INTERVIEW / He talks of reform, and he means it: John Smith will not be content just to run the system. He has a mission to change it

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THERE is one big, bad thing that could happen to the Conservative Party. Generally speaking, it can tolerate parliamentary crises, struggling leaders, inflation, recession . . . and still know, deep in its bowels, that things will turn out fine. Except for rare, unpleasant interludes, the voting system, the divided opposition and England's natural conservatism keep it in power. Up to now, Labour has played the game, and mostly lost.

But what if Labour decided it wanted to play a different game? What if it lost its faith in winner- takes-all Westminster politics? What if, instead of running the system, Labour changed it? Worst of all, what if a Lib-Lab government reformed the voting system? That could destroy the Tories' dominance of British politics. It is the Conservative nightmare. And the bad news for them is, John Smith knows it.

John Smith] Big John, who they thought was so safe, such an impeccably conservative example of Westminster man. That was never quite true - no alert Scot could be an uncritical admirer of the British political system. But now a reformist agenda has become essential to expanding Labour's appeal, and Mr Smith is discarding much of his residual caution.

So he talked of the need for pluralism in politics, criticised the left for underplaying individual rights, and spoke enthusiastically about the need for open government. Above all, there was real enthusiasm for reshuffling Labour's old priorities: 'Of course, economic success, getting economic and social justice, all these things are very important. But I've got a missionary zeal about reforming the constitution . . .'

The message could hardly be clearer. And Mr Smith made a point of identifying Labour's quite wide- ranging constitutional agenda with himself: 'I really do bring that as a distinctive thing to my leadership of the Labour Party.'

Might this not be merely a cynical bid, in a reform-friendly newspaper, to woo those unpredictable souls, liberal-minded voters? We will come back to liberals, and Liberal Democrats, later. But I, trusting fool, don't think Mr Smith is a man who simply tailors his policy to his situation. He is changing, and that is politically convenient, but he must justify it to himself. And the key to his relish for reform is that he can justify it by his rising anger about the Tory record.

He argued, for instance, that 'nearly every major element in British society is under stress and strain at the moment and that's created a feeling of deep unease in the community. And there's a sense in which politics - and I feel very sad about this - politics has been dragged down.' Why? Them, of course, 'their arrogance, their complacency, their evasiveness and their sharp practice'.

There had never been, he said, 'a more brazen political party than the modern Conservative Party in just saying whatever suits them at an election campaign and now, without a tremor of conscience . . . just abandoning every pledge they make and going in the opposite direction. They somehow seem to think that's all right, that you can cover it by a smart alec phrase . . .' It was an untrustworthy government, probably the worst this century, he thought. Society was coming apart. 'It's also a democracy that is in decay and in decline.' Presbyterian Smith has become the Justified Reformer.

But he means it. To catch his authentic passion, you need to hear him at length. Here goes. He listed constitutional sins for which he blamed the Conservatives. First, what he called 'the centralisation of power and the elimination of opposition. Be in no doubt, local government has been systematically and deliberately diminished because it was an alternative power-source to the central state. Mrs Thatcher started that process, Major is continuing it - deliberately laid plans to undermine it.'

The Conservatives were, secondly, guilty of 'their total failure to recognise the necessary plurality of a democratic society. All power in a modern democracy must to some extent be shared. You cannot appoint only Conservative lickspittles to anything to which ministers have power of appointment. And that's an increasing range of course, as things have been either privatised or taken out of local government . . . the new quangos, the new magistracy, a bunch of appointees. They're everywhere. They're in trust hospitals. They're in TECs. They're in Urban Development Corporations . . .

'In nearly every case, they are paid- up members of the Conservative Party, or near enough to it. The most dramatic example is Ian Grist in Cardiff, lost his seat in Cardiff and within a week or so was appointed to a Cardiff hospital trust, at a salary as well. Now that's contemptuous of the decision of the people . . .

'I intend, when I become prime minister, not to follow that practice. I think you have got to put different points of view on to boards, commissions and what have you, because you have to recognise there are other views in the state, in the community, than the view of the party which happens to be in power. And this is demeaning the whole process, that you have got to be a Tory, and more or less a card-carrying Tory, to be asked to help in the running of public functions. I think that's despicable. I really do.'

It isn't hard, in those words, to detect the effect on politicians who once thought they joint-owned the political system, and have been radicalised by their expulsion. The pain of dispossession may be mingled with austere constitutional views, but the emotional reality is not, I think, feigned. Paddy Ashdown recently said: 'We can all produce our own shopping lists of institutional and formal reforms. But the question is, does Labour mean it?' You would need to be cloth-eared to deny that Mr Smith now means it.

So what did Labour's constitutional agenda amount to? Mr Smith went through it, showing his non- metropolitan roots pretty clearly. 'It's part of building a mature modern democracy that you disperse power, you don't accumulate it . . . you can create a regional patriotism, a sense of public spirit, a sense of working together, much better than you can in Britain at a national level.' That worked in Scotland and could work in all the English regions. Development agencies would be able to get support from local business, trade unions, academia, the commercial sector, and local and central government: 'We don't do enough of that in this country.'

He wanted a freedom of information 'revolution' in Whitehall and a bill of rights. He accused the Conservatives of abusing the power of the state. 'It's very good that that has brought the left round to an understanding of the need to build in individual rights . . . I think in the past we have given too little . . . emphasis to the rights of individuals.'

Mr Smith also listed reform of the Lords - 'I am appalled at the way in which Britain is so slow in making constitutional changes . . . everything seems stuck in a time warp' - and reform of the Commons. He wants MPs to spend less time having debates on the back of bogus amendments and speak instead directly to outsiders while discussing legislation: 'Far better that the committee on the Housing Bill should be listening to evidence from Shelter, from the housing corporations, from the ministry.' He wanted to see a Scottish parliament influencing the Commons by pioneering advances on Westminster practices. 'If they decide to do things in a new and interesting way, then that'll have an impact.'

The blueprint for this Scottish parliament was drawn up by Labour working jointly with many other groups and parties in Scotland, including the Liberal Democrats. So let us now address the most sensitive matter of all: the possibility of a pact of ideas, at least, with the Lib Dems.

First, it is clear that he sees reform as an agenda which that can widen Labour's appeal, particularly in the south: 'I think those people who agree with me in this analysis . . . ought to reflect at the next election whether this is not one of the key issues on which they ought to determine their vote.'

But then, unprompted, the Labour leader went on: 'Now of course, there is a sense, and some of them may say, that some of these issues - not all of them - might be supported by the Liberals and by other parties. To which I say to them, yes, well, maybe but can you form a government?'

Mr Smith acknowledged that the Lib Dems had built up strength in rural Scotland and 'former Tory areas' in England. But he was against pacts. 'In any event,' he said, 'I don't think the Liberals actually want them either, so it's a kind of dead issue.' As for hung parliaments, he wanted a majority Labour government but 'if the electorate voted in a different way, we will have to deal with that'. The door is closed - until it needs to be opened. But then, clearly, it will swing. Everything Mr Smith has been saying about reform is oil for the hinge.

On one central issue, though, the Labour leader remains hostile: 'I am not in favour of changing to PR, but I have made a commitment to a referendum and I mean that, and I believe we ought to have the issue settled . . . I don't think MPs should decide it, I genuinely think this is a case for a referendum because people elected under system A are not the people to decide whether it should be system A or system B' But would he commit himself to legislating for PR if that was the way the referendum went? 'Absolutely. No point in having a referendum if you ignore its results.' Were I a Lib Dem, I would reckon Mr Smith was offering as much as he could.

And he is concerned about much more than political reform; it may be the way to power, but to make it the central purpose of power would be absurdly self-referential. Mr Smith repeatedly came back to the lesson of 'a sad year . . . It is this notion of national decline that is in the air.

'What I also find very upsetting is that there is nobody with ambitions for the country. Why don't we have the ambition to get up the European economic league? Because I just don't believe that we can't create a successful manufacturing sector in this country, that we are not clever and adaptable people. But we are not training our youngsters and we are not investing in the future. Everything's a short-term dodge. . . .

'I am deeply worried about the nature of our society . . . Who in this Government has an ambition, as I have, to get rid of slum housing schemes? When I go and see the ghetto-like conditions in which too many of our citizens have to live, in which children are living impoverished lives, stunted of opportunity, and the quality of their life is predetermined almost to be poor, I am so angry about that.'

Again, he seemed really angry. But he seems mostly to be a man remarkably at ease with himself. At the end of our conversation, he said that his heart attack of nearly five years ago had caused him to think about the nature of life and his priorities, 'and I had a very good think to myself about my involvement in politics because in a sense I had the opportunity to walk away from it. I have never been an obsessive politician.'

He has a happy family life, likes the countryside and the arts, wouldn't mind returning to practise the law - 'I did all right at it when I was there before'. But he decided to come back to politics, because it was 'the greatest challenge . . . a noble calling.'

Now he has, Mr Smith will do anything that he can justify to himself to put Labour back into power. That now includes hard commitments to change the system itself, and opening the door to voting reform. He is criticised by the inattentive for torpor, even complacency and laziness. I rather disagree. If there is one big bad thing that happens to the Tories, it may come dressed up as John Smith.

(Photograph omitted)