Leading Article: No comeback for Mr Smith

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH, who this afternoon will be elected the 14th leader of the Labour Party, is (or ought to be) a middle-aged man in a hurry. He will have just one shot at reaching No 10. He has to get his party and its policies right first time. During the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton, albeit in a different context, described himself as the Comeback Kid. If Mr Smith were to lose the next general election, there would be little prospect of a comeback for the Labour leader or indeed his party.

Yet there are similarities between the problems facing Mr Clinton - a mere stripling of 45 - as the Democratic presidential candidate and those Mr Smith will face in four years' time. Unless the two men can redefine their left-of-centre parties and generate an appeal that goes beyond their traditional, declining electoral heartlands, they will fail.

Writing in the July issue of the Altantic Monthly, William Schneider, an American political analyst, draws attention to the fact that inner-city dwellers (once defined as 'the left-behinds of the Great Society') are more staunchly Democrat than they were a generation ago. But those who move out to the suburbs are more inclined to support the Republicans. The problem for Mr Clinton is that, in Mr Schneider's phrase, 'the suburbs are growing faster than the cities are becoming more Democratic'. A similar phenomenoncan be identified in this country. For 'cities' substitute 'metropolitan areas'. For 'suburbs' read 'Essex', or 'south-east England'. It is easy to forget how overwhelmingly blue the electoral map of England now is.

In other words, the Democrats have, during the past quarter-century, come to possess a growing share of a declining market in presidential elections, the Republicans have taken a growing share of a growing market. It is a problem this Democratic candidate has recognised and addressed. Hence his choice of Al Gore as running mate, the distancing from Jesse Jackson and the marginalising of those advocating causes and positions that are seen as extreme or bizarre. Hence an acceptance speech in which he reached out to embrace a 'forgotten' middle class and appealed for the support of Ross Perot's 'army of patriots for change'.

Because American political parties are constitutionally and institutionally ill-defined, the structure of his party is not of great importance to Mr Clinton. To Mr Smith, it is essential that he get Labour's constitution right, both because of the signals this would send to the public and because of the significant power of the party as an institution to obstruct its leader. Every study suggests that potential supporters are turned off in droves by the belief that Labour is dominated by a collection of union barons.

Reform will not be easy, although there is general agreement, even in union circles, that the days of the undemocratic block vote are numbered. The consensus-minded Mr Smith may have to fight to ensure that he is the last Labour leader levered into office by a handful of overweight general secretaries casually waving cards that allegedly represent the unanimous views of hundreds of thousands of their members.

The new Leader's aim must be to ensure that Labour's conference in October next year endorses a lasting and comprehensive constitutional settlement. This should involve the creation of a one-person, one-vote party in which individual members and MPs (but not union bosses) share the task of electing future leaders. As for the policy-making annual conference, half its delegates might be elected, democratically, from those union members who choose to pay the political levy and half from constituency parties. The detail should be open to negotiation, but not the principle.

The themes for Mr Smith's Labour Party must be choice and empowerment, the agenda should include education and health, the objective should be to recapture from the Conservatives the flag of radicalism. The most damning warning in recent years came after the election, when Larry Whitty, the general secretary, revealed the conclusions reached by the party's private pollsters. People perceive Labour, he said, as 'a party of the past and one which holds back aspirations and tends to put the clock back'.

As Mr Smith takes up the challenge, he should realise that his party's existing supporters have nowhere else to go, but that they are a declining band and already insufficient to put him in Downing Street. His task is therefore to win back those alienated from Labour and to render the party a satisfactory depository for the votes of former Liberals.