Here we go

Peter Clarke on the Opposition

So far the Nineties have given us the politics of bewilderment. It all began with John Major becoming Prime Minister, to his own apparent bewilderment, in November 1990; since when his performance has, by general consent, become increasingly bewildering. The Labour Party was bewildered to lose the General Election of 1992, which it had counted on winning. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, for whom the course of politics is constantly bewildering, felt lucky that the electoral system did not cheat them wholesale, just retail for once; and they saved themselves for a couple of bewilderingly spectacular by-election upsets in 1993. Do the Party Conferences herald the end of bewilderment? Have we reached a moment of truth in British politics?

Signs of an effective opposition to this weary, aimless and undeserving government have belatedly emerged, offering grounds for hope of its replacement by something better. Labour had a notably good week. Maybe its Conference was not so adroitly stage-managed as some in recent years, but the fact that it was not patently stage-managed may have given it more credibility. No one would have, could have, or even should have, scripted John Prescott. The Conference had the sense of a real occasion, with real people engaged in a real political argument. This was the electricity which charged the key debate on the Party Constitution. In themselves the proposals before Conference were rebarbatively arcane. Even the fine principle of ‘one member, one vote’ was translated into jargon and technicality. As a thrilling chord in political rhetoric, OMOV surely falls a few organ stops short of a full vox humana. Who can imagine Gladstone, Lloyd George or Bevan resting their case for democracy on an acronym more suitable for marketing a Russian soap powder?

Not only was OMOV packaged in this way, it was also wrapped in procedural compromises which muted its practical impact. It was deliberately confined to the selection of Parliamentary candidates, leaving the voting power of the trade unions attenuated, but still entrenched, in other parts of the Party Constitution, notably Conference itself. Moreover, even with the issue circumscribed within these limits, one motion was passed (by a hairbreadth) which affirmed quite the opposite of what (only slightly less hairily) scraped through as a rule change. So much for Labour’s new clothes! It is a cry which the Tories have understandably taken up.

Yet it misses the point. Carping over what exactly was implemented remains, in this instance, little more than carping. What was done was not insignificant; but why it was done and how it was done discloses its full significance. The leadership of John Smith was one crucial factor. Had the votes gone the other way, there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would have lost, and lost heavily, perhaps irretrievably. Conversely, it is his opponents in the Party who have lost and Smith whose authority has been enhanced out of all proportion to the substantive issue at stake. Had these well-publicised votes concerned, not procedures for Parliamentary selection but propositions about the lactic composition and colour of the moon, the political impact would have been – well, not the same, of course, but certainly in the same direction.

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