Leading Article: He believed things could be better

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SORROW took many people by surprise last Thursday. Wasn't John Smith that 'bald, fat Scottish twit' (his own words of mock disparagement) who looked like an owl? The man who, if you were a Labour supporter or one of the many passionate disbelievers in the present government, threatened to dismay us by losing the next election because he was too canny, too dull, and (particularly in southern England) too Scottish? And yet grief was general. Some of it can be discounted by the quickness of his death and the age at which he died. Some of it may be explained by the media's orgasmic approach to news and its increasingly knee-jerk (and unChristian) response to death. On the one hand: life good, death bad. And on the other: the living bad, the dead good. If Richard Nixon's death was worth a moment's regret and reflection, as many of his obituarists implied, then John Smith's was worth a small loch of newspaper and television tears. But the media cannot manufacture grief where none genuinely exists, and its coverage caught a public mood. When people heard Smith was dead, they stopped in their stride and were sorry. Their voices were heard on the radio and television. He had been 'a very decent man . . . a gentleman . . . he knew how to talk to working people'.

These were real qualities, but vague. Menzies Campbell, the Liberal MP, hit a clearer mark when he said that John Smith 'had all the virtues of a Scottish Presbyterian and none of the vices'. In other words, Smith had the religious and social sense of rightness that had been implanted by his family and the community of his boyhood, but escaped the piety and selfish rectitude that often go with it. He could have quoted the sarcasm of Burns in his address to the 'unco guid', the very pious: 'O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel, / Sae pious and sae holy, / Ye've naught to do but mark and tell / Your neebors' fauts and folly.' This combination of certainty and sympathy was, in Denis Healey's word, the 'hinterland' of John Smith, and in Smith's case that word carried its literal meaning of 'remote or fringe area'. When Smith grew up in Argyll, the mail and the outside world arrived by red-funnelled steamship in the afternoon, and the nearest town equipped with the modernity of Woolworth's was half a day's journey away. It was a solid, friendly world which knew and spoke more of 'British values' than John Major's fragmented childhood in south London. And when Smith went to Glasgow as a student, it was to a blackened city still preoccupied with making large things - ships, engines, cranes - from steel, dominated by a working class (still working) that Smith could not have avoided even if he had wanted to. Almost all of that has gone, but the values that sprang from that way of living are still cherished by many, and hankered after by others who have never known them. Somewhere in this may lie one reason for the surprising loss we felt when John Smith died.

AND now? If Labour is to make the right choice of leader, it must recognise several important truths. First, the Tories' present unpopularity is hardly surprising, and owes almost nothing to the skills of the Opposition front bench. They have put up taxes after promising they would do no such thing; the collapse of the centrepiece of their economic policy, membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, is still fresh in the memory; their leader seems incapable of controlling their internal quarrels. Above all, people do not feel, whatever the official figures say, that the recession is over. Indeed, according to Peter Jay, the BBC's economics editor, they are right: if we reverted to the definition of a recession used until the Seventies - that the economy is performing below its productive capacity - the present one has only just started to diminish, and will probably continue for another eight years. The only economic prize the Tories can claim is low inflation. And to millions of their supporters, that is no prize at all, because they were relying on inflation to bail them out of the huge debts they incurred in the late Eighties.

Second, Labour has been clocking up a protest vote, not a vote for an alternative government. It may have an unprecedented lead over the Tories in the opinion polls, but we have learnt to distrust what they tell us. John Smith's personal ratings were high, but so were Paddy Ashdown's. If anything, the past 18 months have shown that Labour is no longer the natural party of opposition in large parts of southern England: the by-election triumphs, and many in the local government elections, have gone to the Liberal Democrats. This sense that Labour is becoming a party of Scotland, Wales and the English north was only heightened by Smith's virtues. The southern middle-classes may have respected him, but they did not warm to him; they suspected that he disapproved of their flashy cars and high mortgages.

Third, Labour's traditional class base is declining. If it is ever again to reach the 40 per cent or more of the vote it needs in a general election, it must find a way of appealing to Thatcher's children: people who own their homes, occasionally buy shares, and expect a university education for their sons and daughters. It cannot do so by trying to convince them that Labour will mean a few pence more in their pockets - or, alternatively, a few pence less for an assuaged sense of guilt. The Tories, even after the broken promises of 1992, are always likely to outbid their opponents in an appeal to short-term selfishness. Instead, Labour must convince potential voters that it is within the power of government to improve their lives: through investment in the country's future; the creation of more jobs; better health, education and transport services; a cleaner environment; a more constructive approach to crime. Restoring the belief that governments can make things better, that everything cannot be left to the vagaries of the free market, with an occasional steer from unelected business people sitting on quangos, is Labour's most important task. It succeeded in 1945, it succeeded in 1964. A reassertion of the merits of democratic government is overdue.

ALL this suggests that Labour's new leader needs the following qualities: a willingness to take risks and thus to generate excitement; a natural empathy with the fears and aspirations of the new middle class; a capacity to articulate the party's mission with vigour and conviction; and (regrettable, but true) a good television manner. Of all the likely candidates, Tony Blair seems to have these qualities in the greatest measure. He may seem too sleek and smooth, too much the yuppie for many in the Labour ranks. He will not speak as eloquently as did Neil Kinnock about the old and the poor and a thousand years of inequality. He will not mix as easily as did John Smith with the trade union leaders who still bankroll the Labour Party and give it much of its stability. And, while acknowledging that he is strong on broad philosophy, some will suspect that he travels too light of doctrine. But for all these reasons his election would show that Labour had decided that its future is more important than its past. Blair does not have Smith's hinterland, but that hinterland itself has changed.