The debate between the four contenders for the Labour Party leadership, organised by the Fabians and televised by BBC 2, was very odd. Who did they all think they were talking to, and how seriously did they take it? Well, obviously they were talking to the Fabians. What percentage of the electoral college is that? Something into several points of a fraction of 1 per cent. They were, presumably, talking to the whole of the rest of the Labour Party, which was, they hoped, tuned in. And how many of these are a. still undecided or b. in possession of any vote or say in the matter? Probably very few, though there will have been some in both the trade union and the constituency sections. They can hardly have been hoping to influence their fellow MPs through the media – so we can count the third element of the electoral college out as part of the putative audience. But were they talking to the electorate? One of them is going to be the Leader of the Labour Party, Leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and the person who has got to convince the electorate that the Labour Party will win next time. Were any of them talking this way? Two were and two weren’t. And the two who were are those who – by common consent – will get nowhere near the leadership, Eric Heffer and Peter Shore.
In Eric Heffer’s case this is because he is one of those rare people who doesn’t differentiate between audiences. It can be a sign of either holy innocence or crass insensitivity and in his case it is probably a bit of both. He talked to the Fabian Society as he would talk to the Great British Public, or his constituents or his family or his dog – as, I’m sure, he would talk to the Queen, in the improbable event that he were to be elected and the Labour Party were to win the next general election and he were to become Prime Minister. And I think the Queen would love him too. He is utterly straightforward and consistent, not a trimmer or a wheeler-dealer. (Though he did make one rather clumsy political gesture during his speech in self-consciously mentioning the Women’s Movement: he knows that women activists among his Far Left block of support are lukewarm about his record on feminist issues and wanted Jo Richardson to be their candidate instead.) He is also not a great thinker: his socialism is old-fashioned gut-reaction stuff, socialist realism drama. He is nobody’s idea of a leader. However, my guess is that he may come third. The anger of the hard Left at Kinnock’s failure to vote for Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership, and his part in blocking Ken Livingstone’s claims to Brent East on the NEC, may attract more votes – in all three sections – from the Kinnock camp than is at present estimated.
Peter Shore, the other candidate who appeared to be speaking to the electorate, will, I’d guess, come last. He gave an impressive performance: had clearly thought very carefully what he was going to say, said it with pasion and conviction, and was the only one of the four who gave any impression at all of being able to run the country. It was certainly his finest hour: he had the air of a Battle of Britain pilot (forty years on, to be sure) gallantly risking all, knowing he is unlikely to survive, but hoping that his efforts, even at the eleventh hour, will save the party. He will get no thanks for it. He did not even receive the nomination of his own constituency party where the hard Left is strong, and he is regularly lambasted in London Labour Briefing for ‘using the anti-Labour capitalist media to damage the Left and reject socialist policies’, and for being ‘British capitalism’s main ally in the Labour Party today’ and part of an ‘apologist Tory remnant failing to represent or fight for working-class interests’. I am not the first person to remark on it, nor will I be the last, but if there is any one thing that will do down the Labour Party it is the way they talk about each other.
As for the other two candidates, the two potential winners (though everybody already knows there is really only one), they both gave poor performances. Perhaps it was fatigue, or (in Hattersley’s case) depression, or (in Kinnock’s) arrogance. Neither talked as if what they had to say would make any difference at all. It is Roy Hattersley’s misfortune that when he attacks the institutions of privilege it sounds like an opportunist bid for left-wing support. All very unfair. He may indeed be passionately committed to the radical plans he put forward for control of the financial institutions, but it sounded more like a half-hearted last-minute attempt to distinguish his own political beliefs from the SDP – something, incidentally, Peter Shore no longer attempts to do, now that leaving the EEC looks like disappearing from Labour’s programme. Hattersley was the only one of the four who thought it wise even to mention the SDP – and then only to be inaccurately dismissive about its commitment to equality, rather than to confront directly the challenge the party poses. The official Labour Party line seems to be to pretend we don’t exist, or to yoke us with the Conservative Party – ‘Tory/SDP cuts’ or ‘Tory/SDP warmongering’.
As for Neil Kinnock, I thought his performance the most disappointing of the lot. He had worked out some careful words on defence (and they came across as such – which probably did him no good either side of the nuclear policy divide), but apart from that he seemed to be relying on his gift for rhetoric – which was flagging that night. If he had given any thought to the fact that thousands of non-aligned viewers might be watching and forming their impressions of the future of the Labour Party (for it looks as if he will be it), surely he would have made more effort? When challenged about his lack of ministerial experience, he made just the one casual and sardonic crack. Ministerial experience may not matter in the leadership election, but it will for sure in the next general election.
Kinnock’s lack of experience shows whenever he tries to promote positive policies (which is where Hattersley is at his strongest): he suddenly becomes less charismatic, less convinced – almost boring. (His press conference during the election campaign on education and training was very flat). When he is simply on the attack he is magnificent. The speech warning the country against another Thatcher government (‘Don’t grow old ... ’) was thrilling. But without the massed armies of the Left behind him, will that get him anywhere at all? And is he going to placate the Far Left, ignore them, or kick them in the teeth? Anything but the first course will lead to open warfare. ‘Marvellous left preaching, vicious careerist practice’ is London Labour Briefing’s current verdict on him, even though they will, after Heffer’s expected elimination, vote for this ‘fake-left’ candidate ‘with gritted teeth’. Ken Livingstone has been heard to remark privately that he would rather vote for Healey than Kinnock.
How Kinnock gets on with the Far Left will depend very much on who wins the Deputy Leadership, and what the balance of power on the NEC is. On almost any scenario, the years ahead will be rocky ones. With Hattersley as Deputy, and/or a centre-right NEC, the party will attempt to jettison some of its less popular policies – and this will cause continuing rows and bitterness: just what the electorate doesn’t like. With Meacher as Deputy (the ‘nightmare ticket’), and/or a left-wing NEC, left-wing policies and confrontation postures will prevail: again just what the electorate doesn’t like.
One of the crunch issues for the Labour Party over the next two years is going to be how it reacts to Conservative Government action against local authorities, and particularly the proposal to ‘cap the rate’ in the big high-spending Labour councils. Most of these are in the control of the Far Left, and although the MPs around Kinnock dismiss their brand of militancy as being ‘unrepresentative of the Labour movement as a whole’, I think they overlook the enormous propaganda advantage these municipal leaders have of actually (unlike MPs and unlike most of the Labour movement) wielding power and being in the firing line. Eric Heffer was the only candidate for the leadership who supported the proposal that Labour councils should ‘confront the government’ and attempt to defy the law, if it is passed. This is the chance that many on the outside left are waiting for: chaos and anarchy, mass industrial action by public-service unions, sit-ins by parents and teachers, marches on Whitehall – the extra-parliamentary works. Where will Kinnock be then? Not, he made it clear, on the barricades. And what will that do to the future of the Labour movement? One possible scenario is the collapse of the official leadership, and a true socialist alternative, led by Tony Benn (fighting a new constituency) and Ken Livingstone (getting Brent East for sure next time), surging into power at the election which the general unrest will oblige Mrs Thatcher to call. Well, we all need our dreams ...
But for those who have not yet surrendered to fantasy, the journals of the Left and the serious chat-shows on Channel 4 are all full now of the need to think anew. The debates revolve around two questions (the formulation of these is my own!): is capitalism still the enemy, and have we cut our own throats by encouraging the working class to become too materialistic? On the status of capitalism there is a profound difficulty for those who enjoy calling themselves socialists but also think that a large element of free enterprise is essential to a successful economy. Like the SDP, they call this the ‘mixed economy’ and point to Austria and the Scandinavian countries as examples. My impression is that these people are now a small minority of Labour activists. The Left, though capable when it suits them of justifying individual proposals by using the same countries as exemplars, in truth regard this model as ‘welfare capitalism’, and ‘making Tory policies work’. For them, there is no theoretical problem: capitalism is the enemy, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. In between the two is the fudge recommended by Bernard Crick in the New Statesman: ‘A democratic socialism can only arise from a capitalist base. First catch the rabbit; but it now needs fattening before it can be cooked and shared equally.’ (A curiously deceitful attitude to the electorate!)
How to win back the working-class vote is again a question that divides the theorists. On the one hand are the realists who are urging a complete rethinking of the policy on council housing, recognising that ‘middle-class’ aspirations are here to stay: on the other are the evangelists (exemplified by Jeremy Seabrook) who feel that the party can only regain its soul if its appeal becomes chiefly a moral, rather than an economic one, so as to re-arouse the sense of sharing the collective solidarity the old working class had. To the side of both these views, and in a sense opposed to both of them, is the vote-seeking thrust that seeks to mobilise anger and frustration with all the Trotskyist vocabulary of oppression and struggle. As we saw in June, it still works to a limited extent in some of the inner cities, but elsewhere it does nothing but turn people off.
Meanwhile against this background, and with gleeful press leaks starting again about a new breakaway moderate party, the poor old Labour Party has to give a public performance of what must be the silliest script ever written – its leadership election process. Etched sharply on my memory is the scene, three years ago, when my own local Labour Party’s General Management Committee was discussing the issue of how to elect the leader. A local member who was active in the Campaign for a Labour Victory was putting forward the argument for ‘One member, one vote’ within the whole party. The argument was as old as the argument for a universal franchise itself, but the meeting, for the most part, listened in stony disapproval. One of the Left’s most crushing spokesmen (who, when worsted in an argument, would customarily fold his arms, shake his head sadly, and say, ’Oh boy, comrade, do you need some political education!’) turned slowly on the dissident and said with incredulous contempt: ‘But that’s absurd. It would mean anybody could vote! Anybody!’ The CLV spokesman (later the first Chairman of the local SDP) nodded and smiled triumphantly. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, YES!’