Labour's awesome choice

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THIS IS a desperately sad moment for British politics, but it is a desperately important one too. If the Labour Party absorbs the trauma of its loss, goes on to elect its most appealing candidate as John Smith's successor and maintains its self-discipline, it may strengthen its ability to win. If it makes a bad choice as leader, or goes back to its old tribal battles, then Mr Smith's death will only strengthen the one- party, Conservative, state. The choice now facing Labour MPs, and hundreds of thousands of individual party activists and trade unionists, is awesome in its implications.

However hurtful or brutal it may seem to state the obvious this morning, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, is the strongest candidate to succeed Mr Smith. The others, including John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, have many talents and a variety of possible deals and alliances to consider in the days ahead. But if each of them is honest, they must surely conclude that Mr Blair is the person most likely to appeal to the English Midland and Southern voters on whom their party's chances rest.

Mr Blair is young for this responsibility, the youngest of the potential successors and, worse, looks it. He is properly hungry for power and has occasionally despaired during Labour's long exile from it. Where Mr Smith was reassuring and solid, he would be refreshing and unfamiliar. His greatest strength and his greatest weakness are exactly the same - he is not a natural Labour Party man, by which I mean he is not saturated in the party's culture. This means that he rarely sounds alien to uncommitted voters, a huge plus.

But it also means he doesn't empathise with party activists in the way that Mr Prescott, Mr Cook and Margaret Beckett do, and Mr Smith did. That could cause him problems in the leadership contest and, if he won, as leader. Much would then depend on whether the Labour Party has become serious enough about power to tolerate being led by someone who speaks more to the voter than to its own past - without causing that individual intolerable difficulty.

Suppose the question of the succession is settled in Mr Blair's favour - and I would guess that opinion-polling, and television, is likely to sway the Labour vote for him in rather the same way that the smaller Tory parliamentary electorate was swayed in favour of John Major after the fall of Margaret Thatcher - the chasm left by John Smith's death is not thereby filled. Indeed, his absence may affect the party for years. We tend to think of the left-right rows that made the Labour Party seem unelectable a decade ago as securely and inevitably gone, as much a part of Labour history as the Red Clydesiders or the Bevanites. That is not so. Labour unity is the exception, not the rule, and was brought about by determined politicians, not an act of nature.

The party was disciplined and modernised by Neil Kinnock, whose leadership was characterised by iron discipline. It was the Welsh Thermidor. Then Mr Smith arrived and successfully held the party together in an entirely different way. He benefited hugely from the Kinnock era, playing the nice cop to the former leader's police chief. He came to be regarded as a friend by people on the Campaign Group left, as well as by his natural supporters on the social-democratic wing of the party. He had the gift of social ease and, as a Labour man through and through, rather liked some of the stroppy left-wingers who had been given such a hard time by Mr Kinnock. The new style, perhaps only because of the contrast, worked wonders.

But it wasn't only style: Mr Smith also made clear that there were some policies, including support for a national minimum wage and a commitment to full employment (never really explained), to which he was personally committed and on which he would not budge, no matter what the pollsters or pundits said. There weren't too many of these policies, and Mr Smith stayed flexible on the most sensitive matters, such as tax. But the faintest tang of socialist fundamentalism smelt sweet to left-wingers who had started to think Labour would do absolutely anything to win.

There are those who think that this mixture of comradely charm and social commitment would not have been enough, that Mr Smith would eventually have had to adopt the more disciplinarian approach of his predecessor. But he did pretty well. The leader's caution and his uneasiness about offending the left caused severe friction at times between Mr Smith and reformist lieutenants such as Mr Brown and Mr Blair. Yet when he died, the party was still quietly and doggedly modernising itself, and there was no outward sign of serious dissent.

It may be harder for his successor. There are serious tensions not far below the surface. Some are personal: John Prescott and Robin Cook are not unqualified admirers of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair - or, for that matter, of one another. And there are serious political fault-lines, too. The left wants a high-borrowing, neo-Keynesian economics that the right regards as lunatic. If the Social Justice Commission grasps the nettle of targeting benefits, the Labour left will attack it ferociously. When Mr Brown's tax policy eventually emerges, they will attack that too. The anti-European Union MPs, though fewer and generally older than their Tory counterparts, are stirring again. And so on . . .

Mr Smith had proved to be a big, confident-enough figure to keep both the personality clashes and policy rows simmering silently and rarely threatening to boil over. We have seen few of those old 'Labour split' stories in recent years. But the left would treat, say, Mr Blair more sceptically and warily than Mr Smith, even after the turmoil of a leadership battle had subsided. Mr Blair would be obliged to refight old battles over economic policy and behave with great cunning in his allocation of jobs. He is tough, and a firm moderniser with a feel for public opinion - as he showed over crime policy. But it is one thing to push a line while standing in the shadow of a popular and experienced figure like Mr Smith; it is another thing to lead.

And, as Mr Blair knows full well, there are plenty of ideological issues which Labour can tear itself apart over, should it so choose. Nothing has happened since Mr Smith became leader that cannot be thrown away in a fortnight. If that happened, it would be black news for democracy. Perhaps, in due course, the Liberal Democrats would grow into a bigger national force. But, for the time being, Labour disarray would simply license the Conservatives to carry on with their debilitating and destructive internal war, unconcerned about the possibility of losing an election, and rightly complacent about their long-term future as guardians of a centralised and single-party state. As the pain slowly becomes less intense, Labour people should ask themselves: is this a memorial that John Smith, the wily, decent and passionate democrat, deserves?

(Photograph omitted)