Why did they do it, and what should they do next?
Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party’s fear of power, and Tony Blair’s chances of overcoming it
Whatever weight future historians give it, 29 April 1995 will undoubtedly be thought symbolic. For on that day culminated a process, begun under Neil Kinnock, by which the Labour Party effectively jettisoned its past. The repeal of the old Clause IV has finally sundered the historical continuity of the Labour Party – as it was intended to. It was also a public admission that the Party had lost the self-confidence – the belief that, whatever the electorate thought, the future was on its side – which had sustained it from 1918 until the early Eighties. Mr Blair has done what Hugh Gaitskell failed to do and what no other Labour leader has even attempted; an achievement we should not minimise. The votes of the constituency parties really are remarkable, particularly to anyone who bears in mind what those parties were like a decade or so ago, and what they could be again.
Yet there was no especially good reason to repeal Clause IV – other than Tony Blair’s determination to put his leadership and authority beyond question. As such, the ‘socialist objective’ has never been an issue at a general election, partly because no one supposed for a moment any Labour government would attempt to realise it. If he had lost (as he could well have done) he would have looked foolish and the Labour Party worse. Even in winning Mr Blair risks alienating a number of trade-union leaders with whom he will presumably have to live if he becomes prime minister. And for what purpose? What replaces Clause IV? These are now questions of some urgency since a Labour victory at the next general election is at least a good possibility – if little more than that.
While few now admit it, Clause IV was defensible. Although unachievable itself, it had obvious implications. The first was to establish the Labour Party’s moral distinction. No other British party had any kind of formal objective, and to the extent that they had informal objectives none had one which was both a profound moral critique of the status quo and a promise to transform it. The second was to commit the Labour Party to social equality: if not absolute equality, then something approaching it. The third was to justify the role of the state as active agent; and not just as an institution which redistributes wealth, but, since Labour leaders have always doubted the innovative urges of British businessmen, one which also creates it. To abandon the ‘Socialist objective’ is, therefore, of more than cosmetic significance: it leaves the Labour Party without any objective at all – or, since there is a new Clause IV, any objective that gives moral sanction or clear point to its politics.
What the Labour Party now feels committed to is very unclear. No matter how hard we peer into the murk, the outlines remain obscure, the signals contradictory. It is hard to see any commitment to policies which are other than tenuously within a Labour tradition. The state has gone, both as spender and organiser, and as wealth-distributor via taxation. The commitment to social equality seems largely to have gone. Every time Mr Blunkett, for example, opens his mouth, Labour’s allegiance to an egalitarian educational system becomes that much weaker. The notion of public service – which is central to a social-democratic tradition – has largely been destroyed and the Labour Party shows no sign of wishing to restore it, even itself adopting the wholly inappropriate vocabulary of the ‘market’ (or what is imagined to be the vocabulary of the market). In fairness, it must be conceded that opposition parties have to fudge, particularly when, like the Labour Party, they operate in a hostile ideological environment – Labour’s nervousness about tax, for instance, is entirely understandable. It is possible, therefore, that Labour in government may behave differently from Labour in opposition – but at the moment I doubt it.
Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995
Ross McKibbin plays Santa Claus to Tony Blair (LRB, 25 May), but he fills Blair’s stocking with nothing more than a few airy balloons ‘repoliticisation’, ‘modernisation’, citizen ‘empowerment’) plus a rather grey parcel at the bottom, vaguely labelled ‘electoral reform’. There is of course a strong case for some sort of proportional representation in choosing representatives for the European Parliament and for local authorities because in both cases the elections are not oriented towards an adversarial legislature that produces a government. But McKibbin apparently favours electoral reform for elections to the House of Commons, and holds it up as a sort of modernising talisman, an indiscriminate wonder-cure for all the ills that earlier Labour Governments were prone to.
His grounds for doing so are very strange. He says that ‘were the country able to start again, as the Germans did after 1945, it is inconceivable that we would put in place such a ruined system’ – as though we should regret the fact that our political system has been evolving continuously for hundreds of years, and that we can’t rewrite the whole thing from scratch. And he complains that our electoral system ‘is grossly unrepresentative’, as though the exact representation of opinion in some aggregated and fictitious national constituency is the only purpose of parliamentary elections.
But his main argument is positively sleazy: that electoral reform would keep Labour in power for longer. With this, we’re back to the seedy politics of the French Fourth Republic, where each political party when in government rigged the electoral system against its rivals. Nor does McKibbin say anything about how this change in the rules is going to be sold to the electors. Opinion polls which display enthusiasm for a shiny new constitution suffer from the fallacy of the cost-free benefit. Such opinions are never reached in the knowledge of what the change is likely to cost – probably not in the light of much knowledge at all. When roasted in the heat of a general election campaign, they are likely to frizzle up. To sleaze McKibbin adds political improbability: for he envisages Blair getting power through the simple-majority system and then embracing an electoral reform that would prevent his party from ever holding office on its own again. He nowhere explains why a multi-party system would benefit Labour more than the Conservatives, or how a Labour government would get its legislative proposals on other matters past its coalition partners. As Harold Laskilong ago pointed out, government of this sort involves ‘the substitution of manoeuvre for policy’.
There is a better way. Labour has now lost four elections in a row. In 1979 Mrs Thatcher’s party had lost four out of the preceding five. Yet in her final pre-election press conference in that year she followed her predecessors of the Twenties in claiming that electoral reform was ‘the easy way of fighting socialism’: ‘the only way to fight state socialism … is to fight it head on and beat it head on.’ Neil Kinnock echoed this honesty and conviction. ‘What I don’t want,’ he told the Times in September 1990, ‘is people coming to a conclusion to change the nature of politics in Britain simply because they’re fed up with Maggie Thatcher … If they’re going to have proportional representation it must be for the right reasons.’ Even if the politically improbable occurred and electoral reform arrived by McKibbin’s route, it would not stave off ultimate failure for the Labour government which embraced it. For if your programme can get implemented only by juggling with the electoral system, it won’t have much effect. In a democratic society, there is no alternative to winning electors’ consent for the policies you favour.
So McKibbin should leave Blair to carry on with what he’s already doing: clearing out old lumber from his party’s attics, building up its mass membership, and pinching Liberal policies where they’re any good. In other words, doing to the Liberals what the Liberals did to Labour between 1906 and 1914. This is the way to build up an integrated reforming coalition among electors, if not among politicians, that will fully exploit the simple-majority electoral system and marshal all non-Conservative forces in the country with maximum effect against the enemy. For the success of the Right in British politics since 1914 has stemmed not from an undemocratic electoral system, but from knowing better than the Left how to operate a democratic one. Blair offers Labour some hope that the British Left will recover the strategy that made it so much more effective before 1914 than afterwards.
Corpus Christi College,