Of fibs, whoppers or, if you prefer, mis-statements

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The Independent Online

This column takes a pride in doing what the BBC used to do, what the Corporation liked to call public service journalism. One of the services I try to perform (though others, notably Mr Francis Wheen in the Guardian, labour in the same vineyard) is to draw the attention of the public to statements by the Prime Minister of that which is not the case. Let us call them mis-statements. No, let us call them fibs or, if you prefer, whoppers, but not on any account lies, because my mother taught me that this last word was not used in polite society.

We all know by now about the fox-hunting fibs. At the Bournemouth conference Mr Tony Blair told a whole succession of whoppers worthy of a revisionist historian, culminating in the claim that it was Labour which had brought about women's suffrage. In fact the Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised women over 30 and was passed by Lloyd George's coalition government; while the Equal Franchise Act 1928 lowered the voting age for women to 21 and was passed by Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government.

The latest of Mr Blair's fibs concerns the contest for mayor of London. He says that the system whereby Mr Frank Dobson was selected as the Labour candidate and Mr Ken Livingstone rejected was "exactly" the same as the one under which he had been elected leader. But it was not the same at all. True, the ratios in the electoral college were the same: a third each for trade unions, MPs and individual members. But the crucial difference which cost Mr Livingstone the nomination was that in 1994 trade unionists voted as individuals, whereas for the London election the block vote was restored, as it had been for the Welsh election when poor Mr Alun Michael narrowly defeated Mr Rhodri Morgan.

In the elections for leader and deputy leader of 1981-92 the ratios had been different, with the unions taking 40 per cent and the other two sections of the electoral college 30 per cent each. But here too the block vote was in operation. It did not cause much ill-feeling in the election of Neil Kinnock and, nine years later, of John Smith, though numerous unions cast their votes on the whim of their general secretaries without so much as a by-your-leave.

The reasons for the lack of ill-feeling were that on both occasions all three sections of the electoral college agreed with one another and also that the victor had been widely predicted. Neither of these considerations applied when Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981 by 0.85 per cent in the second ballot. The result was uncharitableness all round.

In 1992-93 Smith conducted a campaign (obstructed by Mrs Margaret Beckett, among others) to change the system of electing the leader. Broadly, there were three choices: retain the old system, which would have been a defeat for Smith, though whether he would have resigned on that account is still debated; remodel the old system to eliminate the block vote; or do away with the electoral college completely and move to a straightforward system of one member, one vote. No one, as far as I know, tried to revive the pre-1981 system, of which Mr Michael Foot was the last beneficiary, of election by exhaustive ballot conducted by the Parliamentary Labour Party alone.

The second choice - an electoral college with union representation but without the block vote - was adopted by the 1993 conference after Smith had threatened to resign and Mr John Prescott had supported him in what was his least grammatical but most effective speech. The new or, if you prefer, modified system then produced Mr Blair after the death of John Smith.

There is now, I read, to be a collection of his speeches and a biography by Dr Kevin Jefferys, who recently produced an excellent short biography of Anthony Crosland. There is, it seems, a certain amount of ill-feeling on the part of the former leader's widow because she thinks he has been written or, as people say these days, airbrushed out of Labour history.

But then, so also have James Callaghan, Harold Wilson and Hugh Gaitskell. The picture of Ramsay MacDonald is still turned to the wall, though the recent evidence is that he formed the 1931 government under a sincere (even if mis-placed) sense of duty forced into him by the flagrantly unconstitutional behaviour of George V and his private secretary. The only acceptable heroes in the pantheon of the People's Party are still - as they were well before the advent of Mr Blair - those familiarly referred to as Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan and, of course, Keir Hardie, whom the Prime Minister called in aid during his recent visit to my native land. The true hero and the real creator of the Labour Party is Arthur Henderson. But unglamorous "Uncle Arthur", as he was called, has never been box office.

Altogether I think Lady Smith has little cause for complaint, the less so as her late husband contributed to the loss of the 1992 election through his redistributive posturings beforehand. After his sad death there was, however, a feeling abroad that something decent had disappeared. It was called "the spirit of John Smith". This mysterious Highland brew lasted for about three days before stocks ran out and politicians started abusing one another once again. Yet in a way Mr Blair was a beneficiary of the brief appearance on the political market of this potent beverage. Somehow he too was felt to be different. Indeed, in May 1997 he claimed to be offering something different. I do not think he could plausibly make such a claim today. That is the problem: this government is not different.

I wrote last week that columns should not be used as a line for hanging out personal grumbles. I feel no such inhibition about politicians who have recently died, even if they were not widely known: indeed, all the more reason to write about them if this was so. As a young man at Cambridge, Giles Shaw was one of the funniest speakers I had ever heard. Last week he died at the relatively young age of 68, having sat as a Conservative for Pudsey for 23 years before the last election, when he retired. He held several junior offices but was never Margaret Thatcher's type, not least because he possessed a sense of humour. In the election to succeed her he was Douglas Hurd's main campaign manager. He and not Peter Brooke should have been the Conservative candidate for Speaker.

Sir Giles, as he had become, was never a professional Yorkshireman - that vacancy had long been filled by Sir Marcus Fox - but he was a devoted citizen of York and a supporter of its chocolate industry, in which he had worked for nearly 20 years before becoming an MP. I shall always remember his purported adjudication of a chutney-making competition at the Women's Institute in one of the outlying villages: "While the combination of tomatoes, onions, apples, raisins and mixed spices would have been excellent in itself, the addition of Smarties was a stroke of genius." There are, I am afraid, no more Tories like Giles around the place.