Political Commentary: Farewell to the fat chap with a fancy for high taxes

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The Independent Online
DURING the last election my daughter, a Labour supporter, told me that the public would 'never vote for Neil Kinnock'. She added that Labour had made a mistake in choosing him.

'They'd have done better,' she explained, 'if they'd had that fat chap who looks like you.'

'What do you mean, the fat chap who looks like me?'

'He was on television the other night.'

After a few more distinguishing characteristics had been painted in, his identity became clear.

'You mean my old friend Roy Hattersley. But Hattersley doesn't look in the least like me.'

'Yes he does,' my daughter said.

What she had in mind, she went on, was that Mr Hattersley gave the impression of being a tolerant person, with wider interests than politics. Mr Kinnock, by contrast, conveyed a picture of narrow fanaticism. In vain did I list the latter's enthusiasms: rugby, the theatre, choral singing, music of many sorts. Mr Hattersley was in all senses a rounded man; Mr Kinnock was not.

Undoubtedly a 'Kinnock factor' operated at the last election in a way commentators failed to spot. Or, if we did, we underestimated its effect. Whether Labour would have won if Mr Hattersley had been leader is another matter. Last week he announced he would not be standing next time.

In France his close and practical interest in food and drink would have marked him out clearly as a Man of the Left. In Britain - at any rate in England - the desire for one decent meal a day, preferably accompanied by a reasonable quantity of fine old French-type wine, is regarded as hypocritical in Labour politicians and self-indulgent in politicians of all sorts. And owing to the activities of the fiendish Mrs Virginia Bottomley, who would have us murdered on the streets by dangerous lunatics, it is looked upon as harmful to the rest of us as well.

Probably the public would not have cared one way or the other about Mr Hattersley's lunching habits. They are more tolerant than the papers seem to think. They would have been more interested in his political abilities.

Here he did something which Mr Kinnock conspicuously failed to do and for which he has received insufficient credit. Indeed, it was because Mr Kinnock was embarrassed by his failure that Mr Hattersley was given more chances than would otherwise have fallen to him as deputy leader. He succeeded, several times, in discomposing Lady Thatcher at Questions.

There was a period in the 1980s when Mr Kinnock was Excused Questions as schoolchildren are Excused Games. The feeblest reasons were advanced for these absences, mainly to do with urgent appointments in various parts of the country, by no means all of them in regions so remote as to prevent him from appearing at the dispatch box. Mr Hattersley would rise in his stead and sometimes - certainly more often than Mr Kinnock had managed it - stop the lady in her noisy progress with one simple question.

Mr Hattersley believes that Prime Minister's Questions have turned into a bogus exercise. So do many of us. Still, he was good at it, better than Mr Kinnock was.

It is more difficult to say whether this would have helped him to beat Mr John Major, who was not good at it at all (though not so bad as the Labour front bench had hoped when he became Prime Minister). The last election was won and lost chiefly on taxation. Mr Hattersley is placed by his enemies on the right of the party, where he would probably place himself. But he is on the left by modern standards. A follower of Anthony Crosland, he is a believer in high public expenditure and high taxation.

So, at the election, was Mr John Smith. At the beginning of the campaign, he appeared with his 'treasury team' outside the Institution of Civil Engineers to tell us so. Influenced by the polls, I continued to think that Labour would win. But I nevertheless considered that Mr Smith was taking a large risk, and wrote as much at the time.

Today Mr Smith has done an about turn. At any rate he has pointed to the greater propensity to tax of Conservative administrations, whether judged by the relative levels of tax in 1979 and today or by other criteria. He is right to draw our attention to this discrepancy. It is the most powerful weapon that has fallen into his hands since 1992.

But Labour oppositions have to be careful about tax. Mr Smith's performance undoubtedly helped to lose Labour the election. Among other consequences, it impelled several journalists of my acquaintance on pounds 40,000 a year or so to vote Tory for the first time in their lives. Nevertheless rash promises can be equally unprofitable. After all, Hugh Gaitskell's promise in the 1959 campaign that increased expenditure would be paid for out of growth is still held to have contributed to Labour's defeat in that election.

I think myself that this is something of a myth, originally put into circulation by those who at that time had an interest in discrediting Gaitskell, notably Lord Wilson and Richard Crossman. But that would take us into deep waters. We can agree that Mr Smith's best course is to attack the Conservatives but to refrain from offering any morsels for the tabloid press to gnaw.

This is what Mr Smith is doing, and in areas other than taxation. There are those who find this tedious. But it is not the primary purpose of politicians to provide entertainment for columnists. There are some of us, brought up in the pre-television age, who can still make our entertainment for ourselves.

All leaders of the opposition, saving one exceptional period, are accused of being ineffective. It was said of Sir Edward Heath, of Lord Wilson in 1970-4, of Mr Michael Foot, of Mr Kinnock, even of Lady Thatcher. The exception was Lord Wilson in 1963-4. There are those who would prefer Mr Smith today to be more like him then. He would have had not only the opposition laughing themselves silly - that would have been easy - but the government side as well. Mr Smith, like the good Lord, is working his purpose out. At least we must devoutly hope so, and that his apparent inactivity is not due to indolence, a lack of ideas or both. Whatever the reason, the voters seem to be satisfied enough. In the polls Mr Smith wins golden opinions, more glittering by far than those attributed to any other opposition leader for many a year.

These polls do not, I confess, conform wholly to my own experience. For every two voters who before 1992 would announce their intention of not voting for 'that bald Welsh git' there is at least one who proclaims he will never vote for 'that bald Scotsman who looks like an owl'. But the school of thought is growing which believes that the Government has passed a crucial point and will never be taken seriously again. If this turns out to be so, I am only sorry that Mr Smith's first administration will not contain that fat chap who is supposed to look like me.