Leading Article: Throw off the union embrace

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH faces the gravest of problems. He may succeed in getting trade union leaders to help him to abolish Labour's discredited block-vote system: but if they ignore his pleas, he has no fallback position except the embarrassment - and political damage - that would cause. Yet John Edmonds and his friends are wrong to think that their control of Labour cannot be weakened without their consent. Although no Labour MP is yet willing to contemplate it, Mr Smith could cut the umbilical cord that remains in place 90 years after Labour's birth by making a unilateral declaration of independence.

Before considering how UDI might work, it is worth asking why it might be necessary. The current Labour orthodoxy can be summed up as the theory of 'one more heave': that if only the party can do just a little better, it will be able to return triumphantly to power in the next general election. That may be true if the Conservatives' run of incompetence continues for three more years. But Labour's long-term showing in the only polls that count remains little changed. The gap between the Labour and Tory vote in 1992 was only half a percentage point narrower than when Margaret Thatcher first won power in 1979. Labour's share of the vote at the Newbury by-election was a miserable 2 per cent; at Christchurch, the party will be lucky to do better.

The Militant challenge has been seen off; the most damaging of the party's manifesto commitments, such as those on nuclear weapons and renationalisation, have been excised; and the party has come up with enough new policies over the past two years to make even a think tank blush. But these things make little difference if a party pledged to democratise and modernise Britain proves unable to democratise or modernise itself. Only by extricating itself can Labour convince voters that it is more than a lobby for union interests.

Mr Smith has not yet succeeded in conveying to party members exactly what separation would mean. Union members would still be welcome in the party as individuals, with the same rights as others in forming policies and electing its leader; likewise, trade unions would remain free to contribute to Labour's campaign coffers if they thought a Labour election victory would serve their interests. But no general secretary would be able to say, and be quoted by Conservative advertising campaigns in future elections as saying, 'It's our party; we pay for it'.

Some Labour MPs believe that Mr Smith can bring about the necessary reform without resorting to desperate measures. They think that the summer bluster of the trade unions' annual conventions will give way to an autumn realism at the Labour Party conference and that some form of 'one member, one vote' system will be passed at conference. If they are right, Mr Smith will have achieved a great change without paying a high price for it.

To increase his chances, however, Mr Smith should have a 'nuclear option'. His thinking should start from the fact that the formal link between the Labour Party and its Members of Parliament remains hazy. They are, for instance, quite at liberty to ignore the views of the party conference. There would therefore be a precedent for drastic action if this autumn's conference fails to produce the necessary changes.

If persuasion and argument cannot succeed, Mr Smith should therefore be prepared to use force. He should persuade the Parliamentary Labour Party to throw off the union embrace without further ado - by creating a new party, identical to the old in all respects except as regards its membership and voting rules. He could defy the trade unions, and the extremist branches of local parties, to field candidates against the new party in the next general election if they dare.

Such a new party would lack the financial muscle and political infrastructure provided by the great public-sector trade unions. It would be months before any possible by-election successes could be followed up with the building of local organisations. But a New Labour Party would not be too weak to fight a general election. At the constituency level, spending remains strictly regulated; nationally, what matters most is television advertising time, which is given free to British political parties. There would be little to spare to buy space on advertising hoardings in London or to hire fashionable movie directors; but the new party, particularly one containing the majority of current Labour MPs, might well benefit from a wave of enthusiasm many times greater than that which greeted the creation of the SDP.

Some unions, even those that would rather have the old Labour Party still in their pockets, would be willing to contribute to a new one; others would judge, probably correctly, that a party immune to accusations of partiality might be a better champion of workers' rights. Individual members might flock with contributions; Labour's present membership of around 200,000 makes it barely larger than the Liberal Democrats, and significantly smaller than either Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Even if companies were slow in contributing, many would consider the existence of a reformed New Labour Party sufficient reason to withdraw support from the Conservatives.

The most powerful argument against these ideas is that they simply cannot happen - because not enough Labour MPs would be ready, even after a disastrous party conference in Brighton, to contemplate such a divisive and drastic step. If their reluctance were based on an honest belief that Labour can still win even without a fundamental change of its relationship with the unions, so be it: they must take their chances in 1996.

More worrying, though, is the possibility that Labour MPs refuse to contemplate the notion of defying the unions because they cannot see that a party split would be better than perpetual opposition. After a decade out of power, many Labour politicians, even talented ones, have become dangerously complacent. Yet it would be a catastrophe for one of the country's two leading political parties to abandon ambitions for government. To do so would be a step down the Japanese route to a virtual one-party state, in which public debate on policy withers and government is a matter of little more than personal ambition and corruption.