No time for moderation

Labour gets only one shot at power in a generation. Grasp it, urges Nick Cohen
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The Independent Online
SOMETHING interesting is happening in Sweden. This is not, I swear, an entry for one of those "small earthquake in Chile" contests in which journalists vie to produce the opening sentence least likely to make the reader read on. Something interesting is happening in Sweden, and it contains a cautionary lesson for British Labour politicians preparing to place their nervous hands on the reins of power.

Mona Sahlin, a 38-year-old, has emerged as favourite to be leader of the Social Democrats and next Prime Minister of Sweden. Ms Sahlin is the sort of feminist who would thoroughly alarm most conservatives and it is unimaginable that a British version (Clare Short, say) would get to Downing Street. She has, for example, played a leading role in ensuring that cabinet posts are distributed equally between the sexes and she has proposed that men who visit prostitutes should be prosecuted.

But Swedish conservatives - who enjoy the gloriously soporific title of the Moderate Party - are of no importance. In the 63 years since they first came to office in 1932, the Social Democrats have been in government, either on their own or in coalition, for 54 years. The opposition has utterly failed to change the political agenda. It has to put up with the prospect of a Sahlin premiership just as, in Britain, Labour may one day have to put up with a Michael Portillo premiership.

And this is the lesson. Both Labour and the Swedish Moderate Party get one shot at power in a generation. If they don't make use of it, they are condemned to years of impotence when the Conservatives or Social Democrats resume their roles as the natural parties of government.

Labour seems likely to embark on its next interval of power in 1996 or 1997. If we discount the 1974-79 period, when the party never had a working Commons majority, it will be only Labour's third chance since 1931. For a time, it seemed Labour was going to grasp its opportunity. Some members had begun to look hard at the first-past-the-post system which allowed the Conservatives to win election after election with between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote. Labour considered the advantages of dispersing power away from Whitehall and Westminster and promised to tackle the feudal anomaly of the House of Lords. All these constitutional reforms had the happy advantage of not only being principled but also in the interests of the Labour Party. They would ensure that the Conservatives would not be able to monopolise power and patronage in the future.

But Labour is now in retreat, and is in danger of transforming itself into Britain's Moderate Party. The regional assemblies it proposes for England will not be directly elected and they will have no tax raising powers. If you hold to the old definition that politics is the battle to decide who is taxed and how the money is spent, the assemblies do not count as political bodies at all. Hereditary peers will be ejected from the House of Lords, Labour now says, but they will be replaced by life peers created by the Prime Minister. There will be no elections, direct or indirect, in the first term of a Labour government and the Lords will not have the democratic legitimacy they need if they are to fight bad bills from the Commons. Proportional representation has been shunted off into the distant future, and, as the Independent reported last week, the party is considering breaking its promise to let a Scottish parliament raise taxes.

At least, it seemed, Labour would do something about quangos. These remained a good issue. Arguments about the merits of different voting systems may bore most people rigid, but everyone can feel angry about unelected and unaccountable appointees closing hospitals.

Now, the debate is becoming muddied. This week, the Hansard Society publishes a collection of essays on the quangocracy. They range from a curious defence of quangos by David Hunt, the former cabinet minister (he says, if I understand him properly, that although they are unelected they are accountable to us in the same way as supermarkets are accountable to consumers) to rousing critiques of arbitrary power. What no contributor can provide is a detailed account of what Labour will do.

The emerging answer is something, but not a lot. NHS hospital trusts for example, will be opened up to representatives of voluntary organisations, patients and staff along with, maybe, some councillors. But no one will be directly elected, even though it would be simple to arrange for a consultant and a nurse to be chosen by and answerable to their colleagues. Patronage will still rule.

Friends of Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary in charge of constitutional change, are irritated when they hear him accused of timidity. Look at what a Labour government is offering in its first term, they say: a Freedom of Information Act, a Bill of Rights, abolition of the hereditary principle in the Lords and regional government. Together they make the biggest package of constitutional change since 1945. We cannot do everything at once, they continue. Nor is it desirable to do everything at once. Genuine popular support has to be built up for regional government, elected peers and the rest before we can move. "Changing the constitution," said one, "is the work of two or even three parliaments."

Mr Straw clearly believes Labour can win repeatedly at the polls under the old rules and introduce carefully thought-out measures over a decade. But many people on the left take a different view. Change the system before you lose power, they urge. Tear up the rule book, get rid of the first- past-the-post system and make sure it's impossible for the Conservatives to control everything from how much the smallest local council spends to the proceedings of the Commons and the Lords. After Thatcher your motto must be: Never Again!

Such pessimism may seem dismal but Labour may be wise to embrace it. One of the few European parties that can clamber up on the winners' pedestal beside the Swedish Social Democrats is the Conservative Party which has presided (either on its own or in coalition) over 70 of the past 100 years of Britain's decline.