treaty. But first it has to be sure - as it cannot be at present - of a victory so comprehensive that a general election is the certain result. Those asking whether Labour will rise to bring down the Government are asking the wrong question. The question is not whether but how.

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