BOOK REVIEW / Mr Smith goes to town in search of votes: John Smith - Andy McSmith: Verso, pounds 17.95

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Smith embraced one member, one vote in the course of his campaign for the party leadership last year, he set himself on a collision course with his sponsors, the union barons, who remain the most powerful group in the Labour Party. Yet it is his biographer's contention that Labour's 15th leader, a cautious, canny, consensus-seeking Scottish lawyer, somehow hoped to avoid the head-on clash which now seems inevitable.

The writer should know. He was for many years a Labour Party apparatchik and worked closely with the leader before moving to the Daily Mirror - which he felt compelled to leave earlier this year when the paper started to distance itself from Labour.

In fact, Mr Smith is lucky that the voting issue is coming to a head so starkly and so early in his period at the top. Labour leaders seem fated to present themselves to the country by defining themselves against some unpopular group within their party. As McSmith points out, Neil Kinnock began to acquire national credibility only when he made it clear that there was no place for Militant in his party.

In contrast, Harold Wilson lost his nerve and botched his chosen confrontation with the party in the late 1960s. As prime minister he recognised the imperative need to curb the unions' industrial power and signalled his determination to impose statutory reform.

Eventually, Wilson surrendered to union bullying and lost the subsequent general election. Had Wilson kept his nerve, there would have been no Winter of Discontent, no Thatcherite victory in 1979 and no necessity for Norman Tebbit's 'anti-union' laws.

A decade before Wilson's climb-down, Hugh Gaitskell had become a respected national figure, solely as a result of his courageous pledge in 1960 - at a hostile party conference - to 'fight, fight and fight again' to save the party he loved from the unilateral nuclear disarmers. He signalled that he was not prepared to preside over a neutralist party.

It was, as McSmith reveals, Gaitskell who first discovered the young Smith, then a right wing Labour student activist at Glasgow University. The occasion was May Day 1962. At a dinner given by progressive student clubs, the young man took as his theme the message that Labour's main function was to win power. Its members must learn self-discipline and not pursue their political quarrels to a point at which they might harm the party's electoral prospects. Gaitskell was delighted and marked the ambitious young man down for preferment.

The truth about Smith's May Day speech is that its message was ambiguous. Gaitskell detected support for his own uncompromising leadership style. But it could have been interpreted as a cautionary sermon addressed to the leader as well as the led. Subsequently Smith has proved himself a middle- way politician. His aim has always been to promote his own cause, hold things together and win elections.

As Roy Hattersley (leader of the centre-right Solidarity group in the early 1980s) put it to the author: 'One of John's great strengths and one of John's tactics has always been to be on the right side but not too deeply involved in the right side. He was always on our slate for the shadow cabinet . . . I can't remember whether he was on the committee of Solidarity . . . either he didn't come very much or he didn't say anything that I remember.' Others, including Neil Kinnock, have, as McSmith indicates, doubts about Mr Smith's determination to force reform through. There are also, he records, complaints about Smith's refusal to get too involved in the struggle against Militant, and his opportunistic embrace of Margaret Beckett as his deputy. (Ms Beckett has over two decades lurched from hard left to Tribunite soft left, to loyal Callaghan junior minister, to Bennery in the early Eighties, before accepting Mr Smith's call.)

So, even at the eleventh hour, Mr Smith's inclination may be to cut a deal with the union bosses who made him leader. The message of this workmanlike biography is that, in his own interest, he should resist the temptation and adopt the uncompromising Lutheran injunction: 'Here I stand. I can do no other.'