Leading Article: The hard truth for Labour

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The Independent Online
THE PANIC and fury that overwhelmed the Conservative Party last weekend in the aftermath of Newbury and the county council elections is already beginning to dissipate. So entrenched is the Government's arrogance that even rejection by the voters on a scale which is virtually unprecedented has left it seemingly unmoved.

What has undoubtedly given it most comfort is the speech given on Saturday to the new Labour Policy Forum by John Smith. Mr Smith reportedly 'stunned' senior colleagues when he declared that the party could 'cruise home' to general election victory on the basis of last Thursday's results. The apparent purpose of Mr Smith's words was to emphasise that Labour could win on its own and to show his contempt for any talk of pacts with the Liberal Democrats.

For anxious Tories, Mr Smith's go-it- alone complacency is a shaft of sunlight breaking through a troubled sky. As long as Mr Smith sticks to his principles he will stick to being a man whose experience of office ended in 1979. The lesson of last week was not that the Tories are more unpopular than they have ever been, but that in a poll that most people did not think would materially affect their lives, the anti-Conservative vote was distributed with unheard of efficiency. If Mr Smith believes there is the remotest chance of such a thing happening serendipitously in a general election, he is deluding himself.

The hard truth for Labour is that it will take an electoral earthquake to give Mr Smith even a bare overall majority; and, as Professor Ivor Crewe has argued on our pages, the geology is distinctly unfavourable. First, the boundary changes will switch 15 seats from Labour to the Conservatives. Second, as the electorate ages over the next decade it will drift to the right. Third, practically every long-run social trend is contracting Labour's voting groups and expanding Tory voting groups. Fourth, the continued migration from the Labour north to the Tory south erodes the Labour vote as the migrants embrace Conservative 'values'. Professor Crewe concludes with an estimate that Labour's 'natural' vote is about 34 per cent and slipping, whereas the Conservatives' is 41 per cent and building.

Where Mr Smith does have some sense on his side is in his conviction that a formal pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not only be a formidably difficult undertaking but might result in no more than a handful of extra seats for Labour and little or no net benefit to the Liberal Democrats. The problem of such a pact is the actual delivery of votes from one party to another, given conditions on the ground and the tendency of Liberal Democrat second preferences to split more or less evenly between Labour and the Tories. That does not, however, mean that something more practical and informal could not produce worthwhile results.

The first thing that Labour must do is to get on with its own modernisation. The substantive policy differences between Labour and the Liberal Democrats are relatively trivial - between Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair it would be hard to insert a scrap of airmail paper. But to make Labour acceptable to all save the most tribal Liberals, the party must embrace constitutional reform, both internal and external. That means one-member, one-vote and a hard commitment to proportional representation. So far, Mr Smith seems to be flunking this crucial test, to the despair of Labour's modernisers. The second thing is to allow electoral co-operation to take place at the local level whenever there is a willingness to make it work. Mr Ashdown will not stamp on the grassroots pacts. Nobody knows what Mr Smith thinks.