Is Labour electable?: Stephen Castle and Paul Routledge look beyond a triumph of joined-up shouting

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The Independent Online
LATE last Wednesday afternoon, Robin Cook, the Shadow Trade Secretary, emerged from the National Executive Committee's private tea room in Brighton's cavernous modern conference centre. 'I feel,' he said, 'as if I am coming to the end of the longest poker game I have ever played.' The counting of the 24 separate card votes on Labour Party rules - including the 'one member, one vote' (Omov) question - was near completion. Mr Cook, and other senior Labour MPs, knew that John Smith's high- risk gamble had paid off.

Less than three hours earlier, Mr Smith had called his hard man, John Prescott, off the platform to ask him to take charge of pulling the conference round. The leader's number crunchers were panicking. The momentum towards reform had stopped, and the anti- Omov traditionalists, they reckoned, had a 7 percentage- point lead among the delegates. The situation could only be transformed by 'theatre, a politician with background', the two men agreed. The NEC had originally chosen Larry Whitty, the party's general secretary, to wind up the vital debate. That plan was now dropped. Mr Prescott, who has a foot in traditionalist and modernising camps and had set the conference alight the previous day with a speech excoriating the Government's transport policy, took the job.

A mile down the blustery Brighton seafront, the second vital component of Mr Smith's victory fell into place in the library room of the Brighthelm church and community centre. Over a lunch of sardine pate sandwiches and orange juice, the 36 delegates of the Manufacturing, Science, Finance union (MSF) considered how they could square support for Mr Smith with their union's declared policy, which opposed the Omov reforms.

The delegates agreed that their support for more representation of women in Parliament overrode their opposition to the Smith reforms. And since the rule change that abolished the union block vote in selection of parliamentary candidates also required all-women shortlists in half the seats that have to select new candidates, they decided to vote for it.

MSF's defection from the shaky trade union coalition ranged against the Labour leader, coupled with a bravura Prescott performance, saved Mr Smith from crushing humiliation - a blow from which his political credibility might never have recovered. Mr Smith had privately told union leaders and close fellow MPs that if he failed to win his battle with traditionalists he might quit politics for his first career - the law. Last Wednesday's victory left his leadership secure, his authority over the party enhanced. But MPs returning to constituencies this weekend were asking themselves: has Labour done no more than save itself from catastrophe? And were the events of last week enough to make the party electable?

AS the Tory party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, was quick to point out, the unions, despite the Smith reforms, retain much power in the Labour Party. They still contribute half the party's funds, rising to more than 80 per cent in general election years. They keep 70 per cent of the conference votes, though this figure should decline over time to 50 per cent, as individual membership rises. True, the votes will be cast in a new individualised form that will make it possible for delegations to split. So, in theory, union 'barons' will no longer be seen casting several million votes on their members' behalf. The reality, however, is that old habits of voting en bloc die hard in the Labour movement.

The unions also keep one- third of the votes in the electoral college for choosing the leader and deputy leader. And some observers doubt that last week's only substantial change - in the selection of parliamentary candidates - will actually reduce union influence. At an annual cost of only pounds 3 (against the pounds 15 that other members have to pay), union members who pay the political levy can become full, voting members of their local party, helping to select their MP. The sceptics argue that the way is wide open for the more unscrupulous unions to 'buy up' membership when candidates are being selected.

Certainly, some union leaders did not regard last week's events as a crushing defeat. 'We think we have stopped the modernisers dead in their tracks,' a union strategist said. 'If they try to come forward with any further amendments to trade union influence, we will be in a position to stop them.'

Nobody doubts that Mr Smith achieved a huge personal public relations victory last week. He has shown the voters that he can exercise authority over his party. But, as Neil Kinnock's leadership shows, this is not by itself enough to persuade disillusioned Tory voters to switch directly to Labour. Modernisers in the Shadow Cabinet privately concede that more, much more, needs to be done to change both structure and policy. Labour, they argue, still appears outdated in the eyes of many voters whose real concerns are a million miles from last week's chosen battle ground of Omov. 'We are not yet,' said one, 'a party which connects with people's real lives.'

BUT CAN the modernisers press on? Last week's vote was widely interpreted as a triumph for them. Yet it may eventually turn out to have been a setback. This is not just because they were shocked by their bruising encounter with the union 'barons' and the hard left in the constituencies. It is also because the man who did more than anybody to win the vote for them - and who therefore staked a claim for a more heavyweight role in Labour policy-making - is not himself a full-hearted moderniser.

Mr Smith described Prescott's speech as 'brilliant' and his standing in the party and the country took as big a stride as the leader's. One fellow frontbencher said: 'John Prescott will never be the party's greatest intellectual, but that was a watershed speech. Not only was he loyal but he showed flair and energy while embracing sections of the party which some modernisers are in danger of losing. I have never seen one speech make such an impact. The buzz was that Prescott has come of age.'

In the bar even his union critics were saying it was 'the best piece of joined-up shouting' they had ever heard. In next month's Shadow Cabinet elections, Mr Prescott could well top the poll.

The Prescott hallmark is blunt speaking. Many MPs receive semi-abusive mail from members of the public. Mr Prescott is one of only a few who will personally ring his critics and remonstrate with them over the telephone. His history in the Labour Party is one of rebellion, not loyalty - that was what made last week's speech so impressive and effective. A sharp critic of Mr Kinnock's style of leadership, he was exiled to the outer fringes of the Shadow Cabinet where only a doughty performance against successive transport secretaries salvaged his reputation. In 1988 he defied the party leader by standing against Roy Hattersley for the deputy leadership. He repeated the offence last year by pitching for the post against Margaret Beckett, the chosen candidate of Mr Smith.

Mr Prescott emerged from the hard school of the now-defunct National Union of Seamen. He was a steward on Cunard cruise liners, and still makes much of his working- class instincts. Last week they stood him in good stead and MPs are already speculating that he will be deployed in a higher-profile job, such as employment spokesman. His friends are pressing his claims for an economic portfolio, pointing out that he holds a diploma in economics from Ruskin College, Oxford - the Labour movement's higher education institution.

That could be a serious blow to the modernisers unless it is counter-balanced by other moves in the Shadow Cabinet, such as the promotion of Robin Cook to foreign affairs. Mr Prescott's supporters believe he could tap into the sense of insecurity felt by those in work as well as those who have no job. But his critics argue that the transport spokesman is a turn- off in the South.

Despite the speculation over the future of Mrs Beckett - against whose 'lack of profile' there had been a whispering campaign even before the Brighton conference - Mr Prescott is probably wise to dampen speculation that he is once again interested in the deputy leadership.

An economic job would be a bigger prize, drawing him closer to the real source of power. This, however, does not help Mrs Beckett's position, which will continue to look shaky amid talk of her being shifted away from campaigning duties and given a portfolio in addition to the deputy leadership. Nevertheless the joke doing the rounds last week was that Mr Smith's chief tormentors, the transport workers and the general union, the GMB, will extract the ultimate revenge on him next year - by installing Bryan Gould, who left the Shadow Cabinet and is now one of the leadership's most persistent critics, in her place.

If Mr Prescott is promoted, it would go with a tide that has been flowing, albeit gently, against the modernisers ever since Mr Smith became leader. Unlike Mr Kinnock, Mr Smith does not have an inner circle committed to a particular view of how the Labour Party should develop. The Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, and Mr Brown have good access to the leader, but according to one senior source 'no one is particularly close to John, apart from Donald Dewar (the Shadow Social Security Secretary)'.

Modernisers say Mr Smith seems committed only to 'painless' change. One spokesman complained last week of having to wait more than two weeks to get an interview with Mr Smith to resolve a difficult policy issue. It is against this background of fluid relationships at the highest levels of the Shadow Cabinet, and a resurgent left grouping around Mr Gould and Peter Hain, that the modernisers now have to fight.

THE LEFT has argued forcefully that the modernising tendency has held the party in thrall at successive general elections only to bring defeat. But the modernisers - or some of them, at least - still have several targets in their sights. They include abolition of Clause IV of the party's consitution, committing Labour to ownership of the means of production (powerfully advocated by the local government spokesman, Jack Straw, last week and said to be supported by Mr Kinnock); stemming the proliferation of NEC committees stuffed with union grandees; and far-reaching reforms of Walworth Road, Labour's ramshackle south London headquarters.

After last week's bloody battles it is doubtful the modernisers will have the stomach for more attacks on party structures, particularly since Mr Smith has ruled out further reforms in party democracy before the next general election. One depressed moderniser complained last week: 'The sorts of reforms Neil Kinnock wanted are out of the window.'

The modernisers' pressure, therefore, is likely to be concentrated on party policy. Mr Blair is already turning Labour into the party that supports the police and takes a 'tough' line on law and order. Nor will there be any shift in the party's defence policy, despite the marginal conference majority to scrap Trident. John Reid, defence spokesman, said: 'Labour is still a multilateralist party.' On the economy, however, the position is less clear-cut. Mr Smith, in his speech to the Trades Union Congress and again last week, gave a commitment to full employment, a national minimum wage and legislation to protect workers' rights to job security. Despite some private reluctance, the modernisers have accepted these commitments as the price of keeping the unions on board.

Now the crucial battleground will be social security, with Labour poised to steal some of the Conservatives' clothes. In a potentially dramatic break with post-war values, the party is preparing to come out against 'the dependency culture' - the idea, which originated on the right, that too many people living on benefits have no incentive to work.

The groundwork for a radical shift in policy is being laid by the Social Justice Commission, chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie, which will publish several advisory policy statements before the end of the year before delivering its final report in September 1994. The key paper emerging from the commission's three panels will be on tax and benefits - a political minefield for Labour. Any shift away from universal benefits - pensions, for example - to means- testing will be unpopular among sections of the party.

The biggest minefield is the party's relationship with the Liberal Democrats. Some party figures have not quite given up hope of regaining power with a clear majority in the House of Commons. But they accept that the most likely outcome of the next general election is that Mr Smith emerges as the leader of the largest party in Parliament but without an overall majority. Labour would need some kind of working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, and its chances of achieving one would depend on the extent to which it had ditched its ideological baggage. In some areas, such as environment, the parties are close and their spokesmen enjoy a fruitful dialogue with each other. In councils where they have shared power since May many councillors have found common ground on education policy. And a small but vocal lobby in favour of proportional representation, headed by Robin Cook, maintains informal contact with senior Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

Nobody talks about a formal electoral pact; in many marginal constituencies, Labour candidates need a strong Liberal Democrat vote to squeeze the Tories. Local party members are reluctant to abandon their presence in constituencies where they trail the Liberal Democrats because Labour has shown it can stage a remarkable recovery from behind to take the seat, as it did in Southampton Itchen.

But there are signs of an embryonic, if unstated, organisational arrangement that would allow the Liberal Democrats a clear run in a large swathe of seats in southern England. Labour will concentrate campaigning resources on a few 'target' seats where it is a close second to the Conservatives - Dover, Brighton Pavilion and Kemptown, the two Southampton seats and Swindon, for example. That strategy will open a much larger number of other constituencies to tactical voting, delivering seats to the Liberal Democrats where they came second at the last election. All this will co-ordinated by a newly appointed targeting officer at Walworth Road.

THE questions that remain are large ones of policy and presentation. As one Labour insider put it: 'What do we stand for, what do we want to achieve and how will we pay for it?' Getting acceptable answers is likely to prove painful for Labour loyalists. Mr Smith's instinct is to play a long game; in what is characterised as an argument between modernisers and traditionalists, it is far from clear yet whose side he is on.

But once he has fastened on a clear direction nobody will be allowed to get in his way, as a party aide discovered last week when the leader took his charm offensive right into the enemy camp - the Hospitality Inn suite in Brighton where the GMB was having a traditional bash, complete with dance band, a raffle and balloons.

The photographers wanted Mr Smith to pose behind the bar, pulling a pint of John Smith's bitter. The aide demurred, but Mr Smith unceremoniously elbowed him from his path, snarling through gritted teeth 'Get out of the f---ing way.'

The photographers got the picture they wanted; Mr Smith got his vote.

(Photograph omitted)