Mr Smith shows the zeal of the nearly converted

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH'S address to the reform movement Charter 88 last night has, in a small way, made history. It was the first time in the post-war era that the leader of one of the big parties had devoted a speech to attacking the state of the British constitution. There have been constitutional rows before but, generally, the Westminster way of doing politics was one of the few things Labour and the Tories could be relied on to agree about.

That consensus has broken down, as Mr Smith showed. It has probably gone for good. Years of electoral defeat and today's disillusion with politics have persuaded the Labour leader to spurn the centralist, Whitehall-knows-best instinct that has dominated his party for most of its history. The speech will be depicted by Conservatives as an act of desperation. Desperation had something to do with its origins, undoubtedly; but it is also a threat the Tories would do well to take seriously. Only the most conservative of commentators, and bone-headed of the Westminster in-crowd, think Britain is so well-governed that no reforms are necessary.

Indeed, Tory ministers such as William Waldegrave and John Patten have been quick to adopt the language of constitutional reform for the Government. For them, open enrolment in schools is the 'open government' that really matters to parents; league tables for hospitals are what 'freedom of information' really means. Similarly one-sided gospels of reform can be found among those Liberal Democrats who define it as whatever voting system gets them into government offices; or those Labourites who see only erosions of freedom under the Tories, and no new extensions of freedom.

But, in a competitive system, the fact that parties are trying to be 'more reformist than thou' should please us. The constitutional reform agenda, a matter for ridicule in the mid-Eighties, has been pushed by Charter 88 from the fringes of political debate to a position not so far from the centre. The big question is whether economic recovery will sideline it again. Mr Smith's speech makes it rather harder for that to happen.

For its boldness and explicit argument will make it a hard speech to walk away from, or forget. There was little mention of some of the measures, such as voting reform or a written constitution, that are considered essential by some enthusiastic reformers. But Mr Smith's initiative was bold, nevertheless. If its measures were implemented by a future Labour government, it would seriously affect the administration. Prime Minister Smith would hand over considerable power to judges and local politicians. His freedom of information measures would embarrass both mandarins and ministers, and jolly up the lobbyists and Tory opposition. His Human Rights Act would stop any future Labour education secretary who wanted to attack private schooling. His suggestion that pre-Budget secrecy should be swept away would make life harder, not easier, for a Labour chancellor.

These are substantial offerings to any British citizen who thinks government is lazy, over-centralised and incompetent. A checklist, though, misses the point. Last night's speech was clearly the beginning of something, not a one-off. It was process, not event. The most important thing about last night was that an innately cautious man closed his eyes and jumped. He jumped towards a constitutional agenda that may or may not appeal to new millions of voters, but which carries its own dangers and pitfalls.

Why did he jump? The easiest answer, that he is thinking his way towards a pre- electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, is, I think, wrong. If the party's Plant Commission plumps for electoral reform for the Commons (which is looking more likely), then Mr Smith may follow suit (less likely). If so, then a national agreement with the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, would be possible. But even if so, local party rivalries would make a seat-by-seat deal very hard. If that worked, then enough voters might switch the right way to turn out some Tory MPs in 1995-96. If so, that might affect the result of the election. But I make that five 'ifs' and I have hardly started. One day, both men may decide that a pact is essential. But not yet.

At the root of all this is the wider question of Labour's relationship with the rest of the country. Labour is not really a national party. It is hemmed in geographically and socially; its support in the press and among the opinion-formers in academia and the pressure groups is weak, and shrinking. Not since the Sixties has Labour been (for want of a better word) trendy. Since then, disillusion with the Wilson-Callaghan governments, relentless electoral defeats, internal revolts and disciplinarian counter-measures have turned the party increasingly in on itself.

Labour became self-obsessed and repellent to many apolitical people - less a part of the country than an island within it. Outsiders were not welcome; their ideas were treated with defensive contempt. Slowly, but clearly, Labour is now loosening up, opening doors to the rest of the country. Mr Smith's agenda last night was not a Labourist agenda. It was learnt from outside. And that, in itself, was perhaps the most important thing of all. It remains unclear whether the old, centralist Labour Party has converted to a new kind of politics. At Church House, Westminster last night it seemed that the sinner had not yet repented, quite. But he was definitely thinking about it.