Political Commentary: Labour, you should be listening

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The Independent Online
LAST MONTH, in the unlikely setting of a Nigerian institute of political science, the Labour frontbench spokesman George Robertson gave a lecture on the problems and pitfalls of opposition. It was listened to appreciatively by his mainly Nigerian audience, still waiting patiently for the installation of a democratic government after the election there on 12 June.

It was a long and thoughtful lecture, and contained a useful checklist of points for any opposition to remember. It is a rare insight into the thinking of a professional politician. It is irresistibly tempting to measure the performance of Labour and its supporters against some of the points in Mr Robertson's list, even though it is a violation of his original purpose. These are the points, with Mr Robertson's own amplification:

1: Be patient. It's a 'frustrating exercise watching all the other guys in big cars, at the international conferences, getting all the applause and, most galling of all, making decisions . . . .' But, he warns, the 'other lot' will not simply crumble as their election promises disintegrate.

2: Remember that you have to live with what you create. If you destabilise the system while destabilising the government you may not just inherit the mess, you may be part of the mess.

3: Don't pretend that you are the government.

4: Use words and promises with great care.

5: Remember the trust factor. Always remember that 'they are in power and look it'. Therefore look for common ground - state occasions, crime, drugs, counter- terrorism or the strength of the currency to give the impression that you share their weight.

6: Be ingenious. Nothing knocks a government off balance more than new ideas.

7: Be selective. 'Don't be tempted to denounce everything they do as the work of bird-brained incompetents (even when it glaringly is).' Voters do not take kindly to being told they voted for imbeciles. Instead, say 'the people's trust has been betrayed'.

8: Use humour ruthlessly.

9: Don't ever get used to opposition or start enjoying it.

10: Keep watching what the people are saying.

11: Watch out that you are not too successful ('We ran Mrs Thatcher ragged . . . they got rid of her').

Here is the gloss on those 11 points (for which Mr Robertson bears no responsibility at all).

1: This may seem a strange exhortation after a year in which the governing party has been tearing itself apart with awesome consistency. But the Tories still have a majority of 17. Too many chatterers imagine that more 'effective' opposition would 'bring the Government down'. Labour needs to develop big themes and positions that will win it a general election probably in three years' time.

2: Good marks so far. Labour's opposition to Maastricht was a model of this thinking, running the Government hard but not sabotaging the treaty.

3: Definite tendency by some of the less hungry Labour frontbenchers. You do the talk shows. You are always on Newsnight. You even get little off-the-record briefings from civil servants. You start to think you're actually running something.

4: So far, so good. By extracting Labour from John Smith's tax- raising promises before the election - themselves the result of untenable promises on child benefit and pensions - Gordon Brown has maintained flexibility. But this is far from academic. Leaders of the Tribune group, despite opposition within its own ranks, are seeking to promote an economic policy which criticises John Smith's shadow budget for being too cautious in its tax and borrowing commitments and advocates a rise to pounds 65bn in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. The policy, which is broadly supported by John Edmonds, leader of the GMB Union, has, unsurprisingly, angered the party leader.

5: Big problem. John Smith is the kind of politician who exudes personal trustworthiness, but voters still don't trust Labour. The Tories have fallen steadily in the polls but the Liberal Democrats, now in real recovery, have been the main beneficiaries.

6: Labour is still not developing a coherent range of ideas across all portfolios in the way that the Thatcher-led opposition did, brilliantly, from 1975-79. Hopes rest on the Social Justice Commission, but Labour needs to be more worried that the agenda will once again be set by the Conservatives. 7: It wasn't smart of Helena Kennedy, the pro-Labour barrister, to quote approvingly, at a Scottish Labour dinner, graffiti appearing across election posters after April 1992, saying 'The British electorate have failed their IQ test'.

8: John Smith's speech in this month's Opposition Day economic debate, which featured Norman Lamont's resignation statement, was a model of humour. If you can make both sides of the Commons laugh, you're really getting somewhere.

9: Last week, almost unnoticed in the brouhaha over Michael Mates, the Parliamentary Labour Party threw out a series of reform proposals. One of the most important was that each Labour MP should put down the names of four women - rather than three as at present - when the Shadow Cabinet is elected each year. Those opposed to that proposal are not all, as it happens, primitive and ageing misogynists. They include some who think that you should vote for Shadow Cabinet members because of their abilities and politics rather than their sex. But in throwing out the quota proposal the MPs also rejected another element of the package: the suggestion that Mr Smith should appoint his own Chief Whip, instead of it being a separately elected office.

The criticism of the current 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' system is that MPs vote for a Chief Whip whose team does them favours on accommodation and trips, and lets them off voting on dark nights. It's like prisoners electing their own chief warder. A case of enjoying opposition too much?

10: . . . particularly in the South. This is the Big One. The worst danger facing Labour is the view, which has many adherents, that all the party now has to do is 'express its message more clearly' than it did in 1992. Instead, it has to listen to voters in the southern battleground, which Labour must start to win back if it wants power. For example, in the research published in a Fabian pamphlet that shows they do not want a statist, old-fashioned Keynesian party run by union barons. The looming Christchurch by-election should remind Labour, having decided to field a candidate and fight hard, that it has to compete with the Liberal Democrats for anti-Tory votes. The most optimistic signs, however, come from the councils the Tories lost in the May elections, where co-operation between Labour and Liberal Democrats is teaching both sides new politics. As a result there is now some anecdotal evidence that local Labour parties are keener on internal and policy reform than some in the Labour heartlands.

11: Labour isn't 'too successful' as it happens. Given the hell the Tories have been through in the past year - up to and including last week - why is Labour still only at 42 or 43 points in the polls? Tory backbenchers may have developed a taste for choosing new leaders. Does Labour want to fight the next election against Kenneth Clarke?