Political Commentary: Black holes in Blackpool agenda

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE WAS an unreality about last week's Labour conference that cannot be put down to the sounds of metaphorical gunfire between London and Bonn alone. 'Wasn't it a good conference?' asked one member of the national executive on Friday. 'Such a good atmosphere.' So good in fact that you could easily forget that Labour had just suffered its fourth successive defeat. The fortunate conjunction of Labour unity under a new leader and the deepening plight of the Government ensured that there was no bloodletting on the reasons for that defeat. By midweek the conference was looking like a non-event.

Odd, because Labour's conference almost certainly played an important part in John Major's most important decision of the week - to bring the Maastricht Bill to the Commons in December. The Prime Minister has made several calculations. The first is that awesome whipping will whittle down the Maastricht opponents - as many as 100 MPs have serious reservations, according to some estimates. In this he will be helped by the departure of Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit - and, to a lesser extent, the Lords Ridley and Parkinson - to the upper house. They have left a vacuum of charismatic leadership on the Euro rebel right. If the former prime minister were still in the Commons and the alternative were a confrontation with her in the tea-room, many MPs might have preferred to defy the whips. William Cash, Richard Shepherd, let alone the one-time Heathite and now born-again Eurosceptic Kenneth Baker, are scarcely in the same league.

Mr Major's second calculation is that he can rely on the majority of Labour votes. At the very least, last week clarified that Labour leaders will not support calls for a referendum. The Opposition helped to deliver the Government's big majority in the second reading of the Bill by abstaining, and, if it decided to oppose it at the committee stage, would run the risk not only of taking the blame across the Continent for junking Maastricht, but also of making its second U-turn on Europe in a decade. The Bill's defeat would damage the Prime Minister but the blow to Labour's credibility would be almost as great. Even worse, the Government might be so effective in snuffing out the rebellion in its own ranks that even if Labour opposed, the Government would still win.

Further, a defeat for the Bill would not even automatically lead to a general election. The Government could resort to, and win, a confidence motion. Some Tory rebels on Maastricht are already saying they would back the Government in such a vote. True, Mr Major, who has staked his personal honour on seeing through a treaty he signed, might go; but the Government could survive.

Labour leaders have not finally resolved this issue. Black Wednesday and its aftermath have changed the climate, and the Government's economic credibility, its trump card in the 1992 election, has suffered severe damage. Bringing the Government down no longer feels such a remote possibility. If Labour could be sure that the Tory rebellion was big enough not only to defeat the Bill but to ensure a general election, the temptation to vote against might be irresistible. But this is a huge 'if', carrying appalling risks if the strategy were to go wrong.

The best bet remains that John Smith, as the first life-long pro- European to lead the Labour Party, will not deprive Mr Major of his Bill. He will, however, ensure that Labour votes against a guillotine, so that the Tories face weeks, perhaps even months, of parliamentary guerrilla warfare over the hundreds of amendments laid by Tory rebels. Ministers are already reconciled to the loss of other Bills promised in the Queen's speech as a result.

And there is another bigger, scarcely mentionable, question, left all too unresolved by last week's conference. If Labour precipitated a 1993 general election would it win?

Giles Radice's Fabian pamphlet on why Labour again failed in the critical Southern battleground last April was much discussed at Blackpool away from the conference floor. Its message was that voters who were deeply disgruntled with the Tories simply could not bring themselves to vote Labour. Now, presumably even more disgruntled with the Tories, are they any readier to vote Labour? One reason for their reluctance in April - a dislike of Neil Kinnock - has been resolved. Mr Smith is Labour's most important electoral asset. His parliamentary performance 10 days ago demonstrated that Mr Major can expect tough encounters twice a week at the dispatch box. And the televising of Parliament makes that matter more than it did a generation ago.

But the doubts exposed by Mr Radice went wider and deeper than the leadership. The Southern voters saw Labour as an old- fashioned, union-dominated party. Radice's unequivocal conclusion was that the momentum of policy and organisational reform started by Neil Kinnock cannot be slowed for a moment. In two important respects the conference was therefore deeply disappointing. First, the unions were still trying to maintain their archaic role in selecting MPs, showing that they have learnt nothing about the need to clean up party democracy. Secondly, Mr Smith's speech failed to confront the question of why Labour lost, thus leaving the impression - at least for the moment - that 'one more heave' is all that the party needs.

There was a consolation for the reformists. The national executive elections - and now that most constituencies hold ballots, these provide a true reflection of the mood of party members - saw the defeat of Dennis Skinner, a symbolic break with the past. The election of Gordon Brown was also important and that of Tony Blair even more so. Both are reformers, but Mr Brown also has wider party support, including traditionalists, particularly in Scotland. Tony Blair's election gives the leadership a clear mandate from the members for further change. Moreover, allotted the uncongenial time of 9.30 on Thursday morning, he made the most intellectually challenging speech of the conference.

Mr Smith had stressed Labour's moral values. But the message of the Radice research is that, while floating voters may tell opinion pollsters, for reasons of guilt, that they will vote Labour, in the privacy of the polling booth they decide, at best, on enlightened self-interest. Mr Blair's speech tackled this problem. It means that Labour has to change its tax policy so that it no longer seems to impose an undue burden on middle-income voters.

But Labour has to do more. To put it with a crudity absent from the Blair speech, people are more likely to vote for a party that proposes to eradicate poverty if they believe that, by doing so, they will reduce the population of potential criminals and thus the risks of being mugged or having their houses burgled. Bill Clinton has a chance of winning the United States election precisely because he is able to harness such enlightened self-interest among middle- income voters.

There are two ways of looking at Mr Smith's approach to all this. One is that he remains conservative, believing he can win the battle on his own wits, competence, reliability and decency. The other, much touted by some of his closest lieutenants, is that he will continue party reform with a firmness and speed belied by his speech, that he knows what Labour still has to do. The balance must lie with the latter view; but after Labour's amiable week in Blackpool the case is still unproven.