Tories demean democracy, Smith says: The Labour leader sets out to Andrew Marr his programme for constitutional reform

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH has launched his strongest attack on the Tory inheritance since becoming Labour leader, saying that he is deeply worried about the nature of British society and depressed about how politics is being 'dragged down'.

Assessing the Major administration as probably the worst this century, the Labour leader used an interview with the Independent to position himself as a committed political reformer of 'missionary zeal'. He said the constitutional agenda marked out his leadership from that of previous Labour leaders.

Mr Smith committed himself to an ambitious programme of political reform, reminiscent of some Liberal Democrat thinking, and attacked John Major's government for presiding over the decay of democracy.

His comments will appeal to political reformers outside Labour ranks and emphasise the way Labour thinking is moving parallel to that of the Liberal Democrats, who yesterday launched a paper on constitutional reform.

Mr Smith accused the Government of four specific democratic failures. It had centralised power, systematically diminishing local government because it was a rival power source. It had failed to recognise the plurality of a democratic society, appointing Tory 'lickspittles' to quangos and opted-out hospital trusts. 'This is demeaning the whole process, that you have got to be a Tory . . . to help in the running of public functions. I think that's despicable,' he said. Third, the Government had undermined civil service independence. Fourth, it had shown 'appalling' shadiness in its own overseas fundraising and the rules would have to be changed.

Mr Smith said Labour had given too little influence and attention to individual rights in the past and listed a reform programme including a Bill of Rights, regional government, freedom of information legislation and reform of both Houses of Parliament. He said he was not a convert to voting reform for the Commons but would hold a referendum on proportional representation and implement any change voters wanted.

Mr Smith's analysis is close to the Liberal Democrats' thinking, particularly in his emphasis on pluralism and the dispersion of power. It marks a decisive break from the days when Labour and the Conservatives merely competed for control of the system, leaving minor parties to campaign for its reform. But the Labour leader refused to contemplate pacts. He conceded that deals might have to be done if the next election produced a hung parliament.

Liberal Democrats' plan, page 9

Interview, page 29