Leading Article: Lack of vision puts Labour in the dark

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Labour Party's crisis had to come. Better that it should come now than when the party is once more in sight of the hustings. The belief that the party simply needed a fresh leader - a man with a touch more gravitas - was always a fantasy. The present argument over whether Labour has anything to learn from Bill Clinton's victory in America may seem a trivial pretext for self-examination. But it goes to the heart of the party's weakness.

Put simply, it is this. A few members of the Opposition front-bench - most notably, John Prescott - have some vision of what Labour should stand for and it involves old and unfashionable ideas such as socialism, public ownership, redistribution of wealth and working-class solidarity. Rather more members of the Labour leadership believe (probably rightly) that this vision and these ideas would not win an election. Having no vision themselves - try listing equivalent concepts for Messrs Smith, Brown and Blair - they look elsewhere, to the market researchers, the American Democrats, the left-leaning academics who populate the party's various commissions and inquiries.

On some issues, Labour is still full of passionate intensity: the railways; the closure of pits; the National Health Service; arms sales. Here, the Prescott-style vision happens to coincide with popular anxieties. But the party's very success in opposing the Government on such subjects only highlights, in the electorate's mind, its traditional associations with big nationalised industries, trade unions, disarmament and a dislike of money-making.

Where the new Labour Party has failed is in coming anywhere near articulating popular concerns on a vast range of other subjects. Take crime. The statistics can be misleading but there can be no question that most people - and particularly working-class people - feel more threatened by burglary, violence, rape and car theft than they did in 1979. The Tory record on law and order is lamentable. People pay heavily for it through, for example, increased insurance premiums and anti-theft devices. Yet the perception persists that Labour is soft on crime. Take education, where the Government still manages to blame the left for shortcomings, though an entire generation of children has now begun and ended its schooling under Tory rule. When ministers published league tables of school exam performance, Labour rightly pointed out their inadequacies. But why had Labour not led the way, years before, in demanding league tables based on better data? Why had Labour councils not combined to produce such information for their own schools? Why, for that matter, did Labour not seize on tables showing poor performance in working-class schools and berate the Government for allowing such inequalities to persist?

Take housing. Thousands of young couples on middle and low incomes struggle with the expense of home ownership for want of an alternative; thousands of others sleep on the streets. Why is the Labour Party not leading the demand for a healthy rented sector?

The truth is that, on these issues, Labour is the prisoner of its past. As the party of state provision, it is reluctant to criticise state agenices, such as schools and social work departments; as the anti-capitalist party, it hates the idea of a revival of private landlords. The truth, too, is that many of Labour's younger leaders speak not for the mass of ordinary people (whether working- or middle-class), but for the prejudices and vested interests of the liberal professionals - teachers, lawyers, social workers, psychiatrists and so on.

Neil Kinnock, it is said, united the Labour Party. But, increasingly, that unity seems based on bonded shells of nothingness. Labour still believes in the role of the state but has no convincing vision of how public agencies should operate or to what end. Hence, all it could offer in the last election was some minor redistribution of private income - enough to convince the well-off (or potentially well-off) that it would redistribute in favour of the feckless without convincing anybody that they would be significantly better-off.

By an extraordinary twist of history, a party created by universal suffrage has lost all instinct for popular opinion. No amount of market research and no number of surgeries with American spin-doctors can change that. Margaret Thatcher achieved and retained power because, for a time, she divined the feelings of a large part of the country. Labour will regain power only when it can find the same instincts.