This is how Labour can win: Can John Smith get to No 10? To do so he must woo waverers who believe the party is not for those who want to 'get on', says Giles Radice. Here, he reveals results from his own post-election survey

Giles Radice
Monday 28 September 1992 23:02 BST

Today John Smith will address the Labour Party conference for the first time as leader. In last week's Commons debate on the economy he proved once again what a formidable parliamentary performer he is. There is no doubt that he would make an outstanding prime minister. But first he has to get Labour elected - a difficult but not impossible task.

It is true that thanks to the courage of his predecessor, Neil Kinnock, Labour has abandoned a number of unpopular and outdated policies. And following the 1992 election there are 271 Labour MPs, including some outstanding younger members. Above all, the party has the will to win. But there is no disguising the extent of our defeat on 9 April.

The comforting idea that the 35 per cent of the popular vote which Labour received in April was a stage on the road to inevitable victory, and that 'one last heave' will somehow get John Smith to Downing Street, ignores the underlying social and economic realities. The unpleasant truth that has to be faced is not that Labour underpolled in 1992, but that without radical change 35 per cent may be close to the maximum Labour can achieve.

The 1992 election once again confirmed Labour's crippling weakness in southern England. Labour won only three out of 109 seats in the South-East (outside London). Even more ominously for the party's prospects, those marginal seats where it did badly outside the South tended to be constituencies with 'southern' characteristics - that is to say, with a suburban location, high home ownership and an above-

average proportion of white-collar and skilled manual workers - the so-called C1s and C2s. These groups not only represent the majority of the electorate (51 per cent) but are also the crucial swing voters who decided the outcome of the last election. According to the ITN exit poll, Labour's share of these groups was lower than in 1979. If Labour is ever to gain power it has to win more seats in the South and a larger share of C1s and C2s everywhere.

Following Labour's defeat, the Fabian Society and I commissioned a survey of C1 and C2 voters in five South-East marginals that Labour failed to capture in April: Gravesham, Harlow, Luton South, Slough and Stevenage. All the interviewees had seriously considered voting Labour on 9 April but in the end voted Conservative.

The key point about these waverers is that they consider themselves upwardly mobile. They are Britain's aspiring voters. Although their standard of living has improved over the past decade, our survey shows that they are deeply concerned about the recession, fearful of losing their jobs and homes, and believe that the NHS and education are seriously underfunded. They are not happy with the Conservative Party, which they see as being 'for the rich' and the party of unemployment. However, although they were so clearly dissatisfied with the Tories, they were still not prepared to vote for the Labour Party.

They see Labour as untrustworthy, likely to 'clobber' them, and as being 'against people getting on'. Interviewees still associated Labour with trade unions and strikes, high taxes and extremism. Asked to list the party's positives and negatives, almost half could not think of anything positive to say.

The interviewees rejected many of the values that they associated with Labour. The statement 'equality for all' provoked derogatory comments: 'Labour don't use the word success - they don't believe in go-getters but want everybody to be the same.' Redistribution also met with suspicion: 'Whether I agree or not depends on whether it's my wealth they're sharing out.' Values associated with the Conservatives, such as 'opportunity for all', were more popular: 'The Conservatives are being straight with you - we'll give you the opportunity, if you are prepared to work. Equality is handed to you like a gift.'

While the interviewees perceive Labour as 'caring' and 'fair', they did not believe the party was capable of running the economy - 'People have had it hard in the last year . . . they thought it would get worse under Labour.'

Even more important, they do not consider that the par-

ty understands, rewards or respects those who want to 'get on'. From their perspective, the aspiring groups do not see voting Labour as being in their interests.

However, there is no law of politics that prevents Labour from winning again. For if the aspiring voters do not trust Labour, they are not committed to the Tories, either. Indeed, many made up their minds only at the last minute, and sometimes even in the polling booth. But the Labour Party will gain their support only if it is prepared to make radical changes in image, policies and organisation.

The new Labour Party must show that it stands for the freedom of the individual. As our research shows, it is still too closely identified with groups. It is thought to be the party that, as one interviewee said, 'would rather group you together'. If it is to be credible, Labour can no longer find salvation as a class or trade union dominated party. That means reforming the party's structure. The national executive's recently established trade union review committee must come forward with far-reaching proposals so that the party's decision-making can in future be based on the principle of one member, one vote.

Labour must also be clear as to what it means when it talks about equality. It is thought to be about levelling down rather than opportunity for all - a fatal electoral handicap in a two-thirds, one- third society. In the Nineties, Labour must stand for opportunity for all rather than equality of outcome - as it did when it won the 1964 election. Harold Wilson's commitment to open up education and modernise outdated institutions and attitudes gained the Labour Party support across social groups. At the next election Labour must once again be the party that wants to break down barriers to upward mobility and promote chances for individual achievement and success.

John Smith has also to demonstrate beyond doubt that Labour can manage capitalism better than the Tories. The appalling mess that the Tories have made of the economy - and particularly the shambles over devaluation - has given him a flying start. But if Labour is to criticise the market economy's many shortcomings and persuade voters that it has a credible economic alternative, it must take the symbolic step of rewriting the outdated Clause IV of the party constitution. Labour's message must be 'as much competition as possible, government intervention where necessary'.

When it comes to tax and expenditure, it is vital that spending commitments, if they have to be made at all, are made very cautiously indeed.

Our survey reveals that the increases in pensions and child benefits promised by the Labour Party at the last election had little positive electoral impact. Yet their cost was such that the party was forced to explain in advance where the money to pay for them was coming from. The survey also shows the importance of taking into account the regional effects of any tax changes.

Over the next few years John Smith has to give Labour a new identity that is in tune with the times.

I believe he can do it. As one Labour candidate from one of the marginals in the survey said: 'If anybody can make the radical changes needed to take Labour to victory at the next election, it is John Smith.'

Giles Radice is the Labour MP for Durham North. His pamphlet 'Southern Discomfort' is published by the Fabian Society. The full research, by GMA Monitor, is also available from the society.

(Photograph omitted)

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