Mr Blair can have the cabinet he wants, if he's clever

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The Independent Online
"IF YOU'RE the PM with the power of patronage," Tony Benn said to Barbara Castle (according to his diary of 2 May 1976), "you can do whatever you like."

"Well, I believe in patronage," she replied. "I've no time for the PLP. I don't think having leaders elected is a sensible idea at all."

This view was not perhaps surprising, as the leader who had just been elected by the parliamentary party, James Callaghan, proceeded to give Barbara the sack. But Mr Benn too was out of sympathy with the lady. Far from wanting to increase the powers of the prime minister or party leader, he considered the time had come to "launch a major battle on behalf of parliamentary democracy as it ought to be". He wished to "restore the power of Parliament over the Executive and of the PLP over the parliamentary leadership". This did not "seem particularly radical, but if it were done it would be revolutionary".

And Mr Benn was successful, or partly so. In 1980, the high tide of Bennery, the parliamentary party changed its Standing Orders to bind any future prime minister to include in his first cabinet everyone who, at the dissolution, had been a member of what the French call le cabinet fantome. It was one of those changes which were made without much discussion or, indeed, public notice of any kind. The "Short Money" to political parties, pushed through the House at dead of night just before the Easter recess of 1975, provided another example. So did the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1969 when no one was paying much attention.

Unlike this latter change, however, the restriction on Mr Tony Blair's freedom is not part of electoral law. Nor, unlike the money disbursed to the parties at Westminster, is it sanctioned by a Commons resolution. It is one of the parliamentary party's internal rules. Mr Blair could ignore it without behaving illegally or unconstitutionally, though he might be behaving improperly. When he formed a government, the Queen would be unlikely to say:

"Forgive me for mentioning this, Mr Blair, but I notice there are no places in your cabinet for Mr David Clark, Mr Ron Davies, Mr Frank Dobson, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr Michael Meacher, Mr Gavin Strang and Mrs Ann Taylor. And yet they are all - or so I understand from my dear friend Lord Blake - esteemed members of your shadow cabinet. I cannot possibly allow the seals of office to be delivered to less deserving persons who have been chosen by you in what, I am bound to say, seems a flagrant disregard of the rules of your great Parliamentary Labour Party."

No, Mr Blair will be able to do whatever he likes as far as his cabinet goes, and in most other respects as well. He certainly seems to be doing more or less as he likes at the moment without meeting much resistance. For instance, the trade unions' share of the block vote at the conference is to be reduced from 70 to 50 per cent. This is meant to happen in 1996.

It is not, however, a wholly convincing example. It was projected even in John Smith's time. It is significant as the trade unions' last ditch, marking the point where they say: "So far, and no further". There is no logic in this approach. For why should the making - or what is theoretically claimed to be the making - of "policy" at the annual conference be treated any differently from the election of leader at a special conference? With the latter, the principle is one member, one vote: as it was when Mr Blair was elected. Why, in the New Labour Party, should the system be any different when resolutions are being passed?

But then, the Labour Party has never been constructed on logical principles. It was formed as a federation of trade unions and other organisations. The only form of membership which was possible originally was affiliated membership. Individual membership came later. We are now in an intermediate stage, when the party is moving from its mixed, partly collectivist constitution to one that is individualistic in character.

Last week we had the news that the party was welcoming former members who had gone over to the Social Democrats back into the body of the kirk. Indeed, some of them, such as Mr Roger Liddle, were being not only welcomed into the chapel but restored immediately to the deacons' seat. More sigificant was the story that the SDP's constitution was being put forward as that on which New Labour should base its own. This document was largely the handiwork of the barrister Sir William Goodhart. It had previously been regarded even in Guardian-reading circles as a demonstration of democracy gone mad.

In Dr David Owen's day, as some of us remember only too clearly, resolutions were carried, persons elected, policies constructed and duly promulgated: while all the time the good doctor did precisely as he liked, until finally he kicked the table over and smashed the place up when things did not go exactly as he wanted. I am not saying that Mr Blair is like Lord Owen. The most important difference is that he has the prospect of real power in, at the latest, 21 months. But one ran, while the other runs, a party which in theory is democratic in a manner which in practice is dictatorial. In the days of the late J V Stalin, Soviet apologists were prone to say: "What do you mean, dictatorship? The USSR has a first-class Guarantee of Human Rights."

I exempt from any such charge Mr Blair's proposal to choose the Chief Whip, now Mr Derek Foster, from among the elected members of the Shadow Cabinet, instead of having him elected separately, as Mr Foster and his predecessors were. The present system is as sensible as having troops elect their own sergeant-major, or reporters their news editor. Mrs Margaret Beckett, who was an assistant whip in 1975-76, would be an excellent choice as Chief Whip, satisfying simultaneously, as she would, the demands of party discipline and of militant feminism.

Mrs Beckett is now Shadow Minister of Health. There is no requirement, under the 1980 Standing Order, for her or anyone else to be given the same portfolio in any Labour cabinet. The jobs can be distributed as Mr Blair chooses. If Scotland is to have its own devolved assembly, why have Mr George Robertson as Scottish Secretary? As a parliamentarian, he has progressed faster than any other member of the Shadow Cabinet. Why throw him away on a department which will presumbly be (though neither he nor Mr Blair is at all clear about this) less important than it is now?

So one could go on. The sole requirement is that Mr Blair should accommodate all these phantoms. He can sack them a week later. He can also add to their number: though, as the Shadow Cabinet already comprises 20 and in office would need to include two peers, this might prove difficult. Or, as I have suggested, he can simply ignore the rule. But, despite his dictatorial tendencies, he is an honest and a scrupulous man. I would expect him first to try to have Mr Benn's rule openly scrapped.