No history, no future

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The Independent Online
Is it possible for a political party to thrive without a history? That question is increasingly raised as Tony Blair and his allies hurtle through Labour's hallowed traditions, trashing them like a conquering army on the rampage. Let nobody be in any doubt that last week's TUC conference, from the Blair perspective, was all to the good. He may not have had a masterplan for all the rows and indiscretions, all the denials and counter- denials, but he and his spin-doctors knew perfectly well that, if they launched new thoughts on industrial relations in the middle of the TUC conference, the potential for an explosion was enormous. If they had really wanted to preserve a show of brotherly unity, they would have meticulously examined every shadow ministerial statement, agreeing every last dot and comma. Plainly, they did no such thing. On the contrary, David Blunkett, the Shadow Employment Secretary, issued at least five different versions of his blueprint for curbing strikes: an advance briefing, a newspaper article, a radio interview, the text of a speech and then the speech itself. The message to the world sang out: Labour is putting clear water - any colour will do - between itself and the unions, even being willing to contemplate the final severance of its historic link.

And, in many respects, Labour would certainly be better off without the unions. The block vote at its conferences has always raised questions about the party's democratic credentials. That the Tories have no pretensions to democracy whatever (their conferences are simply extended political rallies) is beside the point; the Conservative Party has never purported to be a mass movement or anything more than a highly efficient machine for obtaining power. Tory conferences are solely concerned with winning elections; Labour's have traditionally shown some interest in winning arguments. The unions, however, have represented all that is most unattractive in Labour's public image: narrow-minded, selfish, bureaucratic, centralist, masculine and, let's be honest, boring and unglamorous.

But none of this is to say that Labour should cease to be the unions' friend. Seventeen years of Tory legislation, combined with high unemployment, have changed the balance of power between capital and labour beyond recognition. That Labour does not wish to repeal Tory union laws and return to the days of mass picketing is understandable. But it beggars belief that it might think that yet more laws to restrain organised labour should be worth even a minute of precious legislative time. Labour should be looking for ways to strengthen the unions, rather than to weaken and isolate them further. This is not because it should wish to unleash a wave of strikes on the country - though a sense that unions were once more a force in the land would do some employers no harm - but because it should try to encourage those "intermediate institutions" between central government and individuals that Thatcherism did so much to destroy. Otherwise, all Mr Blair's talk about "stakeholding" and "community" will look like so much hot air.

Above all, though, Mr Blair should value the unions because any party needs to stay in touch with its history and the unions are a part of Labour's. The danger of modern politics is that parties become so fleet- footed, so adept at market research, so anxious not to be upstaged by each other that they become no more distinguishable than rival car salesmen or estate agents. Few voters weigh up the pros and cons of every item in a party's programme before going to the polls. They consider, to be sure, what a party will do for them personally, but they also want a sense of what a party stands for. And that is inseparable from its past. Labour's programme is now almost indistinguishable from the SDP's in the early 1980s but, despite Mr Blair's revolution, it still represents something more. The SDP, despite propitious political conditions, failed. It failed because it was rootless and represented, in the end, nothing more than an exasperation with the Bennites. It had no established organisation to fall back on, no language that spoke to the heart and soul, no heroes and no folk memories, no assurance of support from those who always voted that way because it had been bred into their bones. Mr Blair still has all those things. He should not throw them away.