A lovable institution in search of power

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH was in cracking from on the Today programme yesterday, clear, authoritative and reasoned in arguing that 1994 will be the year in which the electorate begins to pay through 'unfair taxes' for the Tories' past mistakes.

His confident performance seemed to make a nonsense of the unflattering portrait Sir Norman Fowler drew of the Labour Party's 'inertia' in his new year message six days ago.

In his most pointed passage, Sir Norman had argued that Labour had been proved wrong on trade union reform, privatisation and defence; even left wing commentators 'now accept that virtually all new ideas in this country are being generated by those on the right'; after April 1992 Labour's leaders had accepted the need for change but 'that view lasted only long enough for John Smith to secure election as Party leader'.

Fortified by hearing their leader on the radio yesterday morning, shadow ministers can argue all the more confidently that Sir Norman's strictures were not only less than the whole truth; they were also little more than whistling in the dark.

Last year was the Tories' worst ever in the history of opinion polls, with the average monthly Gallup below 30 per cent for the first time. There is every sign the Conservatives are heading for crushing defeats in both the May local elections and the European elections in June. John Major is both an unpopular prime minister and more secure in the leadership than he was - on the face of it an ideal combination from the Opposition's point of view.

Inertia may be what Labour needs. Anything else, including radical new ideas, will cause debate; debate leads to division and division, as Labour discovered in the early Eighties, switches off voters.

Labour is, by and large, an effective Opposition. In fact, to take just one example, 1993 saw expert tactical handling of the Maastricht Bill by the party's foreign affairs team. The sharpness of Mr Smith - by Neil Kinnock's own generous admission - at the dispatch box on a good day is unrivalled.

So it looks churlish, perverse even, to caution Labour against complacency. For all the counter- arguments, however, Sir Norman had a point. It was a caricature of course, but one which some Labour activists have already found uncomfortably recognisable. For the party has been here before.

First, the psephology. It saw a 20- point poll lead at the peak of Margaret Thatcher's unpopularity over the poll tax turn to dust; indeed even its steady recovery in the late Eighties did not give it the share of the vote (36.9 per cent) it had in what was then seen as the cataclysmic defeat of 1979. The Tories won the 1983 and 1987 elections after recovering from mid-term poll ratings of 30 and 32 per cent. It is easy to explain the collapse of the Labour vote in Christchurch and Newbury as a tactical switch to the party most likely to defeat the Tories; but its formidable poll lead has yet to be tested against the Liberal Democrat revival in a Southern by- election where Labour is running second; a similar switch in such a seat would spread terror through Labour's ranks.

Maybe such terror is just what Labour needs. For the underlying, barely articulated, argument within the party's ranks cannot be simplified to one purely between left and right, or even between 'traditionalists' and 'modernisers'. It is more fundamental still: whether it is in the natural order of things for the voters to return eventually to Labour - or whether the old, collectivist Labour Party which displaced the Liberals, is now, after nearly three-quarters of a century, coming to the end of its natural life.

Those who have first-hand experience of serving Labour governments - perhaps, but not necessarily, including Mr Smith himself - are understandably more inclined to believe the first; those who have had no such taste of power fear, deep down, the second.

Which is what is interesting about the current stirrings within the Shadow Cabinet. The so-called 'modernisers' are planning a series of speeches and articles designed to produce some positive reasons for voting Labour rather than merely seeking to eliminate the ones for not doing so. They will take care to avoid factionalism. But Tony Blair will return to his own 'back to basics' agenda, starting this weekend with a speech on crime and society, arguing, in effect, that Labour has to recognise that individuals are responsible for their own actions; but also that the added value which Labour can provide is society's obligations to the individual.

Gordon Brown is about to return to the critical and sensitive subject of taxation with a message similarly aimed at once at the electorate and the party itself. He will acknowledge that Labour has historically been mistrusted as the high tax party, but will argue that the Tories' breach of its own tax promises has now given Labour an opportunity to build that trust. He will canvass - as the Liberal Democrats have done - hypothecated or 'earmarked' taxes: no taxation without justification.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown may not be quite as isolated within the party as they looked after the party conference in October. David Blunkett, for example, may not agree with Mr Blair and Mr Brown about everything, but he too is showing signs of anxiety that the opinion polls are not enough; what really matters is closing the 7 per cent gap in actual votes between Labour and the Tories in April 1992. He too has begun to join the argument about what Labour needs to say it stands for in the Nineties as well as what it doesn't.

And John Prescott, the man who made the political running with the idea of private finance for investment in British Rail, may not be the out-and-out traditionalist he is sometimes depicted as being.

The question is whether Labour can revitalise itself, as the Tories have periodically done, including, under Mrs Thatcher, when they reached beyond the social class of their own 'natural' supporters to previously Labour-voting C2s. Labour must distinguish between its lasting principles and outdated methods of implementing them.

This is all about banishing for good the nightmare that descended on Labour on the morning of April 10, 1992: that it faced a comfortable but ultimately bleak destiny in which Labour is doomed to be Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, a lovable British institution, part of the warp and woof of British democracy, no doubt, but with little prospect of tasting power on its own again.