Leading Article: Testing times for John Smith

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WHAT is John Smith to do? He defends the Maastricht treaty and the present level of the pound as stoutly as John Major, but three members of the Shadow Cabinet, David Blunkett, Bryan Gould and Michael Meacher, have now demanded a referendum on Maastricht. Many more are known to be unhappy about the exchange rate, even before for the devaluation of the lira. Away from the wider world, the decision of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to stand for the National Executive Committee certainly has increased the pressure on other members of the executive.

Any opposition politician must be tempted to break ranks over a Maastricht referendum and exchange rates. It is customary for oppositions to urge policies different from those of the government, especially when the government is causing pain to its own supporters. An unscrupulous opposition could blame the effort to maintain the exchange rate for much of the present economic anguish; a call for a referendum on Maastricht leaves unclear the question of loyalty to the treaty itself. It may prove quite difficult for Mr Smith to argue that Labour should do nothing to exacerbate Mr Major's problems.

The crisis provoked by the French referendum has proved that there are votes all over Europe in nationalism and hostility to centralising tendencies. There may not be a majority for such sentiments, even in France. But throughout Europe they form substantial minorities. Hostility to Maastricht is not represented by the leadership of any of the three main British parties. It is to the credit of the leaders involved that none has been prepared to pander to such sentiment.

Self-interest and principle alike dictate that Mr Smith must stand firm. The policies involved played an essential role in Labour's emergence as a serious alternative government from the slough of the early Eighties. There could be no benefit to Labour in abandoning them now. Besides, what matters about the policies of an opposition four years before the election is not that they should be right: Mr Smith could call for immediate parity with the zloty and no ripple on the currency markets would follow. What matters about intra-party disputes in opposition is that they be handled well in preparation for the much greater strains of office. Since Labour can do nothing to affect matters, it should practise steadiness under fire.

Labour fought the last election united as hardly ever before, because the rewards for unity and responsibility seemed so great for everyone. The most recent attacks on central party policies by prominent members of the National Executive suggest that much of the party still fails to see that unity and discipline are virtues in themselves for any organisation that is trying to get things done. Opposition is not an end in itself. It is a means to taking power. But there will always be people in the Labour Party for whom opposition has a value in itself, and these people have votes in the NEC elections.

In the aftermath of the election defeat, it may appear that only the leadership benefits from unity and responsibility. It is up to Mr Smith to ensure that the rebels see that rebellion can be a costly policy for them, too. Otherwise the whole Labour Party will savour the benefits of opposition for an indefinite future.