Political Commentary: The time for living dangerously

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LABOUR'S party to mark the Clinton inauguration at the Dorchester was a strange affair. As the presidential speech was beamed into the ballroom by a giant television screen, it was like some crazy version of Orwell's 1984, in which the social democratic leader of a transcontinental empire was being hailed by his leading adjutants in a distant outpost. It was as if by celebrating Bill Clinton's victory, Labour's great and good could dismiss Neil Kinnock's defeat as a mere local setback.

In the debate within the Labour Party about its future direction, the Clinton victory had, long before last Wednesday, become a totem at once comforting and daunting; comforting because it seemed, by ending 12 years of free-market Anglo-Saxon conservatism, to answer in the affirmative what is for Labour the unspoken but ever-present question: can we win? Daunting because it suggested that such a victory would require a transformation within the party of which it might have become incapable.

Labour and the Democrats have their similarities, but they are easily exaggerated. One can point to the differences in political system and culture, and to the inconvenient fact, politely not mentioned at the Dorchester shindig, that the former Governor of Arkansas is warmly disposed towards capital punishment. Moreover, many of the lessons are negative rather than positive. In winning his election Mr Clinton was helped, as Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, has acknowledged, by the fact that he did not threaten to tax middle-income groups, saving tax rises for those earning more than dollars 200,000.

Nevertheless the glad confident morning of Clinton's inauguration has perceptibly injected new energy into the Labour Party's debate over its future. The question is now whether the party can be bold enough to harness it. On the one hand there are distinct signs that John Smith has returned from the Christmas break armed with a new confidence and authority over the party. But there are also worrying signs that Labour still shies away from an open debate about its own future, and the country's, just when it needs it most.

Last week two Labour front- benchers did quite skilful and populist things, one rather less obviously so than the other. Gordon Brown unveiled his plans for a windfall tax on public utilities, coupling it with some research on the profits made by Tory MPs, including ex-Ministers, out of the privatisations they themselves had promoted.

It struck home; Richard Littlejohn, the Sun columnist, thundered on Monday: 'What is really sleazy is the number of Tories sticking their noses into a trough they have created themselves.' Naturally enough, Mr Brown's initiative caused no controversy whatever in the Labour Party and was widely and justifiably welcomed as an astute political tactic.

The second was a speech by Jack Straw which paid handsome tribute to the 'exemplary way in which the Queen has carried out her public duties as monarch for over 40 years' but went on to ask whether the monarchy should not be scaled down to something more akin to the constitutional monarchies of the Netherlands and Scandinavia. For good measure, he asserted that many people now questioned the usefulness of '18th-century institutions like the House of Lords, the judiciary and the honours system'. The reaction to Mr Straw was wholly different. By all accounts he was swiftly told to shut up, and several of his colleagues were clearly furious that he had distracted attention from the 'real issues'.

It was no doubt unfortunate that Mr Straw's headline-making intervention on royal matters co- incided with a carefully planned Labour campaign on its budget proposals. Nor is a policy on the monarchy a necessary, much less a sufficient, condition for a Labour victory in the next general election. It is certainly not central to the great debate on the party's future.

Mr Straw's speech, moreover, broke with the conventional view in orthodox Labour circles that the subject of monarchy is taboo. So ingrained is that view that it was perfectly possible to imagine that last year, when the tabloids first started to chronicle the royal marriage troubles, a Labour government might have been more ferocious in protecting the monarchy than a Tory one, since it would have less to lose by attacking the press.

It is nevertheless difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Is it really so dreadful for a senior opposition politician to make a thoughtful speech about a subject of huge public interest in the first year after an election without clearing every syllable with his colleagues? The opinion poll evidence is shaky, but it may be that Mr Straw was catching the popular mood a little earlier in the cycle than Labour has been wont to do in recent years. He is certainly echoing the private views of many MPs, including, I suspect, a number in the Tory party.

The sensitivities of Labour politicians are also evident in the argument, still raging below the surface in the party, about the future role within it of that other venerable British institution, the trade union movement. Here the protagonists are on different sides. But it may be that the same argument applies.

In interviews on the BBC's On the Record last weekend, Roy Hattersley and Tony Blair called for change in the party's institutional links with the unions. Mr Hattersley wanted a complete constitutional divorce on the model of the US Democrats. Mr Blair did not go as far, but he unequivocally said, not for the first time, that the unions should have no role in the election of candidates or the party leader.

The backbiting from some senior figures, particularly but not exclusively from union leaders themselves, against Mr Blair over this is quite fierce, almost as fierce as it was against Mr Straw last week. There have been mutterings from the unions that unless they stop being criticised after toiling in the party's election campaign they might have to stop financing the party. To the question of how they would then deploy their political funds, one or two have even suggested they might be forced to disaffiliate from the party and fund it on an ad hoc basis - as in: 'You agree to this or that policy and we'll lob in pounds 500,000.' Wouldn't that, they argue, be worse and more corrupt than the present system? It is almost impossible to imagine ordinary trade union members wearing such an approach; it sounds, to borrow a good old- fashioned phrase from the criminal justice system, like threatening behaviour.

Mr Blair is surely correct in his view that loosening the links between party and unions is in the party's interests and therefore, by implication, in the interests of the unions themselves. But even if he weren't, he certainly has the right to speak out, as he did boldly last weekend.

The point about all this is that Labour needs to be a little braver about its internal debate while it still has time to be. It is after all a debate about ideas and not just a few campaigning tricks learnt along the way from the US Democrats. Labour needs a sensible economic policy; it certainly needs to uncouple itself from its own vested interests. It also needs to recover some of the idealism of the 1940s and 1960s that was evident outside the Capitol on Wednesday. And from time to time, whatever the opponents of Mr Straw may say, it needs to be a little dangerous.