Political Commentary: Smith should learn from Canute

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a strong case for John Smith taking as his role-model King Canute, one of the most maligned figures in British history. Canute is usually portrayed as a vain and stupid man who thought that he could turn back the waves. The truth was that he sat on the beach getting his feet wet in order to prove to his sycophantic courtiers that he was not powerful enough to turn back the waves.

Labour activists are not exactly sycophantic but some are apt, like Canute's courtiers, to think that their leader has (or, rather, should have) magical powers. A change in leadership, they believe, ought to be enough to turn the tide that has long been running against the traditional Labour Party, with its close union links, its statist ideology and its paper commitment to large-scale nationalisation.

Thursday, however, is likely to show that the tide is still coming in. There is every chance that the results of both the Newbury by- election and the local council elections will show more forcefully than ever that the Liberal Democrats are the party of opposition in southern England.

Labour got a mere 3,962 votes in Newbury last April. Only the Liberal Democrats have a chance of overthrowing the 12,357 Tory majority, achieved by the late Judith Chaplin last year. Peter Mandelson, given the unenviable task of running the Labour campaign, is therefore in a cleft stick. The more successful the Labour campaign, the more likely it is that the Tories will win because of a divided opposition. If Mr Mandelson appears to do too little, however, it looks as if he is content to hand the seat to the Liberal Democrats. In fact, it is a high profile campaign and, if the Liberal Democrats win, Mr Mandelson has made it clear he intends to take some credit for, as he puts it, helping to 'mobilise the anti-Tory vote'.

A Mori poll in Friday's Times showed the Liberal Democrats' national rating at 20 per cent. This figure implies sweeping council gains. So, once more, Labour has to ask: what is to be done about, or even with, the Liberal Democrats?

There have already been stirrings, temporarily stilled by the election campaigns. Robin Cook, the Shadow Cabinet's most ardent supporter of electoral reform, has been in private dialogue on this issue with senior Liberal Democrats. Two council candidates in Reading, with the backing of their local party, have stood down in favour of Liberal Democrats. A private Gallup poll commissioned by Lord Holme, a former Liberal president, has suggested that a Smith-Ashdown coalition would currently win 58 per cent of the vote. David Marquand, a former Social Democratic Party luminary, is sitting on Labour's social justice commission. His fellow academic, Ben Pimlott, who wrote in this newspaper in support of calls for Labour to stand down in Newbury, has spoken of a 'popular front of the mind'.

All this matters; but there is no quick fix. Pacts are not as easy as they sound. If Labour candidates stand down nearly all their votes go to the Liberal Democrats. The reverse is scarcely ever true: if a Liberal Democrat stood down, a significant share of his or her vote (the lion's share, in many constituencies) would go to the Tories. And, even where Labour stands down, it can provoke normally apathetic Tories to turn out and save their seat. At least one senior Liberal Democrat has remarked in private that it was just as well Labour did stand in Newbury; otherwise, a Liberal Democrat victory would have been tainted with the socialist vote.

There is also a temptation, particularly on the Labour left, to see any accommodation with the Liberal Democrats as an alternative to making Labour itself an electable social democratic party. Lib- Lab pact? Proportional representation? Great, let's go for it, the seductive argument runs; then we can return to our socialist purity but still govern in coalition. This is deeply to misunderstand what the electorate shows every sign of preparing to say on Thursday. The figure 34, the Labour percentage of the vote in 1992, should be engraved on every Shadow Cabinet heart. It is perfectly capable of becoming smaller still if the party ignores the permanent changes wrought by Thatcherism and reverts to its past.

Nevertheless the stirrings of Cook, Marquand et al could in theory lead to closer liaison between leading politicians of both parties - on policy, including economic policy, on parliamentary tactics and on the basis of a possible coalition after a general election. This might be accompanied by local pacts where constituency parties want them. For this to mean anything the Liberal Democrats would want some form of commitment on electoral reform, though not, perhaps, to any particular version of PR.

Equally, Labour could decide, by pressing ahead with its ideological and organisational reforms, that it should deliberately attack the Liberal Democrat vote, hoovering up at least those who made their journey from the Labour Party of the early 1980s through the SDP. Put another way, the party arrives at its destination when it is ready for Shirley Williams to rejoin.

But, in either case, changes are necessary. And here the signals are mixed. On the one hand this week Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and Jack Cunningham will produce papers on the economy, on the constitution, and on Europe, all of which should help to widen Labour's appeal to the centre ground. Mr Blair's paper, for example, will go further than anything so far attempted by Labour in arguing for a distinctly liberal system of checks and balances against the executive. Indeed, its commitment to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in British law is identical to that of the Liberal Democrats. A gradual Tory recovery might actually help this process. The most important changes wrought by Neil Kinnock - for example on unilateralism and internal party democracy - were made at times when Labour was doing badly in the polls.

But there are some depressing signs as well. Union control remains the monkey on the Labour Party's back. Every time Gordon Brown attacks, as he does eloquently in his forthcoming paper, the vested interests of the Tory party, from the banks to the privatised utilities, Labour's opponents - including the Liberal Democrats - can point to Labour's own vested interests. The unions are flexing their muscles, determined to prevent transformation of Labour into a Liberal Democrat style one-member one-vote party. This isn't just a matter of ideological neatness; there is every sign that the apparatus of block votes and electoral colleges switch off voters.

Those with hard experience of canvassing among the newer owner-occupiers of the Home Counties are in no doubt about the disappointment, sense of betrayal even, left by the collapse of the Thatcher dreams at the end of the Eighties. But they have noted another mood, more ominous for the forces of opposition in Britain: a fatalism and apathy, bred of disillusionment over whether the Tories can be replaced.

The chances are that the political and demographic tide against traditional Labourism will come several feet further up the beach on Friday. It is up to Mr Smith to persuade his courtiers that he cannot turn it back and that, if they all stay on the beach, they will get more than their feet wet.

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