Here we go

Peter Clarke on the Opposition

So far the Nineties have given us the politics of bewilderment. It all began with John Major becoming Prime Minister, to his own apparent bewilderment, in November 1990; since when his performance has, by general consent, become increasingly bewildering. The Labour Party was bewildered to lose the General Election of 1992, which it had counted on winning. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, for whom the course of politics is constantly bewildering, felt lucky that the electoral system did not cheat them wholesale, just retail for once; and they saved themselves for a couple of bewilderingly spectacular by-election upsets in 1993. Do the Party Conferences herald the end of bewilderment? Have we reached a moment of truth in British politics?

Signs of an effective opposition to this weary, aimless and undeserving government have belatedly emerged, offering grounds for hope of its replacement by something better. Labour had a notably good week. Maybe its Conference was not so adroitly stage-managed as some in recent years, but the fact that it was not patently stage-managed may have given it more credibility. No one would have, could have, or even should have, scripted John Prescott. The Conference had the sense of a real occasion, with real people engaged in a real political argument. This was the electricity which charged the key debate on the Party Constitution. In themselves the proposals before Conference were rebarbatively arcane. Even the fine principle of ‘one member, one vote’ was translated into jargon and technicality. As a thrilling chord in political rhetoric, OMOV surely falls a few organ stops short of a full vox humana. Who can imagine Gladstone, Lloyd George or Bevan resting their case for democracy on an acronym more suitable for marketing a Russian soap powder?

Not only was OMOV packaged in this way, it was also wrapped in procedural compromises which muted its practical impact. It was deliberately confined to the selection of Parliamentary candidates, leaving the voting power of the trade unions attenuated, but still entrenched, in other parts of the Party Constitution, notably Conference itself. Moreover, even with the issue circumscribed within these limits, one motion was passed (by a hairbreadth) which affirmed quite the opposite of what (only slightly less hairily) scraped through as a rule change. So much for Labour’s new clothes! It is a cry which the Tories have understandably taken up.

Yet it misses the point. Carping over what exactly was implemented remains, in this instance, little more than carping. What was done was not insignificant; but why it was done and how it was done discloses its full significance. The leadership of John Smith was one crucial factor. Had the votes gone the other way, there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would have lost, and lost heavily, perhaps irretrievably. Conversely, it is his opponents in the Party who have lost and Smith whose authority has been enhanced out of all proportion to the substantive issue at stake. Had these well-publicised votes concerned, not procedures for Parliamentary selection but propositions about the lactic composition and colour of the moon, the political impact would have been – well, not the same, of course, but certainly in the same direction.

Who really calls the shots in the Labour Party? This has been a rhetorical question for twenty years, implying only one answer – the trade-union bosses. This state of affairs has produced different emotions and value judgments. At the extremes, Tories have been delighted with the status quo and trade-union leaders truculent in its defence, while social democrats have been embarrassed. Such embarrassment reached a high point, it should be recalled, in 1981, with the extension of the trade-union hold on the Labour Party via the new electoral college, which prompted the establishment of the SDP (as it was then called) with a founding principle of OMOV (as it was not then called). It is no accident, therefore, that the Liberal Democrats, as the residuary legatee of the much-diminished assets with which the SDP endowed its merger with the Liberals in 1987-8, should have built their Party Constitution on the same principle.

What we now see is a changed situation where the stale rhetorical question about the Labour Party suddenly has a fresh and convincing answer: John Smith, the elected leader, self-evidently calls the shots. No doubt he would have preferred, in time-honoured style, to stitch up the block votes in advance behind his rule changes, had he been able to do so. Instead, he found the consolation of demonstrating his mettle in the initially adverse situation in which he found himself. He turned prospective defeat into a victory of greater political import, if one of narrower constitutional effect, than he could ever have hoped for beforehand.

Not only did Smith stake his leadership on a favourable outcome, he insisted on standing his ground rather than capitulating. He did so despite stone-faced opposition from union barons who are unused to insubordination – ‘You ask too much of us, John’ – and, by risking a defeat, albeit an honourable one, he gained a wholly honourable victory. ‘At last, my friends, I am come amongst you,’ Gladstone proclaimed when he had to seek election in Lancashire in 1865, shrugging aside the block vote of Oxford University which now thwarted his experiments in popular government, ‘and I am come among you “unmuzzled”.’ John Smith’s claim after forsaking the tutelage of the big unions, might be that ‘I am come among you “unstitched”.’

Let us hope so. For this Conference explicitly posed a pregnant question: how can the Labour Party hope to reform the country if it is incapable of reforming itself? It desperately needs reform because of an inherently disabling mismatch between its political aspiration and its traditional constituency. The idea of a ‘labour party’ only really made sense on the sub-Marxian postulate that capitalism could be superseded by socialism through class war over the ownership of the means of production. Organised labour was to provide the shock troops, fighting for the working class as a whole – an ultimately irresistible driving force for radical change.

The fact is, however, that Labour’s strength has been its weakness. Class awareness has certainly been strong in Britain – but generally in inert, habitual, customary, traditional, closed and inward-looking ways. Thus class has not constituted a dynamic for radical reforms but has instead constructed a siege mentality. The Labour constituency has always been a bulwark, a fortress, a redoubt; it has been capable of exhibiting remarkable resilience under pressure and showing the grim tenacity of the rearguard action.

Here was a great human movement on behalf of the poor which in practice relied on the muscle of the trade unions. Historically, organised labour could be identified as a symptom of maldistribution of wealth within society, with its own efforts, albeit self-interested, as part of an effective process of redistribution. By the mid-20th century, however, the trade unions could at best hope to stand proxy for ‘the poor’.

Moreover, for all its rhetoric of collectivism and unity, the trade union movement has exhibited a narrow sectionalism. This was natural to a movement which grew haphazardly, trade by trade and industry by industry, with a consequently fragmented institutional structure. Vested interests which were partly competitive and partly interlocking were uneasily accommodated within the TUC, which gave a high priority to keeping the peace within its own ranks. The old slogan – ‘what we have we hold’ – sums up the defensive mentality characteristic of even the most militant unions. Whether this expressed an ingrained experience of defeat, or a deep-seated response to exploitation, or a cynical determination not to be fooled by mere words, the effect was the same.

There is no need to indict trade unions for peculiar rapacity in order to identify them as organisations pursuing inherently sectional interests. After all, the fact that our union fights single-mindedly on behalf of ourselves, the members, is the very reason we pay our subscriptions to it. It has never struck me as odd, or even deplorable, that a Cambridge professor should belong to a union, the Association of University Teachers, which argues, in season and out, that universities are underfunded and professors underpaid. Getting this point across in public debate, speaking for its peculiar constituency, is surely a legitimate role for the AUT. But this role is as advocate, and a tolerably impartial verdict requires a judge and, above all, a jury. This is why we need a social-democratic party which is not simply the creature of a few big unions.

It should be no surprise that the conflicts in which trade unions are engaged are likely to be internecine, the more so as their past successes create rival vested interests which they are literally committed to protect. The entrenchment of strong bargainers in this or that industry, for this or that historical reason, may have altered traditional distinctions between haves and have-nots: but it has not provided a model for the achievement of social justice.

The problem is exacerbated under inflationary conditions. It may or may not be true that trade unions are responsible for inflation in the first place. But certainly their characteristic response to inflation is to reinforce a self-defeating pattern of behaviour, pushing up costs and prices with every wage settlement designed to protect their members against spiralling costs and prices. This was the nemesis of free collective bargaining as seen in Britain in the Seventies. At a practical level, trade unions were driven by an ineluctable logic to keep one jump ahead (or to avoid falling further behind).

In the Seventies the compact between the Left and the trade unions rested on an unstable mixture of vulgar Marxism and even more vulgar Keynesianism. In face of the Labour Government’s commitment to incomes policy, the unions demanded to be backed in each and every exercise in free collective bargaining. Their justification was the Marxist appeal to class struggle as the appointed means of challenging capitalism, often watered down in practice to the claim that union action was inherently redistributive. Even if it did not redistribute income to the poor, but only to the strong bargainers with industrial muscle, this was justified on the ground that it was a diversion from profits to wages, and that the workers who gained these rewards were self-evidently in a key position within the forces of production. Moreover, insofar as wage rises all round did not redistribute income at all, but simply fuelled inflation, this was justified by a suitably vague appeal to the Keynesian proposition that an increase in aggregate demand was necessary to restore full employment. If a Labour Government refused to reflate the economy, as it did after 1976, then the labour movement would take the decision out of its hands, by direct action in wage bargaining.

Such arguments were the threadbare vestiges of a consensus through which the Labour Party had sought to evade its own internal contradictions for forty years. These arguments were only necessary when the action of particular unions in pursuing their members’ interests had to be justified as though this kind of action axiomatically provided a universal strategy for the achievement of socialism. Little wonder that the ‘winter of discontent’ has served the Tories so well, and so long, as an object lesson.

Though Labour held on by its fingernails in the Eighties as the main opposition party, turning it into a plausible governing party was another matter. This was the problem to which Neil Kinnock addressed himself with impressive single-mindedness. It was Kinnock’s ability to stitch up union support for big policy changes, step by step, which enabled him to achieve so much. Essentially, though, he was, like Gaitskell before him, relying on the block vote in the Party to make Labour electable. Becoming electable, however, meant getting rid of the block vote itself. This was an internal inconsistency which Kinnock, at least until the General Election of 1992, was no more capable of resolving than Gaitskell. After the election, as a lame-duck leader, he finally said the unsayable by proposing that the unions’ control over the Party’s decision-making processes should be ended. Like Moses, he led his followers within sight of the promised land. It is up to his successor to keep on with the tablets. To change the idiom, the message is: ‘Don’t chuck it, Smith.’

For this is a moment when a bewildered country needs leadership. It will not get it from John Major. Under-educated, over-promoted, he is sadly out of his depth, just as the Thatcher memoirs suggest. The Daily Mirror did a great public service in letting us relish these insights without having to subscribe a penny to the Murdoch press. It brought some fresh air into the wholly artificial atmosphere of the Tory Conference. The contrived reconciliations of Blackpool will surely prove as ephemeral as the contrived ovations.

Major now faces his own moment of truth. He may not be the first leader to suffer a crisis of confidence; but he must be the first to suffer one every fortnight. This is a sapping and debilitating process which is likely to take its toll sooner rather than later. Kenneth Clarke, when he takes over, will benefit from the same temporary and misplaced public relief which his predecessor enjoyed; and will in any case be better able to look after himself, if not our interests.

All this makes it the more necessary that the opposition should be properly led. The personal ascendancy which both Ashdown and Smith have now established is in itself important. It is obviously important too that, under effective leadership, the two opposition parties should mobilise their strength against the Government and not against each other. The extent to which they share a similar social-democratic agenda is now striking. The Labour Party must stop pining for the return of the two-party system. The Liberal Democrats must save their breath for more urgent tasks than talking about replacing Labour. If a ‘labour party’ did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. But a social democratic party known as the Labour Party, with an unstitched leadership, is more necessary than ever.