Long March

Martin Pugh

  • Renewal: Labour’s Britain in the 1980s by Shadow Cabinet, edited by Gerald Kaufman
    Penguin, 201 pp, £2.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 14 052351 0
  • Socialism in a Cold Climate edited by John Griffith
    Allen and Unwin, 230 pp, £2.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 04 335050 X
  • Liberal Party Politics edited by Vernon Bogdanor
    Oxford, 302 pp, £17.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 827465 3

The trouble with timely books is that time is apt to run out rather suddenly for them. No doubt when the 20 members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet planned the essays in Renewal they expected them to thicken the political debate during the six to nine months run-up to a general election. As it is, they have been overtaken by events: shortly we shall have the more clipped and precise promises of the real Manifesto instead of the discursive and sometimes cloudy compositions presented here. ‘Timely and provocative’ is the publisher’s claim for this volume. Provocative? Not at all – nor should one expect it to be, for elections in Britain are invariably won by those who manage to be reassuring to the electorate. Even the notable left-wing victories of 1906, 1929, 1945, 1966 and 1974 all owed something to the capacity of the radical party of the time to allay the fears of voters alarmed by the Right. Now Mrs Thatcher is as reassuring as a lively ferret in a warren full of rabbits, but Labour’s escape route attracts little traffic. Many of the contributors seem primarily to be reassuring themselves, for they look back to 1945-51 as if hoping to recapture glad confident morning again. As always, they find no inspiration in Clement Attlee. He is very much Labour’s Lord Salisbury – long-lasting and successful, but an end rather than a beginning. Instead it is Nye Bevan whose words our authors like to quote.

As a whole, Renewal scarcely does justice to the range of ideas recently emerging from the Opposition. The omissions and evasions make a formidable list. The House of Lords, the environment, housing, women’s issues and agriculture are virtually denied attention. Withdrawal from the EEC is overlooked. And in an essay tucked away at the end Denis Healey skates deftly over the surface of world affairs and defence, never stopping too long in case he finds himself in danger of giving us his views on nuclear disarmament. Nor will the interested voter find here any indication of a policy for the Falkland Islands in the 1980s. At least some of the omissions might have been rectified, for there are 20 contributors, of whom Mr Heffer and Mr Silkin are consigned to non-topics while Mr Foot writes only a short introduction. One wonders what exactly the Shadow Cabinet were hoping to achieve. Perhaps simply to consolidate the relatively recent impression of a united team ready to govern the country.

Up to a point they do succeed in this, for there are no obvious inconsistencies in what they say; and Tony Benn, of course, makes no appearance in these pages except when quoted by Mr Silkin in praise of Labour’s achievements through Parliament since 1945. Yet the Opposition surely has to do two things. It must convince the electorate that the economic depression is more British than international, or that the recovery, if there is one, is more international than British in character. Second, if Labour is obliged to defend the whole post-war status quo in social-economic affairs, it must comprehensively exploit the fears of all sections of society who suffer from Conservative attempts to demolish it. Peter Shore displays the greatest awareness of such an approach when he writes what is a remarkably frank eulogy of both Labour and Conservative governments after 1945. Gerald Kaufman, who, incidentally, is going to restore Rutland and the Soke of Peterborough, is also alive to the openings offered by high-handed Tory reform in local government and the dictatorial treatment of local authorities by the Heseltine-King regime. Gwyneth Dunwoody, in a most constructive essay on the health services, adopts a similar line of attack.

All this laborious shoring up of the post-war status quo, however, is too much for Neil Kinnock, who, almost alone, tries to strike a radical note. This takes the form of another assault on education, especially higher education, for being élitist and academically-orientated. Alas, like Prince Rupert, Mr Kinnock tends to lead the cavalry exuberantly beyond the field of battle, leaving the poor foot soldiers to their fate. So keen is he to discredit the whole process of change that has opened up universities and professional employment to British working-class children that he misses his tactical advantage. Particularly in the present climate, his line of argument is almost calculated to deter working-class families whose children want to take the opportunities open to them through education. His radical-reactionary line serves only to obscure the impact of Conservative education cuts – both in undermining the chances for working-class children and in threatening the educational aspirations of middle-class families. In thousands of middle-class homes this summer there is a fear of being denied the higher education which four years ago was easily available.

Education apart, the authors of Renewal are at least emphatic on the tangible effects of dogmatic Thatcherism. What one misses is a more cogent and positive argument setting out the alternative to, say, privatisation, on moral as well as pragmatic grounds. Mr Kaufman, it is true, comes up with one or two novel means of striking back at privatisation. There are, as he says, certain areas where public bodies like local authorities enjoy considerable expertise which might be turned to profitable enterprises. Their gardeners, for example, could surely enter the horticultural business. Some commentators sense a joke here: but this is a sign of horticultural ignorance. They do not know what huge sums of money are spent these days on gardening and garden accessories. Nor are they aware how often, say, the Slough Parks Department has carried off gold medals at the Chelsea Show. I confess to having less confidence in Mr Kaufman’s second idea for municipal enterprise – catering. ‘Why should they not open restaurants, cheerful, efficient and modestly priced, to provide their communities with a dignified and attractive alternative to the vile and increasingly pervasive fast-food and junk-food chains which are infesting the country?’ Well, for one thing small tradesmen tend to be well-entrenched in local government and would offer stiff resistance, especially in small towns. For another, most adults would probably associate municipal catering with youthful experience of school stodge and custard – outdated as that may now be – and remain loyal to the fast-food they know and love.

In Socialism in a Cold Climate one may survey broadly the same battlefield but from a higher vantage-point. This, too, is a collection of essays on the activity of a Labour government in the later 1980s, though it is not the ‘Unauthorised Programme’ one might expect from a team of left-wing academics. Inevitably there is a good deal of common ground, especially about the immediate past, but the authors define their problems and their solutions more sharply; and they make a point of emphasising the uncomfortable implications of some of their ideas – implications which are apt to be overlooked in Renewal. Take, for example, the contribution on economic policy by Meghnad Desai. Labour’s Alternative Economic Policy should follow certain well-defined lines: reflation through extra public expenditure or devaluation; greater control of industry through planning agreements and further public ownership; restrictions on imports and capital exports; a variety of job-creation and work-sharing schemes; and price controls. In broad outline much of this occurs in Mr Shore’s chapter. What he does not go into is the anticipated effects of such a combination of measures. Desai points out that various policy packages along the lines of the Alternative Economic Policy are estimated to be capable of reducing unemployment by depressingly small stages: at the most optimistic estimate, by around 400,000 by 1984. Moreover, as he acknowledges, one vital element – incomes policy – has not been taken into account in the evaluation of the strategy. Desai also envisages restrictions on the growth of private consumption and a deliberate effort to divert investment into growth industries while phasing out existing, uncompetitive industries with little growth potential. All of which raises the prospect of formidable trade-union resistance and a siege economy. Put bluntly, a five-year plan aimed at restoring full employment by creating half a million jobs a year would necessitate £10 billion of public investment a year and a growth rate of 6.5 per cent. Such explosive expansion would require a severe planned incomes policy that would prevent any improvement in real take-home pay for five years.

Is there any possibility that a Labour government could cajole the Unions into accepting such a strategy for a five-year term of office? Colin Crouch in his essay on industrial relations builds up a sobering case, starting with the premise that the apparent strength and success of the trade unions during the 1950s and 1960s was highly conditional upon the willingness of governments to pursue Keynesian policies. Now, he argues, the unions are so unpopular that governments can attack their rights with impunity. This in itself suggests that they should come to terms with their more modest role in British society. Yet in the next few decades their effective power to defend jobs seems certain to diminish further. For one thing, micro-processor technology will continue to render certain jobs unnecessary. For another, even if the unions can impede this process, they will only exacerbate Britain’s poor productivity and hence loss of production to the industrialising countries of the Third World. Major employers show steadily less willingness to suffer obstruction from British labour when they can take advantage of a plentiful supply of docile workers in the poorer countries. Yet so far, Crouch suggests, the Trade Union movement has not shown itself particularly responsive to its weak standing in the economy or with public opinion. It tends to want a laissez-faire approach to wages while the rest of the economy is tightly regulated.

Neither Shore nor Eric Varley, who writes on the Unions in Renewal, gets to grips with the problem of incomes policy. They doubtless hope that, given a socialist economic policy, they would enter into an understanding over the growth of incomes. But, as Crouch points out, even if the leaders were willing they could not deliver: for bargaining has become decentralised to the shop floor, where the men’s perspective is too narrow to take account of national policy, socialist or otherwise. Yet the pressure from the shop floor must be faced because the immediate effect of import restrictions in Labour’s strategy would be to push prices up and thus stimulate larger wage claims. Crouch prefers to resolve the dilemma by drawing the Unions deeper into government so as to make them responsible for its effects, rather than excluding them still further.

The volume of 12 essays on Liberal Party Politics, edited by Vernon Bogdanor, provides the most comprehensive and satisfying recent discussion of the Liberals’ support, organisation, current strategy, ideas and policy. At first sight, it appears more historical and academic than the two other books. Yet although most of the authors are academics who write with critical impartiality, they are also politically-committed – not all to the Liberal Party. On my count at least five are active in Liberal or SDP politics. Moreover, they, too, are thinking hard about the past and future strategy of the Centre-Left in Britain. In his chapter on ‘Liberals and Social Democrats in Historical Perspective’ Peter Clarke reminds us of the close relationship of these two strands in the British Left. Socialism and Liberalism may be quite distinct, but during the late 19th and 20th century much of what is often called Socialism in Britain might as accurately have been known as Liberalism: indeed, it probably would have been had the Liberals survived as a governing party. Eric Heffer in Renewal sees no problem: the Liberals were capitalist and Labour is not. This claim, of course, is quite unjustified: both have curtailed, modified, reformed and stimulated capitalism, neither has tried to abolish it. The close relationship between British Liberalism and Labour is much more obvious if one contemplates similar parties in Europe. British Liberals are patently to the left of most Continental Liberals; and the Labour Party has always been ‘Social Democrat’ in spite of its leaders’ fondness for the word ‘socialism’. Dr Clarke interestingly elucidates the application of ‘Social Democrat’ since the late 19th century. Despite the Marxist-inclined Social Democrat Federation, the usual meaning of ‘Social Democrat’ in Britain was someone who wished to achieve collectivist policies through parliamentary democracy.

By the inter-war period Labour gathered Britain’s Social Democrats under its umbrella, along with many Liberals and Marxist Socialists, and is today in the process of dispersing them once again. How all the pieces will finally align themselves when the kaleidoscope comes to rest remains to be seen. It is too early to say who will be left in possession of the high ground of British radicalism. In retrospect, one can discern the point at which the Liberals, during Asquith’s decline, vacated this position. From 1931, by which time Lloyd George’s radical fireworks had fizzled out, the Liberal leaders plunged into the National Government, thereby leaving Liberalism hopelessly marooned on the centre-right until around 1956, when it was rescued by the leadership of Jo Grimond and the Suez fiasco. Since then, as William Wallace shows, Liberal politics has revolved around a series of attempts to achieve a realignment of the Left with a view to restoring the Liberals to a major role. Realignment usually gets off the ground at times of electoral revival and renewed crisis for Labour. The first phase of revival originated in the late Fifties, peaked in 1962 with Orpington, and petered out after Harold Wilson’s narrow victory in 1964. The second erupted in the early 1970s and reached a climax in 1974: if Grimond had remained Leader until this point, 1974 might well have been the year in which the mould of British politics was broken. The third phase sprang naturally from Mrs Thatcher’s reign, and has gained greater credibility than the others from the SDP breakaway.

After over a quarter of a century of revival is the patient definitely off the critical list? Yes – despite signs that the surgeons’ latest transplant may be rejected. The evidence for recovery is extensive. After contesting only a hundred seats in 1951 and 1955 the party fielded over six hundred candidates in October 1974 and won six million votes in February 1974. Whereas in the 1950s only six MPs were returned, often in the absence of Conservative opposition, in 1979 – an extremely difficult election with the tide ebbing sharply right – 11 Liberals were elected, all in three-cornered contests. Moreover, although the party has fallen back after each revival it has never reverted to its former condition; it enters each new upturn at a higher level than before. Even the present showing of the Alliance in the opinion polls (around 23 per cent) is a very promising springboard from which to start a campaign. Perhaps the major gain has been to familiarise the electorate with the notion of multi-party government as a result of the Lib-Lab Pact with Callaghan, and to stimulate concern about the grotesque distortions created by the British electoral system. David Steel’s most formidable single contribution has been to begin the education of his own party, quite apart from the general public, in the inevitability of coalition governments.

If survival-and-revival is a fact, the new role of the Liberal Party is less clear. Can one realign the Left by bidding for the Centre in the name of national unity during periods of Conservative decline? The new Liberal activists of the last twenty years do in themselves constitute a slight realignment of the Left, but the bulk of the extra voters seem less radical. Revivals have usually assumed most menacing proportions in Conservative territory, admittedly helped by erstwhile Labour voters. There are signs that this is less of a problem than in, say, the Orpington era, for in recent years working-class Labour seats have begun to turn Liberal – Colne Valley, Birmingham Ladywood (briefly), Rochdale, Liverpool Edge Hill and now Bermondsey. The alliance with the SDP should finally have rectified any imbalance, though the new party has shown itself reluctant to risk all in Labour’s heartlands, and instead has struggled hard for a fair share of promising Conservative seats. It may be that the Alliance is really the high road to centrist politics once again.

An alternative route to a Left realignment had emerged before the Alliance strategy. It was in the doldrums of Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership in the Sixties that the new course was pioneered. One manifestation lay in the upsurge of the Liberals’ radical youth wing, provoked in part by the jaded condition of Labour during Wilson’s lurch to the right in the years before the 1970 Election. Though somewhat ephemeral, some of the youthful radicalism of the Sixties was absorbed by the more sustained growth of ‘community politics’ at the grass roots, and several of the contributors to this book suggest the importance of the phenomenon. In a sense, the way was prepared for community politics by the party’s decision back in 1960 to give much greater emphasis to local government: but this emanated from the top, whereas community politics sprang from the localities. Certainly it is a very natural tactic for a party of mildly anarchic tendencies. In the absence of a large Parliamentary representation local affairs provide a substitute which taps the talent and satisfies the ambitions of many activists.

Community politics has attracted a certain amount of criticism and derision from other politicians on the grounds that it threatens parliamentary democracy and is an irresponsible attempt to undermine political leadership. This is a sign of its effectiveness. There can be no doubt of its importance to the Liberal Party in correcting the organisational deficiencies which have hindered it since the First World War. Community politics is peculiarly appropriate in working-class seats, in view of Labour’s deteriorating constituency base; and in the long run it offers the best prospect of restoring the Liberals as a left-wing alternative. Hence the local hostility to Steel’s collaborationist tactics at Westminster. The first warning shots were fired in the aftermath of February 1974 when Thorpe allowed himself to be tempted briefly by Heath’s offer of a seat in the Cabinet. Co-operation is always easier in the hothouse of Westminster than in the cooler climate of the constituencies, as Liberals found in the decade before 1914. To the advocates of community politics, Liberal revival is an accomplished fact capable of withstanding the vicissitudes of parliamentary politics. If, for example, the SDP were to be largely eliminated from the Commons at the general election which is about to take place, the Alliance strategy would wither rapidly, but in the provinces the Long March of the Liberals would continue its obscure but unmistakable progress.

Which brings one to the nature of the Liberal-SDP relationship. Is it a spiritual union or just an alliance of convenience? To date, the Alliance has not demonstrated that it can solve the Liberals’ long-standing problems. SDP support appears to be, if anything, even more evenly spread; it, too, lacks a distinctive policy appeal; and its voters are a shifting body of dissatisfaction drawn from all corners of the spectrum. The chief advantage in the early days was that the SDP helped the Alliance to achieve a 40 per cent rating in the opinion polls, which the Liberals alone had never done. However, the present 23 per cent may not be much greater than the Liberals would have scored by themselves at this stage of the Government’s life. The other doubt springs from the basic character of the two partners, the one slightly anarchic, the other establishment-minded. The one is oriented around local activity, the other is the inspiration of a small group of Parliamentary politicians: Roy Jenkins, one notes, was among those expressing hostility to community politics. However, time has already blurred such differences. The SDP bounded into prominence, professional and computerised, with the belief that the key lay in communication by leaders through the television and the press; the days of the hero of the doorsteps were over. Now it looks very different. The leaders have faded. In several rounds of local elections the Liberals have done far better than their partners, and seem likely to do so in a general election too. Phase three may already be drawing to a close.