Give them books, Mr Blair, not management games

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
EVER since their conference it has been evident that the Conservatives have three pre-election lines of attack. One is of Labour as the party of high taxation, though whether this will be accompanied by any substantial tax cuts of their own remains doubtful. Another is of racism-cum-xenophobia, though that did not prevent the Government from properly accepting without protest the European Court's ruling on free prescriptions for men over 60. And another is of Labour's supposed unfitness to govern.

In the event, the old slogans "It's time for a change" and "Give the other lot a chance" are likely to prove more persuasive than the traditional Tory cry, much mocked by Harold Wilson before 1964: "They haven't got the chaps." Still, there is something in it today, as there was 31 years ago. Mr Tony Blair, for one, has recognised its force by planning to dispatch his Shadow Cabinet to a "management school" called Templeton College where they will, I read, be taught about leadership, inter-personal skills and body-language.

As well send them to Cheltenham Ladies' College, or to Trout Hall, where the grapefruit segments used to come from! They will end up spouting management- speak: statements of purpose, visions, values, goals, strategic priorities and key performance indicators. The whole crazed scheme epitomises what is wrong with New Labour, with Mr Blair's advisers and, perhaps, with Mr Blair himself.

What he should do instead is require his colleagues to spend the time they would otherwise have taken up at this institution in private study. They should begin with the Crossman, Castle and Benn Diaries. As these comprise a total of 10 stout volumes - and as the members of le cabinet fanto^me are not, by and large, great readers - Mr Anthony Howard's edited version of Richard Crossman's account, and the shortened, paperback edition of Lady Castle's production, will serve the purpose perfectly well.

There is, as far as I know, no condensed version of Mr Tony Benn's Diaries. But as the old boy feels left out of things rather, and is anxious to help the party, he will, I am confident, be prepared to bring out a shortened edition. The colleagues should also read Mr Gerald Kaufman's How To Be a Minister, while Mr Blair himself should study carefully Lady Falkender's Inside Number 10 and Mr Joe Haines's Politics of Power. The memoirs of Lords Callaghan, Healey, Jenkins and Owen are also worth more than a glance, as is Mrs Susan Crosland's life of her husband. Conservative ex-ministers, by contrast, have produced hardly anything of value, though Mr Gordon Brown should certainly read Lord Lawson's View From No 11.

Alas! People no longer learn from reading books. Knowledge is not knowledge unless it can be put on a video, a cassette or a disc, compact or floppy, as the case may be. Perhaps Mr Blair should invest in one or more of these contrivances. This would certainly be more useful than wasting the workers' pennies on a place where, for all we know, members of the Shadow Cabinet will be forced to dress up as soldiers and go out into the woods to fire pellets of paint at one another. This is the sort of thing that goes on in these establishments; or so I am informed.

The trouble is that Labour will have been out of office for 17 or 18 years when Mr Blair forms a government in 1996 or 1997. The only members of the Shadow Cabinet with ministerial experience are Mrs Margaret Beckett, Dr Jack Cunningham, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr Michael Meacher, Mr Gavin Strang and Mrs Ann Taylor. None was in a real cabinet. All were junior ministers, with Mrs Taylor a whip. None is a soulmate of Mr Blair.

Under the 1980 standing order requiring all elected members of the Shadow Cabinet to be given places in the real Cabinet, all but one will have to be accommodated. The exception is Dr Cunningham, who was not elected this year but appointed by Mr Blair. For all Dr Cunningham's rampant sense of personal injustice, Mr Blair might well prefer to have him rather than some of the others in his first Cabinet. I have been into the question of his fettered choice before. I do not want to cover the same ground again, except to give a quotation I have recently discovered from Mr Neil Kinnock at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, in Mr Benn's Diaries for 21 January1987: "I shall decide who is in the Cabinet."

In 1964 Wilson himself, Jim Griffiths and Patrick Gordon Walker had all been Cabinet ministers. The last two were not members of the Shadow Cabinet, though Griffiths had topped the poll regularly until 1955, when he stopped standing. Other non-members of the Shadow Cabinet to whom Wilson gave posts were Arthur Bottomley, Barbara Castle, Frank Cousins, Richard Crossman, Anthony Greenwood, Fred Peart and William Ross. The members he overlooked were Dick Mitchison and Fred Willey.

The reason for such flexibility was that the Shadow Cabinet then contained only 10 elected members together with the leader and his deputy. Today there is a total of 24, not including Lords Richard and Irvine, respectively the leader of the Labour peers and the shadow Lord Chancellor. A Cabinet of 26 is absurd. Some of them will clearly have to be consigned to ministries of state, which, as Mr Jeremy Hanley reminded us last week, do not count as junior ministries.

Owing to the smallness of the old Shadow Cabinet, most of Wilson's appointees were already covering their Conservative equivalents. And with the exception of Cousins at Technology (who proved disastrous) and Lady Castle at Overseas Development (who turned out to be rather good), his first Cabinet appeared dull. He used to say that his preferred team would be formed only at the first reshuffle. Certainly its brightest members, Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins, appeared later, in January and December 1965 respectively. Lord Jenkins flourished, both as Chancellor and as Home Secretary. But Wilson's greatest folly (as it was of Lord Callaghan) was that, for sordid reasons of party management, Crosland was never made Chancellor or Denis Healey Foreign Secretary.

The last argument - it was not a row but an argument - that I had with the late Peter Jenkins was about why there were no Croslands, Crossmans or Jenkinses in the modern Labour Party or, for that matter, Macleods among the Conservatives. Peter said they were there all right. It was just that we were getting older. I was not and am not so sure. Mr Blair's Shadow Cabinet is, if anything, rather duller than Wilson's first Cabinet. And, high though my regard is for Mr Andrew Smith, Mr Chris Smith and Mr Brian Wilson, I do not see them as the equivalents of Crosland, Jenkins and Healey. Even so, they can console themselves with the reflection that they are at least as fit to govern as the present inhabitants of Whitehall and Number 10.