Party looks for victory from a mirror image: Labour will today elect John Smith as its new leader. Nicholas Timmins interviews him

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The Independent Online
TODAY, and by a mile, Labour will elect John Smith as its leader. There is a case that in doing so it has gone for the mirror image of the leader it has lost. In place of a fine platform orator it is choosing a man who dislikes the platform speech. It is swapping a mixed Commons performer for one who revels in the cut and thrust of debate; an indifferent television interviewee for one who exudes fluent confidence; a man whom the electorate never quite seemed to trust for one seen to be deeply reassuring. A leader who was personally brave, forcing his party into hard decisions, for one seen much more as an internal conciliator. And a man prepared to ditch his personal political past for the good of the party, for one whose political views seem barely to have changed in 30 years. The one thing they share - though it is expressed very differently - is passion.

Whether this is the right formula for those who believe that Labour needs a radical transformation is open to judgement. Just as some of those who are today voting for John Smith wish that Bryan Gould had done better, there are those voting for Mr Gould who believe Mr Smith can make the changes needed. 'Smithy can do it,' one Gould supporter said recently. Given his age, he will only have one shot at election victory. 'He is open to argument and to logic; and he wants to be in power. If he is persuaded a change is needed, he will undertake it.'

Sceptics point to Mr Smith's initial endorsement of Neil Kinnock's plan for an instant switch to one member, one vote for the selection of MPs - with the unions excluded - to his willingness now to put it off a year. He now wants it dealt with in the broader review of the party's union links - and is willing to see the possibility of continued trade union involvement in parliamentary selections, through some form of associate membership, re-examined.

His backers point to him having put a firm time limit on all this - comprehensive changes, he says, must go through next year's party conference. 'The public will give a political party some time to sort out its internal plumbing,' he said an interview with the Independent this week, 'but not too much time.'

Issues Mr Smith believes Labour must address are the economy, social justice, an 'antique and antiquated' constitution, and the desperate need for far better education and training both to let Britain compete and to provide individual fulfilment.

Much of this sounds similar to the policy platform on which Labour lost - a point Mr Smith both concedes and contests. Under his leadership, he says, the development of individual rights and the devolution of power will be more to the fore. 'I have always been a ferocious opponent of over-centralisation. People say, 'If you get power, you won't give it up'. Well I will. I have no hang-ups about that. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hand over responsibilities from Westminster and Whitehall.'

But while policy must be developed, he says, Labour is not going to dump its past for a different future. At the election, he says, 'we said a lot of very sensible things; I thought we produced extremely good policies. I have to take account of the fact that not enough of the electorate voted for them; but I am not going to turn my heel on them now. I don't think the public have any respect for people who say, 'Oh well, if you don't like that set we will give you a wholly new set'.'

Labour, he said, does have to overcome 'a sort of suspicion among the public that it is just there to hand out more benefits; we have to be a bit more than that.' And some of the most painful questions the party faces may lie there, he says, where he plans his Commission on Social Justice as 'a second Beveridge' to tackle them.

Ways of helping people back to work through childcare, education and training need to be found, not least 'because I have never met a single person who has a good relationship with the Department of Social Security. They all hate being on benefit. It is not enough simply to say, as we have traditionally, give them more money so they can look after their families better. That doesn't get to the heart of the problem'. However, Mr Smith is not yet prepared to speculate on what trade-offs between benefits, assistance and incentives that might mean.

Much - though not all - of this sounds distinctly more reformist than radical. But Mr Smith also seems to judge that the issues may be moving Labour's way. Education and training, he believes, are going to be seen as even more relevant as the damage to both individuals and the economy from neglecting them become more apparent. 'I think we need to be more eloquent in our advocacy of that, but I think the sharpness of the circumstance will be such that people will perhaps see it more clearly'.

Whatever happens, he says, Labour must still be the party that speaks for the poor. 'The awful pockets of poverty in this country are shameful. We must tackle that, popular or not . . . our inescapable moral duty is to face these issues.'

Leading article, page 14

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