What Labour must do

Bryan Gould

In the wake of Labour’s third successive – and in some ways most serious – defeat, it is surely the merest prudence to ask ourselves whether there are not some things we could be doing a little better. There are, one might say, only two possibilities: either everything is perfect and need only be reproduced to guarantee victory next time, or something has to change. But it is not as simple as that. In the great Labour movement, committed to far-reaching change and to radical reform, the mere mention of change makes some people very nervous. The reasons are not hard to find. Many activists have become so accustomed to disappointment, and are so lacking in confidence, that they cannot conceive of change meaning anything other than a dilution of principle and a betrayal by the leadership. To take this view is, however, to accept a counsel of despair. We have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from thinking through our positions – if only to reaffirm them – and from the free play of ideas. If we insist on standing pat on positions we took twenty, thirty, forty years ago, and refuse to accept that society and the challenges put up to us by our opponents are constantly changing, then we are dead.

Our starting-point must be the 1987 General Election: not the much-acclaimed campaign but the much more significant defeat. The very fact that we had largely eliminated the organisational and presentational weaknesses which could be held to explain our 1983 defeat means in some ways that the message of 1987 is even bleaker. If a successful campaign can still produce such a resounding defeat, where does Labour go from here?

In order to answer that question, we must appraise our situation coolly and calmly, and take proper account of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. We need not accept, for example, some of the apocalyptic views now current to the effect that we have entered a period of permanent Tory government. Commentators always react to general elections by claiming that the victor is entrenched for ever. Neither historical precedent nor polling evidence about the current state of public opinion suggests that Mrs Thatcher has brought about a permanent change in the values and attitudes of the British electorate. The Tory victories of the present decade do not have to be explained on the basis of some fundamental demographic, ideological or sociological change. A much simpler explanation lies to hand. Mrs Thatcher has been able to use the huge bonus of North Sea oil (worth £65 billion in government revenues) to create a sort of prosperity among enough people in the Midlands and the South to provide her with the votes she needs. Labour, in other words, faces a traditional political problem – the ability of Tory governments to buy support – rather than something new and inexplicable.

None of this should obscure the fact that we have a major task before us. The voters marked us down on two major grounds – competence and trustworthiness. The skilled working class, in particular, showed that they regard Mrs Thatcher as the most reliable guarantor of their future prosperity, because they apparently believe that her government is more competent than we could be in managing the economy. And among those who voted for the Liberals and the SDP were many who shared our concern about the moral condition of the country under a third Thatcher term, but who were not prepared to trust us with government. Despite the fact that the Party has been brought into broadly the right policy stance and is firmly and successfully led, the images of the Labour Party as riven by division and the prey of extremists are still too fresh in people’s minds. Labour cannot win a general election without overcoming these two problems. In particular, we can win only by gaining a large proportion of those seven million votes which went in the last election to the SDP or Liberals. Many of these voters live in the South and it is here that Labour’s greatest test will arise.

There are those who say that we cannot succeed on our own account because our image is now irremediably unattractive to so many non-Thatcher supporters in the South. Instead, we are offered the seductive possibility of a short-cut to electoral success. Rather than try to improve our own appeal to those whose votes we must win, it is suggested that we should do a deal of some sort with the Alliance (by which we must now assume is meant the Liberals), so that the votes and seats which, it is argued, are beyond Labour’s reach can nevertheless be turned to anti-Thatcher account. But even in the case which is most likely to work in terms of harming the Tories – an electoral pact in which Labour and the Liberals agree to leave the field to whichever is best-placed to defeat the Tories in particular constituencies – doubts arise. Labour would deliver votes to the Liberals, if only because most Labour voters would, in the absence of a Labour candidate, have nowhere else to go. But in the absence of a Liberal candidate, many Liberals would, on current evidence, opt for the Tories rather than for Labour. The result could well be to strengthen the Tory hold on seats where Labour is the main challenger, and to give the Liberals a small boost in the seats where they have a chance of winning – all at the price of substantial damage to Labour’s claim to be a truly national party, and despite the fact that we emerged stronger from the 1987 Election than the Liberals.

Even the impact in terms of converting Tory seats into Liberal seats would be small. There are only 38 seats where the Labour vote is greater than the Conservative majority over the Alliance, partly because the Labour vote has already been substantially squeezed in such seats. There are no more than 28 potential Alliance gains if it is assumed that 5 per cent of Labour voters would vote other than Alliance (perhaps for the Greens) if there were no Labour candidate. Of these 28 seats, 13 would go to the Alliance with a majority of less than 2000. In other words, these gains would be jeopardised by any tendency for Alliance votes to be lost to the Tories as the price for doing a deal with Labour. Many of the remaining 15 seats, such as Stockton South or Cambridge, are genuine three-way marginals where Labour has reasonable expectations of winning from third place (as we did in a number of seats in 1987), or are seats where Labour runs the local council or is the main opposition.

The conclusion must be that it is better to build on the lesson of the 1987 General Election campaign – that Labour can, even in seats where we came third in 1983, improve its position and overtake the Alliance as the only contender against the Tories. The short-cut may look attractive but is likely to prove a cul-de-sac. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted from our main task, which is to improve our own direct appeal to the voters. Our salvation lies in our own hands.

So, in the absence of a short-cut, how do we improve our electoral appeal in our own right? The answer is partly a question of image, partly a question of organisation and mainly a question of substantive policy. What is now required in each case is a consolidation and development of what has so far been achieved, rather than a renunciation of our recent history and a sudden departure in new directions.

We must first learn to give new and more welcoming signals to the electorate. This means being willing to talk in more modern language to those voters who have doubted our competence or trustworthiness in the past. We must reason rather than bluster. We must recognise their legitimate aims and aspirations rather than condemn them as class traitors. We must increasingly demonstrate our competence both in running our own affairs and in the critique we make in opposition to government policy.

This has consequences for party organisation. If we are to present ourselves as a modern and democratic party, we must equip ourselves with the appropriate constitution and rules. This means that we must continue the process of democratisation and attract into membership a wider range of people. We must make it clear that the Party is not the fiefdom of an activist élite, but is reaching out for support from, and welcomes the influence of, a wider range of opinion.

We must build on the renewed morale of the Party and its supporters by offering more to those who are willing to join us. We should take a leaf out of the books of other voluntary organisations which, in return for a membership subscription, do not simply demand further obligations – such as attending long and boring meetings – but actually provide something in return, in the form of information, publications, invitations to events, and so on.

These outward-looking attitudes must also have their impact on policy-making. This does not mean that we have to move our policy to some hypothetical centrist position. Quite the contrary. The programme on which the Party fought the 1987 General Election was both radical and potentially attractive, and it is those qualities which now have to be strengthened. This is not just a matter of presentation: we have to sharpen up the process of policy formulation. We must ensure that we are not lumbered with policies which commend themselves to committees, but which cannot be sold to the electorate.

We must be less defensive, less willing to be trapped in the position of defending the status quo against radical changes proposed by the Tories. We must have our own radical proposals to make – in fields like social ownership and economic policy. We must get ahead of the game, so that we are not only attacking the Tories for the destructive and partisan nature of their policies, but proposing our own radical reforms to serve the whole community.

Perhaps most importantly, we must convince the electorate that we know what we are doing in economic policy. The voters broadly accepted that our hearts were in the right place on unemployment. But those who had jobs were not much concerned about unemployment and most people doubted whether anything could be done about it.

We must show that unemployment makes the country as a whole poorer, that even the ‘have’s’ suffer when we deliberately turn our backs on the national wealth we could be producing, and that Britain as a whole could be more successful if we were making full use of our resources. We must show that there is a radical alternative to the policies of financial orthodoxy which have done so much damage and that that alternative – which is regarded as the merest common sense in other more successful economies – can be successfully applied in this country as well. In this regard, the stock-market crash provides us with both an opportunity and a challenge. First and most important, it represents the first major blow to the right-wing consensus on economic policy which has prevailed for the last ten years or more. The prospect opens up of real change in an area where, arguably, the real problems of the Left, both in Britain and in Europe, began. It was, after all, a failure of economic analysis in the early Seventies which ushered in the domination of the Right and the wholesale change in political attitudes and values from which the Left has suffered so grievously. That failure began, in effect, with the oil price shock of the early Seventies, which seemed to demonstrate that the old Keynesian nostrums could no longer work. The monetarists found that they were pushing at an open door. In fact, to their eternal shame, it was governments of the Left in Britain, France and Germany which, through intellectual confusion and for want of anything better, first introduced monetarist policies. It was a Labour government which conceded, wrongly, that full employment was no longer attainable, and that we could not ‘spend our way out of a recession’. We thereby seemed to concede, fatally for a socialist party, that it was both inevitable and right that it was the unemployed who should bear the burden of our economic problems. Having sold the pass, it is little wonder that we found ourselves unable to mount an effective critique of monetarist policies as they unfolded – and, having conceded the infallibility of markets in this central area of policy, we found it difficult to dispute their primacy elsewhere.

We now have the chance of remedying these mistakes, and of regaining the intellectual initiative, by emphasising our determination to give priority to the real economy – and to those who live and work in it – rather than, as so often in the past, to the money economy. We shall not be able to do this by public ownership alone. A financial sector which was largely in public ownership did not protect the French Socialist Government from monetarism, nor did the publicly-owned Bank of England save us from a similar fate. What we need is a much clearer idea of the role of finance as a servant rather than the master of the real economy. On the micro-economic level, we are now entitled to argue with greater confidence and vigour the limitations of market forces as the sole determinants of economic progress. Just as monetarists used their temporary dominance in economic policy to extend their principles right across the field of political action, so we should now reverse the process – arguing that the deficiencies of the markets give a renewed validity to socialist principles of collective provision and social ownership.

In demonstrating the central flaws of monetarism and the unwisdom of total reliance on markets, the stock-market crash gives us an opportunity to re-launch and reaffirm our socialist positions. We will not exploit these opportunities simply by posturing and without a great deal of hard work. But at least the tide of events, for the first time in fifteen years, is now likely to move with us rather than against us. Even our opponents now make the case for direct government action to counter the feared recession; and once the need for intervention is again recognised, the whole of the political argument opens up to our advantage.

The policy review on which Labour has now embarked is, in other words, a chance to give our socialism a more radical cutting edge, a sharper focus and a greater popular appeal. I reject the treacherous notion that there is some necessary incompatibility between socialism and popular appeal. Our task is to reaffirm our commitment to inescapable socialist principles and values, but to apply them in policy terms which will both work in practice and appeal to the voters of the Nineties.