No promises, but a Straw in the wind from Labour

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
IT IS a great tribute, either to Mr Tony Blair himself or to assorted members of the Royal College of Spindoctors, that the Leader of the Labour Party has been turned into an interesting person. For the truth is that most party leaders are not very interesting in themselves. The only interesting Labour leaders that I have known have been Hugh Gaitskell and Michael Foot. The only interesting Conservative was Harold Macmillan. Harold Wilson was a clever man and a crafty politician but a dull dog who made a virtue out of his pedestrian qualities.

Mr Blair is more interesting than Wilson, though not as clever. But he is the cleverest of the present party leaders, for what that may be worth. He has certainly done interesting things to the Labour Party. Three apparently disparate happenings last week indicated what he might be like in government.

The first of these concerned Mr Gordon Brown's "windfall tax" on the profits of the privatised utilities, or some of them. It is not at all clear to me whether the tax is to extend beyond electricity to water and, if it is, why gas should not be included as well. This doubt illustrates the arbitrary nature of the tax.

It would remain arbitrary even if all the utilities were included within its scope. For why should one form of profit be deemed excessive but not another? There is, as we know, a long tradition of governments shaking the tree if they see an abundance of apples which do not take too much trouble to sweep up. The levy on television advertising revenue provided one example. Another was the tax on banks' profits, which was imposed in the early Thatcher years and brought about the resignation of Mr Tim Renton as Lord Howe's PPS.

But it is arbitrary for a government to declare that one form of profit is fitter for high taxation than another. If the tax is maintained year after year, on a consistent basis, the element of unpredictability admittedly goes. The taxpayer knows where he, she or the company is. The arbitrary nature of the initial discrimination remains. But if the tax is collected in one swoop, as Mr Brown presumably proposes, it is little short of legalised robbery.

Conservative governments have gone in for this kind of thing too. But that is no justification. Sir Marcus Fox has, I notice, come out in Mr Brown's support. Here is a general rule which I have found useful over the years: any course of action attracting the support of Sir Marcus is wrong. Clearly, there is a good populist reason for what Mr Brown is proposing. The privatised utilities are mostly a disgrace. The way to deal with them is not to impose an arbitrary tax but to introduce an element of public control more effective than that provided by those figures, at once sinister and absurd, the "regulators". It may be that some of the utilities ought to be restored to full public ownership. Alas! That course would involve some hard thought. Even worse, it might attract headlines in the Daily Mail on the lines of "Blair's Big State Grab". That would never do.

Oddly enough, it was the Mail that attacked the National Executive and Mr Blair over the treatment of Ms Liz Davies, which is my second episode of the week. Coming from that paper, this is rich, not to say fruity. We can all write the story that would have appeared if the Executive had indeed endorsed Ms Davies's candidature for her Leeds constituency: "... hard left ... poll tax rebel ... prison ... Islington ... loony ..." But it is precisely because such accounts would have been composed, both in the Mail and elsewhere, that the Executive should have had the courage to endorse Ms Davies.

I know only what I read in the papers about her. She does not seem any further to the left than, say, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, who sits for Islington North; if anything, not so much so. Some of the most respectable people in the party urged the non-payment of the poll tax. As for her defiance of the whip twice on the Islington Council, I echo Warren Hastings on his activities in India and stand astonished at her moderation.

It is not unknown for what Mr Blair also now likes to call the People's Party to operate a kind of lynch law. Candidates have been imposed on local parties. These bodies have even been disbanded forcibly. There was once an apparatchik called Sara Barker at Transport House, in the days before the party moved to Walworth Road. She was famous for sending her tanks out into the night to crush recalcitrant constituencies.

But times have changed. After the troubles of the 1980s, it has now been clearly laid down that a person is entitled to be endorsed by the Executive if, first, he or she is a member of the Labour Party and, second, the local party went through the correct procedures in its selection process. Ms Davies, the Leeds party or both can certainly go to the High Court to ask for a declaration that the Executive behaved unlawfully in refusing to endorse her candidature.

Mention of courts conveniently brings me to my last episode. It concerns the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the Gibraltar killings. On the face of it, this is different from the other two. For while on public utility profits and the case of Ms Davies the party has adopted the saloon bar line, or what it assumes to be such, on the Gibraltar killings it has not. Indeed, Mr Jack Straw, having suffered several rushes of populism to the head in recent months, has taken a stern approach with the Government. He has brought forth the - I suspect, largely factitious - wrath of Mr Michael Heseltine. He is even threatening to sue Mr Heseltine for defamation, though (and this applies to Ms Davies too ) the only people who are sure of profiting from these encounters are the gentlemen in wigs and their hangers-on.

But under Mr Blair's proposed scheme of things, the relations of those killed in Gibraltar would not be able to go to the Strasbourg court - not at any rate, to begin with. Instead they would have to try their luck in the courts of the United Kingdom, whose highest tribunal is the House of Lords. They would have to do this because of Mr Blair's plan to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into our law. Though the Law Lords have become younger and less deferential lately, I cannot see them arriving at the same decision as the judges at Strasbourg. The judges under Labour, particularly the Law Lords, will acquire more power than they have already. This may be a good thing or a bad thing. Professor John Griffith thinks the latter, Lord Lester the former.

"More power for the judges!" There is a ringing New Labour slogan for you. I do not mock it. The sovereignty of the majority in the House of Commons is not a selfevidently infallible concept. It was a Conservative government which made the biggest incursion into it by passing the European Communities Act 1972. Now Mr Blair proposes a further dilution. I do not complain. I merely wish he would explain, in this and other areas, what he is trying to do a little more clearly.