A famous victory . . . but for whom?: Political Commentary

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A SPECTRE was haunting the Labour conference. For a ghostly presence, it was rather jolly. Even the most blinkered delegates could recognise it, as it hovered over the platform. They had seen it before, flickering on their television screens. Mr Kenneth Clarke, though physically in Washington, had managed to establish a spectral presence in Brighton.

Mr John Smith summoned up this apparition when he said on Tuesday that there would be no purpose in the Conservatives' changing their leader. The people had lost all trust in them, for ever. What he really meant, as anyone who had studied politicians and their funny way of talking could tell, was that there was every purpose in following the course in question - but that he hoped they would not take it.

For Mr Smith remembers the opinion poll figures for 1990 as well as the rest of us. In March, when Labour won Mid- Staffs, the party had a 25 per cent lead. Afterwards it diminished steadily, despite Lady Thatcher's continuing presence as Prime Minister. The Conservatives gained a lead immediately after Mr John Major arrived at No 10. Today Labour's lead is roughly 15 per cent, nothing like its size in March 1990. The lesson is clear.

Perhaps it is deceptively clear. History never repeats itself exactly. The voters may not applaud the trick when it is played second time round. Journalists may be nice about Mr Clarke because they regard him as being rather like themselves. And after the Budget he may appear before us as an oppressor, not only of the poor but of the rich also.

By 1996, however, he may look more benign. Last week's conference did little to answer the question: if they neglected to vote for us in 1992, why should they vote for us next time? There used to be a song in the 1940s about 'that pessimistic character with the crab- apple face'. It is the uncongenial role which I find myself playing this Sunday. I certainly think some of my colleagues are easily pleased.

My dominant impression was that the party was downcast and unsure of itself. The secondary impression was that it had reverted to type, as if the years of 'modernisation' had never been. In some ways this was a bonus. It was a relief not to witness a procession of women comrades making their way to the rostrum, all similarly attired in jackets with padded shoulders and enormous bows, and choreographed by Mr Peter Mandelson. Instead we had what was billed beforehand and evaluated afterwards as a good, old-fashioned Labour row. It was of a type which conveniently fell - or could be made to seem to fall - into a familiar pattern. It could accordingly be conveyed in easily understandable terms. The Labour leader was going through trial by ordeal or, if you prefer, an initiation ceremony. Just as Hugh Gaitskell had stood up to the unilateralists in 1960, and Mr Neil Kinnock had scattered the Liverpool Militants in 1985, so Mr Smith was challenging the unions today.

One trouble with this version of events is that Mr John Edmonds and Mr Bill Morris are about as alarming as my ginger tomcat when he hides behind the banisters and sticks out a paw as I pass by. Mr Morris would be perfectly happy spending the day at the Oval with Mr Major. Mr Edmonds would not look out of place at one of those old-fashioned ironmonger's shops, now largely defunct, wearing a long sandy or grey coat. Those impeccable middle-aged men would take great trouble not only selling you three screws but ensuring that they were the right screws. 'Now, how would you be wanting those votes, Mrs Beckett? You'll certainly be needing them before next autumn. Shall I leave them loose, or wrap them up?'

For the unions retain a share of power in the election of the leader and his deputy. Their share goes down from 40 per cent to a third of the dreaded electoral college. The new rules adopted last week provide that this third

shall consist of those members of affiliated organisations who have indicated their support of (sic) the Labour Party and that they are not members or supporters of any other party or otherwise ineligible to be members of the Labour Party. Voting shall take place under the procedures of each affiliated organisation, but voting will be on a one person one vote basis, recorded by affiliated organisations and aggregated for a national total.

Whether one calls this a retention of the block vote is a matter of taste. But Mr Edmonds, Mr Morris and other union leaders accepted it. Likewise, they accepted the gradual diminution of the block vote at the conference to 50 per cent of the total. Here, however, there is as far as I can see no requirement that the union members should indicate their support for the Labour Party. The old, corrupt system of affiliation fees continues. The novelty, apart from the diminution in the share of the total votes ascribed to unions - for the pocket calculator has changed politics, too - is that

the vote of affiliated organisations shall then be divided equally amongst each registered delegate to the conference and shall be cast separately by each delegate.

What this means is that members of union delegations can split up the block vote among themselves. The unions accepted this also. They jibbed at the National Executive Committee's proposal that they should no longer have any collective say in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Instead, the selectorate should consist of party members supplemented by those union levy payers who were prepared to find an additional pounds 3 a year. This would enable an energetic union to exercise more power locally than it does now. In fact, the precise proposal is not contained in the new rules, which merely state loftily that

the procedural document shall lay down in detail the exact procedure that must be followed and will include . . . individual members' requirements to participate in the procedure.

If this rule change alone had been passed, and the unions' two hostile resolutions had been passed as well, Mr Smith would still have claimed a famous victory. What happened was that it was passed together with one hostile and one friendly resolution. For the feature of Brighton was the assertion that rule changes took precedence over resolutions - a discovery comparable to the sudden emergence of the Official Solicitor to release the dockers from Pentonville. I am not surprised that Labour- sympathising papers hailed Mr Smith's complicated victory as they did. What puzzles me more is why the Tory press, not to mention the BBC, swallowed the triumphalist line as well. I suppose a 'strong' Mr Smith implies a weak Mr Major, who may lead to . . . well, to Mr Clarke.