R.W. Johnson

The Opposition is at a low ebb. Labour consoles itself for its third consecutive thrashing with the thought that at least its leader put up a good show and the Party was well-prepared and ran a good campaign. None of these things was true: Kinnock trailed Thatcher massively in the leader polls and was far less popular than his party; the campaign, largely a matter of a few videos and avoiding the London press, was good only in comparison to Foot’s; and the Party was so ill-prepared that, despite four years of reflection, it was still chronically unsure even about such key issues as its taxation policy. For some years now, the most impressive intellectual input to the Kinnock camp has been that of Eric Hobsbawm, who is actually a member of quite another party, a fact which is surely comment enough in itself. But Labour still exists, which the Alliance no longer does. In their different ways all the members of the old Gang of Four have effectively admitted that it was 1987 or bust. Three of them have moved purposefully towards retirement while the fourth seems to have gone mad. The resulting collapse in Alliance support has seen the Tories reach 50 per cent in the polls, a fact which, like the tremors from the Stock Exchange, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Thirties. Why has the Opposition done so badly? Two recent books afford a clue.[*]

Tony Benn’s diaries are full of interest, in many ways the more so because we already have such plentiful diaristic accounts of the 1964-70 Labour Government. (Benn reveals, incidentally, that Harold Wilson promised that he would publish posthumously the real inside story of his government.) Many of the incidents and personalities that Benn describes are now of historical interest only, as indeed is the great battle he fought for the right to disclaim his title. This, together with his struggle as Postmaster-General to have stamps issued without the Queen’s head, occupies no little part of these diaries, and in both cases Benn argues that, though the issues were small, they provide a chilling insight into the machinations of the Establishment and the dense and pervasive network which operates in this country to throttle democratic impulses.

Benn’s attempt to hype up the significance of these two battles in the anti-Establishment struggle seems almost deliberately naive. Few passages are more unconsciously telling than that in which he describes how his triumphant re-entry to the Commons as a commoner in October 1963 was spoilt by the ironical cheering of Tory MPs celebrating Lord Home’s appointment as premier, made possible only through Benn’s Act. This, he records,‘discomfited the Labour Members and confused the nature of the victory’. I am not sure it did confuse it. After all, such an Act was always likely to be most useful to the Tories, enjoying as they do the support of the overwhelming bulk of peers, and the new phenomenon of life peers spawned by Benn’s Act has simply breathed fresh life and respectability into the whole institution of the peerage. And surely the true significance of the battle of the stamps was that it symbolises so exactly the way in which those full of zeal to abolish private schools, redistribute wealth or bring about rapid economic growth end up by doing nothing whatsoever about such things while getting enormously waxed up about matters like hare-coursing, motorway speed limits, British policy towards Anguilla or Antigua, and whether or not the sovereign’s head is on stamps. It is all very well for Benn to inveigh against the way in which the Establishment deflects reforming politicians, but for this to work such politicians, in the last analysis, have to be willing to be deflected. As these diaries only too copiously show, Benn was willingly deflected into all manner of things.

Whether or not he realises it, he emerges from these diaries as an earnest, good-natured man of a naivety so complete as to verge, occasionally, upon stupidity. If one puts that together with the unforgettable picture of Benn which emerges from Susan Crosland’s biography of Tony Crosland – Benn ringing up at all hours with phone pranks, practical jokes, impersonations and Goon Show voices – one realises that the common strand is a good-hearted boyishness. Far from being the sinister ogre of the hard Left, Benn is, simply and irretrievably, an honourable schoolboy. One senses that his later radicalism springs from the same source. Early on, he seems to have swallowed the whole school prospectus and everything the Head said on speech days, a reaction to which the son of a Labour MP sent to a private school was more vulnerable than most. He set out to serve his constituents with a truly rare unselfishness and worked with an even rarer zeal as a minister for what he saw as the national good. But late in the day – long after the period covered by these diaries – he seems to have realised that the Head was not quite the Arnold he presented himself as, that the prefects were smoking behind the cricket pavilion, that the teachers were trying to seduce the boys, and that the whole prospectus was a fraud. His reaction was an outraged sense of honour, a righteous indignation knowing no bounds, and a root-and-branch denunciation of the school in terms of the rather pious school ethic, now clung to more fiercely than ever. God knows what actually happened to Benn at Westminster to explain all this.

But the real drama, of course, is the fate of the 1964-70 Government, which remains, far more than that of 1974-79, the real turning-point for Labour. For Labour came to power in 1964 with the most talented team it had ever had, with an economy rolling along in the midst of a world boom, with full employment, and a winning set of policies. Power over long-term economic planning had to be taken away from the Treasury, which, in the crunch, always sacrificed everything to protect sterling, and given to a new ministry which would make growth the watchword. To ensure that this growth did not lead to wage inflation, an incomes policy would be imposed from the start; and to ensure that industry became more competitive, a strong attack would be made on overmanning by means of a payroll tax. The basic assumption – surely correct – was that you could shake out labour and even hold wages back provided you could maintain steady growth – which would mean that there were always other jobs to go to and that wages would be rising nicely anyhow. The unspoken assumption was that if the currency had to take the strain, so be it. There was nothing particularly socialist about this, but if you could get growth you could spend more on schools, pensions, housing, and all the other things socialists like making speeches about. These were almost certainly workable policies – and they were effectively abandoned by Wilson, Callaghan and Brown on the night of the election victory when it was decided to give top priority to defending sterling. With that fateful decision went the best chance Labour may ever have; after 13 years of waiting and planning and passionate commitment, the Party simply blew it. The shock-waves from that awesome failure are still with us.

What one looks for in vain in Benn’s book is any recognition of the great turning points of that government. He had greeted the news of Wilson’s victory in the leadership contest as ‘wonderful and incredible’, but even by June 1964 he relates how he, Crossman, Balogh and Shore had ‘discussed fully Harold Wilson’s complete failure to consult with us collectively ... The disillusionment with Harold has set in quite firmly now.’ This disillusionment gathered pace as the sheer triviality and day-to-day nature of Wilson’s management was born in upon the government as a whole. And yet nothing happened. At no stage did any member of the Government resign because the Party had abandoned its entire economic project, because it had done the very opposite of all it had promised, or because the situation was irremediable while Wilson remained prime minister. The nearest anyone came to this was George Brown in July 1966, when, to save sterling, the Government launched a wage freeze and a great wave of deflationary measures in the full knowledge that this would lead to higher unemployment. But even Brown, who was always resigning about everything, couldn’t manage to do it on the one occasion it would really have counted – for a resignation by a senior minister at that stage would soon have made him or her an irresistible leadership candidate. Benn frequently mentions in his diaries that this or that minister is talking about resigning, but he always says that he is against anyone resigning, and while he shares the general opinion that Wilson is hopeless, he seems to regard him as a cross which just has to be borne. This curiously passive attitude seems to have gripped the whole government – and utterly doomed it.

Why was this? Partly, of course, love of office: all these ministers had been out in the cold for a very long time and were enormously enjoying their brief place in the sun. But there were some resignations, just never on the central issue of the economic U-turn. The awful truth is that this caused fewer flutters than worries over Rhodesia, policy East of Suez, cutting the Navy too much or even the goddamned stamps. On the very last page of Benn’s diary we see, perhaps, the reason why: 1967, he records, ‘was the year of devaluation, when we finally realised we couldn’t hold the exchange rate and later wondered why we had ever tried to do so.’ The comment is so flip that it seems clear that Benn – and his case was far from unusual – had simply not understood properly either what Labour’s economic policy was supposed to have been or quite what a dreadful betrayal the top priority for sterling had been. The fateful decision by Wilson, Brown and Callaghan revealed that none of the party leaders had believed very much in the policies they had just been elected on; Benn’s comment shows that they were hardly alone. Later on, Mr Callaghan, when leading the next Labour government, made a positive virtue out of the fact that he didn’t much believe in anything.

The real lessons of all this do not, as Benn seems to think, relate to the cunning and sophistication of the Establishment, but to a more general point about seriousness of purpose. Mrs Thatcher has been handing out an object lesson for years now in how an economic strategy – thoroughly understood and internalised by all government members – can change the whole shape of the political realm if it is consistently deployed over a period of years and forced through against all difficulties. The electorate has shown, too, that it is not necessary for Mrs Thatcher to be liked, not necessary for her to play it week by week like Wilson – she can survive her Westlands and her banana skins, because she retains widespread respect for her determined seriousness of purpose. She knows what she believes in; she believes in it passionately; she will not be deflected. The way in which both Labour and the Alliance have already begun to indicate that they no longer feel much commitment to a lot of what they were exhorting us all to vote for just a few months ago suggests that this point has still not been taken.

So great was the failure and disappointment of the 1964-70 Government that the whole Labour coalition began to unravel and fragment – a process which still continues today. Some crossed to the Tories or Liberals, some retreated into abstention, others left to form the SDP, others to virtually independent factions – Militant, feminist groups, black groups, the UDM/Eric Hammond ‘realists’, CND, and, in all the major cities, a whole series of strongly differentiated local party factions. The fundamental mistake in Hilary Wainwright’s book is that she mistakes this fragmentation – a sort of slow dying – for a new birth. The two parties of her title are ‘old’ Labourism, on the one hand, and a vital, vibrant new party which is emerging ‘subterraneanly’, to use the equally new adjective that she herself favours – a presumed coalition of women, blacks, CND, left-wing councils and so forth. What she clearly foresees is a complete takeover of the Labour Party by these new forces, or perhaps their formation into a separate socialist movement: the very themes, surprise, surprise, of the Bennites’ alternative party conference at Chesterfield. Given that Ms Wainwright was one of the organisers of the Chesterfield conference – apparently to become an annual event – one might have thought she would have realised that for a party to stage two separate annual conferences was about the most extreme sign of fragmentation one could get. Similarly, one wonders whether her easy presumption of an effective coalition between the warring fragments of the Labour Left has not encountered certain factual difficulties.

To put it mildly, Ms Wainwright’s book is not strong on fact. Its interest lies simply in its being a sort of wondrous compendium of myths currently prevalent on the Labour left and the way in which inconsistencies in argument go simply unnoticed. Past Labour governments are berated by her because they didn’t stick to their manifestos – but Ms Wainwright, until recently in charge of something called the Popular Planning Unit at the GLC, is blithely approving about the way in which parts of the London Manifesto were abandoned as impractical. The growth of black and women’s sections is greeted with such enthusiasm as a sign of renewal that it passes without notice that Labour Party membership is still falling overall, with the likely corollary that black and women’s membership is falling too. There is, amidst the approving quotes from Sharon Atkin, no mention of the fact that a discernible fringe of Asian voters trickled over to the Tories for the first time in 1987. Or again, Ms Wainwright makes much of the fact that a council as Left as Liverpool could twice, in 1983 and 1984, get as much as 46 per cent of the vote, and yet, like Arthur Scargill, she also supports proportional representation and talks blithely of the day when Labour will win an absolute majority under PR. The fact that Labour has never in its entire history won 50 per cent of the vote or that PR would have kept the Left out of power in Liverpool goes unremarked. Whenever she meets a poser of this sort Ms Wainwright retreats into furious denunciation of the Labour leadership for ‘failing to challenge the terms of public debate’, which often seems to mean that the right use of words could somehow have changed the facts.

But this is as nothing compared to the treatment of those two great myths, the miners’ strike and the GLC. The former is treated as a great socialist crusade which failed largely due to the treasons of the Labour Right, but which had an enduring effect in bringing a new popular consciousness to birth, particularly among the Women’s Support groups. At one point the electricians’ union is chastised for failing to support the strike, and the fact that the EEPTU ‘went through the formality of a ballot’ on the issue is seen as the final cynicism. At no point is there any mention of the NUM’s failure to hold a ballot, nor, in this version, does the UDM exist. There is also no mention of the fact that the NUM, though one of the richest unions in the country, refused, throughout the strike, to give strike pay, despite the terrible suffering of miners’ families – but carried on paying its officials, such as Mr Scargill, quite normally. Similarly, one would never guess that the union was simultaneously playing ducks and drakes with huge sums in the Euromarkets, ultimately losing much of their money, or that the strike was financed quite largely from loans taken out from other unions, creating debts which the NUM has signally failed to honour. After the strike was over, the NCB quietly admitted that it had been much influenced by the constant in-depth polling it had done of miners’ families, which had, interalia, shown that throughout the strike a clear majority of miners’ wives always wanted their husbands to return to work. The Miners’ Wives Support Committees no doubt put on a bonny show but they were never representative: the prolongation of the strike has to be seen as a victory, not for socialist feminism, but for the male chauvinism of miners willing to ignore what their wives thought. There is no room for such uncomfortable facts here.

It is much the same with the GLC. Ms Wainwright assumes throughout that the Livingstone regime was a major political success, winning large numbers of converts for its brand of radical socialism. It is a pity she, and Ken Livingstone for that matter, didn’t bother to study how Herbert Morrison first turned London into a Labour stronghold. Having captured London for Labour for the first time in 1934 with a campaign of textbook thoroughness, Morrison insisted that Labour must, in its first term, avoid flamboyant symbolic gestures. Instead, it must make London a show-case of its capacity to govern – which meant winning the trust of the middle ground simply by being the most efficient, decisive and energetic administration London had ever seen. Only after you’d won people’s trust on that basis, Morrison believed, could you hope to attract their support for more partisan causes dear to your heart. After three years of this, Labour had so consolidated its hold that although the Tories mounted a tremendous assault to recapture London in 1937 – claiming that it would be an insult to the Crown if the capital of the Empire were in socialist hands in Coronation Year – Labour almost doubled its majority on the LCC and, in the next 27 years of the LCC’s life, never again lost it.

The Livingstone regime had no respect for this sort of political horse-sense. Despite his distinctly fragile base in popular support – the London electorate was offered one Labour leader but, after a post-election coup, got another – Livingstone immediately launched a series of initiatives (e.g. talks with the IRA) calculated to offend a majority of Londoners and with a doubtful relevance to the capital’s problems. At the same time, even circles highly sympathetic to the GLC were scandalised by the large grants and fancy salaries being handed out to the left-wing groupies attracted to the GLC like wasps to jam. (Hilary Wainwright has the good grace to admit to the ‘fat salary’ she drew from the GLC, apparently for her work in connection with planning, a subject in which she had no training or qualification.) This brought such great unpopularity to the GLC that Mrs Thatcher felt emboldened to propose its outright abolition. The threat of abolition enabled the Livingstone administration briefly to ride the inevitable wave of popular indignation it caused, but it has been clear for a while now that Mrs Thatcher has got clean away with it. Not only has the collapse of London services constantly predicted by the GLC not taken place, but the general election results in London showed clearly enough how shallow and conditional Livingstone’s popularity had really been Labour, for its part, was so aghast at the whole episode that it has firmly refused to commit itself to re-creating the GLC in the future. Ms Wainwright fails entirely to realise that this is a pretty fair catalogue of political disaster and cheerfully recommends Labour to take the GLC path. It’s rather like a Tory activist suggesting that the best way ahead for the Conservatives would be to invade Suez or re-stage the Profumo Affair.

If we attempt to do without the crutches of naivety or wishfulness we have to start with a number of simple truths.

Almost certainly Labour cannot again win an election on its own. So some sort of Lib-Lab deal is the only hope. This means that all talk of socialism is pointless and divisive. While there may be a potential anti-Tory majority in Britain, currently it is smaller than the anti-Labour majority. So getting enough Liberals to vote Labour may be very difficult. The only way to do this would be to ape François Mitterrand’s achievement of creating a common Opposition programme which ultimately enlarges, as well as uniting, the Opposition electorate. Such a strategy depended heavily on Mitterrand’s own presidential stature and coat-tails, as well as his incomparable political intelligence.

David Steel might, just conceivably, be capable of playing such a role, but Labour would never accept Liberal leadership of a joint Opposition campaign. Which means one is left with Neil Kinnock – who is incapable of playing such a role. Kinnock may be a nice chap, but he is, quite irretrievably, just a student union politician. He is vacuous, verbose and comprehensively not up to it. The notion of him at Number Ten has much the same surrealist feel as the idea of Jesse Jackson in the White House. Labour have never won with a leader who runs behind his Tory counterpart in the polls and Kinnock will be out-polled by almost whoever the Tories put up. If Labour are serious about winning, Kinnock has to go. But Kinnock will not go. He doesn’t want to; there’s no obvious alternative; the leadership election rules give the incumbent an overwhelming advantage; and Labour is too conservative and sentimental a party to face up to reality like this.

Having looked at these difficulties, the reaction within the Opposition parties is to say that all this talk of pacts and changing leaders, let alone having policies they actually believe in, is too difficult and best left alone. Which means ‘let’s return to a provenly losing strategy, muck around with our policies a bit, and hope we get lucky.’

In time, the central flaw in the Government’s economic strategy will become apparent. Reaganomics are seen to have failed in the US because they have resulted in simultaneous and runaway trade and budget deficits. We have avoided the same fate only through once-and-for-all sell-offs of North Sea oil, on the one hand, and state assets, on the other. But the supply of both is strictly finite, and as we exhaust that supply we shall be faced with a situation far worse than anything we have hitherto experienced, and far worse, too, than anything the US faces today, for all Mrs Thatcher’s preachiness on this score. Our children are likely to look back in anger at the locust years of Thatcher and Law-son and ask how we could possibly have been so short-sightedly greedy in the way we mortgaged their future.

But that is all at least one, perhaps two more elections away. Long before then the effects of the recent stock-market crash will have rippled through. Quite how bad those effects will be is as yet unknowable; indeed the real question is whether there may be a further crash still ahead. And finally, while Mrs Thatcher may never be defeated she will go in the end, a fact which is bound to destabilise a government which is so largely a one-woman show. To speculate like this, however, is merely to underline the weakness of the Opposition. We have a government which has produced record unemployment, which has literally brought about rioting in the streets, which has done untold damage to the health, housing and education systems, which is bullying and authoritarian and which has institutionalised personal power in a way reminiscent of De Gaulle or Peron: St John Stevas’s phrase about Mrs. Thatcher – ‘a new Cromwell of the Right’ – says it well. And yet the question we find ourselves asking is not: how can the Opposition win? but: how can the Government possibly lose? When one is in the desert one cannot afford to believe in mirages: in the end, survival depends on honest realism. We have already crossed far and windswept sands, but it might be best to assume there is a lot more desert to come.

[*] Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-1967 by Tony Benn, reviewed by Ben Pimlott in the last issue of this paper, and Labour: A Tale of Two Parlies by Hilary Wainwright (Hogarth, 338 pp., £5.95, 28 September, 0 7012 0778 7).