The Labour Party in Brighton: Labour's modernisers still in the driving seat: Donald Macintyre assesses the balance of forces after victory for one member, one vote
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Saturday 02 October 1993
Mr Smith said of his victory on Omov: 'Three months ago people told me it was 'mission impossible', that votes were stacked up against me and that my colleagues and I who wanted to make changes, could not carry them through. There are times in politics when you have to have got to face the challenge and have got to take the risks. It is of course pleasant when they come off.'
The question which will now be asked is how high a price did he pay for his victory. The conference, after all, went through a series of traditional rituals, such as reaffirming Clause IV yesterday and calling for the scrapping of Trident. It recommitted itself to full employment and a sweeping restoration of workers' rights.
Mr Smith went out of his way to insist that he wanted to strengthen links with the unions. The party's leading modernisers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, saw their national executive votes cut. The star of the show was John Prescott, a figure with close links to the traditionalist tendency in the party. Tory politicians are this weekend rewriting drafts of their speeches next week to take account of all this. So has the Labour Party, in spite of Mr Smith's victory, started to revert to the old beast it once was in the Seventies and, worse still, the early 1980s? Has the modernisation project been stopped in its tracks?
There are several reasons for thinking not. On Thursday Tony Blair was loudly applauded several times for saying tough things about law and order. If he had said such things ten or even five years ago, he would scarcely have got off the platform alive.
When Mr Blair went to that sacred event of the old left, the Tribune rally, with his modernising message, he could hardly have had a warmer reception.
And while Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, was forced on to the defensive last weekend - he may even have shifted his tone by reminding interviewers he wanted to close the gap between rich and poor - he has given no hostages to fortune. By emphasising how much revenue can be raised by closing tax loopholes, he avoided making commitments on tax and spending so long before the election and of the sort that have helped to cripple Labour's last two election campaigns. Mr Smith endorsed that message yesterday.
Finally, do not assume John Prescott will be unable to work with Mr Brown and Mr Blair. Some of the bad blood was released last week; it just so happens that Mr Prescott and Mr Brown are holding a joint conference on private-public investment next week.
The other reason is that if it gets its act together, Labour could now reverse the downward trend of membership because of cheaper rates. It is true that the Campaign Group was already telling activists yesterday in Brighton to start recruiting sympathetic trade union levy payers to the party to try to get it to swing left. But mainstream supporters joining the party in larger numbers means a more modern - and moderate - party.
How Mr Smith handles the next year, particularly the work of the Social Justice Commission, which has to tackle the big problems of the welfare state, will be crucial.
Yesterday's vote on Trident was an embarrassment. It is about an important issue. But as a lifelong multilateralist, Mr Smith is not going to preside over a government that scraps Trident, even in the new global climate. And after last week he holds all the cards.
There are signs that he gets irritated at times with the reforming zeal of Mr Brown and Mr Blair. But there is no sign that he does not share their goals. The modernisation project is still alive.
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