There's no need for Blair to go to the country in May

Turbulent times in Brighton could be metaphor for future trouble across the UK
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The Independent Online

It was quite like old times at Brighton on Wednesday. We saw a frightened platform, puzzled delegates, angry trade unionists, Barbara Castle, an affecting but unsuccessful appeal to the mover of the resolution to remit to the Executive. These are words as hallowed at the Labour conference as "the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day" in another place. To round off the afternoon satisfactorily, we had a card vote which the platform duly lost.

It was quite like old times at Brighton on Wednesday. We saw a frightened platform, puzzled delegates, angry trade unionists, Barbara Castle, an affecting but unsuccessful appeal to the mover of the resolution to remit to the Executive. These are words as hallowed at the Labour conference as "the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day" in another place. To round off the afternoon satisfactorily, we had a card vote which the platform duly lost.

Ah, those card votes of long ago! Mr Tony Blair's modernisers had tried to abolish or, at any rate, minimise them because they created a bad impression with the old folks at home. The spectacle of assorted Bills and Berts holding up pieces of cardboard casting the votes of tens of thousands of "affiliated members" - who had no more real existence than the heavenly choir - was considered on the unhelpful side.

But the block vote was allowed to persist at the conference, even if in attenuated form. So likewise was the electoral college for choosing the leader, even if the union section voted as individuals rather than in blocks. It is mythology, nurtured by the new party, that it has moved to a system of one member, one vote. That system applies only to the selection of parliamentary candidates.

This time the brothers from the branches inflicted a defeat on the Government over pensions, as they had hauled previous Labour administrations out of a hole on occasions too numerous to mention. If Mr Gordon Brown does not introduce a flat-rate increase of some kind, even though it may not be tied to earnings, the Government will be in even bigger trouble. For as Mr John Edmonds observed, we have long possessed an admired means test in a tax system to deprive rich pensioners of any surplus wealth they may have at their disposal.

Mr Blair plausibly claimed that two-thirds of the constituency delegates supported the Government. Indeed, the old Labour order has been overturned, constituencies enthusiastic and unions suspicious.

My colleagues in the commentating and sketch-writing trades seem to be as easily impressed as the delegates from the local parties. Never has a Labour Prime Minister or Chancellor received such good notices as Mr Blair and Mr Brown. In the old days, by the way, only members of the National Executive Committee were allowed to address the conference from the platform. In 1968 a special dispensation had to be extended to the new Chancellor, Roy Jenkins - who would as soon have been a member of the RAC as of the NEC - to address the comrades from on high.

We do not know quite what effect his Labour successor had in the sitting-rooms of the land. What we do know is that the Prime Minister did not inspire the citizens of Worcester (for some reason now taken as an electoral paradigm) as he did the enthusiasts of Brighton. It is not, after all, Mr Philip Gould alone who can set up focus groups.

In these circumstances it is surprising that it is not only Mr Blair who clings to May 2001 as the month for the election. The political classes take the same view. Early on in his premiership he decided - he certainly allowed it to be known - that this was his favoured time. This was foolish of him because any justifiable change of course or understandable hesitation would make him look weak, a prime minister frightened to face the electorate.

And yet an election does not have to be held till June 2002. The 1945 Parliament lasted four years six months; that of 1959, four years 11 months; of October 1974, four years five months; of 1987, four years 10 months; and of 1992, five years one month, the maximum under the law. These have been the longest Parliaments since 1945. C R Attlee won narrowly in 1950. Alec Home lost almost equally narrowly in 1964. James Callaghan lost comprehensively but by no means disgracefully in 1979. And John Major won unexpectedly in 1992 and lost catastrophically in 1997.

Home could have claimed a moral victory because Harold Wilson had been expected to win by a more generous margin than the four seats he ended up with. If R A Butler had been leading the Conservatives instead, they would almost certainly have won.

The current wisdom is that Lord Callaghan made a mistake in not going to the country in October 1978, so annoying the trade unions, who thought they had been led up the garden path by him. But it was an unrealistic pay norm rather than the union leaders' pique which brought about the events of 1978-79. And it was not these which brought down the Callaghan government but his immobility after his defeat in the House on the motion of censure. Mr Michael Foot had several wheezes up his jumper but Lord Callaghan thought there was a tide in the affairs of parties and the Labour tide was out. As Matthew Arnold put it:

"Let them have it how they will!

Thou art tired; best be still!"

Who could tell what the result would have been if Lord Callaghan had managed to hang on till November 1979? I am not asserting he would have won: simply that the postwar precedents do not by any means demonstrate that it is necessarily fatal for a government to push past the four-year marker and struggle down the track towards the five-year tape.

Certainly there is no reason for Mr Blair's cabinet colleagues to keep quiet if they feel they are being forced into a May election about which they may have their reservations. It is a constitutional error that the date of the election is for the prime minister alone to decide. It derives from Lloyd George and from subsequent textbook authors, who endlessly repeated one another without looking closely and for themselves. The truth is that the practice varies.

Home was persuaded to delay by a combination of Butler, Lord Hailsham and Conservative Central Office. In 1966 Wilson decided with his familiars alone but in 1970 brought in the management committee, as the then inner cabinet was called. In February 1974 Edward Heath was persuaded by senior ministers three weeks too late and against his better judgement. In 1977-78 the Callaghan cabinet held several meetings at which the election date was discussed, with a final split decision hesitantly for postponement.

Mr Blair's heroine Margaret Thatcher had several meetings with her cronies at Chequers in 1983. She believed June was her lucky month, as Mr Blair believes May is his. She made an appointment to inform the Queen of the election date early on the morning before she told the cabinet. "Anyone object?" she asked. No one did. She behaved in a similarly high-handed way in 1987. A few years later, however, Mr Major was having trouble in the Commons over the Maastricht Bill and threatened (or his Whips threatened) an election in the event of a defeat. "We wouldn't have let him get half-way down the Mall," one of his ministers remarked at the time. I doubt whether any of Mr Blair's cabinet would be so bold today. In my mother's phrase, they wouldn't say boo to a goose. They still possess greater powers than they realise.

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