Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995

Why did they do it, and what should they do next?

Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party’s fear of power, and Tony Blair’s chances of overcoming it

3000 words

Whatever weight future historians give it, 29 April 1995 will undoubtedly be thought symbolic. For on that day culminated a process, begun under Neil Kinnock, by which the Labour Party effectively jettisoned its past. The repeal of the old Clause IV has finally sundered the historical continuity of the Labour Party – as it was intended to. It was also a public admission that the Party had lost the self-confidence – the belief that, whatever the electorate thought, the future was on its side – which had sustained it from 1918 until the early Eighties. Mr Blair has done what Hugh Gaitskell failed to do and what no other Labour leader has even attempted; an achievement we should not minimise. The votes of the constituency parties really are remarkable, particularly to anyone who bears in mind what those parties were like a decade or so ago, and what they could be again.

Yet there was no especially good reason to repeal Clause IV – other than Tony Blair’s determination to put his leadership and authority beyond question. As such, the ‘socialist objective’ has never been an issue at a general election, partly because no one supposed for a moment any Labour government would attempt to realise it. If he had lost (as he could well have done) he would have looked foolish and the Labour Party worse. Even in winning Mr Blair risks alienating a number of trade-union leaders with whom he will presumably have to live if he becomes prime minister. And for what purpose? What replaces Clause IV? These are now questions of some urgency since a Labour victory at the next general election is at least a good possibility – if little more than that.

While few now admit it, Clause IV was defensible. Although unachievable itself, it had obvious implications. The first was to establish the Labour Party’s moral distinction. No other British party had any kind of formal objective, and to the extent that they had informal objectives none had one which was both a profound moral critique of the status quo and a promise to transform it. The second was to commit the Labour Party to social equality: if not absolute equality, then something approaching it. The third was to justify the role of the state as active agent; and not just as an institution which redistributes wealth, but, since Labour leaders have always doubted the innovative urges of British businessmen, one which also creates it. To abandon the ‘Socialist objective’ is, therefore, of more than cosmetic significance: it leaves the Labour Party without any objective at all – or, since there is a new Clause IV, any objective that gives moral sanction or clear point to its politics.

What the Labour Party now feels committed to is very unclear. No matter how hard we peer into the murk, the outlines remain obscure, the signals contradictory. It is hard to see any commitment to policies which are other than tenuously within a Labour tradition. The state has gone, both as spender and organiser, and as wealth-distributor via taxation. The commitment to social equality seems largely to have gone. Every time Mr Blunkett, for example, opens his mouth, Labour’s allegiance to an egalitarian educational system becomes that much weaker. The notion of public service – which is central to a social-democratic tradition – has largely been destroyed and the Labour Party shows no sign of wishing to restore it, even itself adopting the wholly inappropriate vocabulary of the ‘market’ (or what is imagined to be the vocabulary of the market). In fairness, it must be conceded that opposition parties have to fudge, particularly when, like the Labour Party, they operate in a hostile ideological environment – Labour’s nervousness about tax, for instance, is entirely understandable. It is possible, therefore, that Labour in government may behave differently from Labour in opposition – but at the moment I doubt it.

The argument for rewriting Clause IV is by now well-known. The old Clause IV, it is said, might have been appropriate for the Britain of 1918 or 1945 but it was wholly inappropriate for the Britain of the Nineties; and there is obviously much truth to this. The social structure of contemporary Britain is very different from that of Attlee’s Britain. The old male wage-earning working class has half-disappeared, as a re suit not only of the decay of manufacturing industry but also of the huge decline – which has gone even further elsewhere – of the male proportion of the workforce. At the same time there has been a steady rise in owner-occupation, in overall living standards and in the availability of cultural and leisure facilities. These changes, some have argued, are fundamentally responsible for the success of Thatcherism and the marginalisation of the kind of politics the old Clause IV represented.

Such changes are undeniable and no party can afford to deny them. What is more doubtful, however, are the political conclusions people have drawn from them. It seems to me that the consequences of these changes are much more exploitable by the Labour Party than has been thought. The rhetoric of Eighties triumphalism now looks pretty empty. Post-Fordism, ‘Benetton Britain’, consumer sovereignty – all the concepts that apparently underlay Mrs Thatcher’s victories are pretty tattered now. We have moved with great speed from an epoch when the central preoccupation of the new middle classes was, we were told, which public school was best for their children, to one where they wonder whether they will have a job next week. It is unlikely that when Mrs Thatcher began her great enterprise she had the downsizing of the C2s in mind. Many of the conventional wisdoms of the Eighties have also been laid to rest. The ‘revolt’ of the parents against local authorities and leftie teachers, for instance, has been confirmed for what it always was: a fantasy of the tabloid press and the right-wing think tanks – as the proponents of opting out have found to their dismay. The trouble is, the Labour Party still acts as though the myth were true.

Furthermore, the social changes of the last twenty years have brought with them a political environment at least as favourable to the traditions of the Labour Party as to the Conservative. The real (if exaggerated) decline in older forms of deference has not yet produced an active, high-spirited citizenry: rather the reverse if anything. But it has detached many from the unthinking allegiances that in the past propped up the Conservative Party. The PR men have, as usual, seen which way things are moving: on television, the Estuary English accents which now invite you to buy the appurtenances of the modern home are not those of natural Tory voters, particularly as Tory education ministers do not like Estuary English. Essex man and woman are both footloose and aggrieved and it would not be difficult for the Labour Party to appeal to their grievances.

In fact, it would not be difficult for the Labour Party to reap where Mrs Thatcher sowed. There was within Thatcheritce rhetoric an implicit social radicalism which attracted many who perhaps should have known better. Although it was not her intention, this rhetoric, and the changes in the Conservative Party which she represented and promoted, swept away many of the old Conservative élites, deference to whom on the part of a large proportion of the electorate was one of the principal obstacles to the entrenchment of Labour as a governing party. What is more, and from Labour’s point of view even better, the rhetoric was spurious. Mrs Thatcher, in other words, legitimated social radicalism while actually practising social reaction – for a conservative party a risky and damaging combination. It is thus now possible for the Labour Party to say things once almost unsayable. When Labour recently suggested that we might cut our monarchy to suit our cloth, it did not lose: but when the Conservatives rushed to defend an unreformed monarchy, they did. And the response from a tabloid press which has always used a socially radical rhetoric against the Labour Party was necessarily silence. What, after all, could they say?

Although he may not recognise it, there is now, as an unexpected consequence of this, a political environment where Mr Blair’s inclinations and the Labour tradition can be assimilated; where policies which both modernise our social and political institutions and serve the self-interest of the Labour Party can happily coalesce. And this can be done in two spheres where the Labour Party has historically not been very effective – despite Clause IV and all that it represented. The first is in what we might call access to power. Hitherto the Labour Party’s approach to those of the country’s institutions where power lies has been very defensive. Even in the Forties, the Attlee Government tended to accept the legitimacy of the system: thus no real attempt was made to reform the judiciary or legal system, the Civil Service, Parliament, the peerage, the monarchy, or any of those areas of civil society – like the MCC or the Football Association – which in practice wield real political authority. The result was the perpetual reinforcement of institutions and values which were always opposed to a democratic value system. Tony Blair, whatever the circumstances, has no interest in allowing that to continue.

Circumstances have made this much more pressing, however. As a result of Mrs Thatcher’s and Mr Major’s policies the average Briton is now more excluded from political power than at any time since the suffrage became universal. The Conservatives have attempted to conceal this by inventing alternative arrangements which (as the word goes) ‘empower’ people as parents, consumers, television watchers – anything but as citizens. They have further concealed it by inventing a market-vocabulary whose aim is to depoliticise social relationships and institutions. In this they have been largely, but not wholly, successful. All complex societies generate inequalities; and in any successful capitalist economy – at least any that we can envisage – inequalities are ineradicable. But it is not necessary for governments actually to increase them; and certainly not necessary for any social-democratic party to acquiesce in that. Nor is it clear that the electorate itself will indefinitely acquiesce in inequality masquerading as ‘choice’. For much of the Eighties the Conservatives were able to stage such a masquerade: now, simply as a result of events, that is much more difficult. Furthermore, the contemporary electorate, taught to expect the good things of life as a right while simultaneously learning that no interest or institution is beyond question, is more easily aggrieved than the electorate of the Labour Party’s youth, when inequalities were accepted so passively by so many.

I see no reason why a Labour programme which was ‘democratic’ in the strict sense – one which broke up and dispersed the various power monopolies which have accumulated under successive Conservative governments – should alienate the present electorate. And policies as diverse as a minimum wage or the abolition of quangos or a genuine reform of the legal system or the return of grant-maintained schools to local education authorities are justifiable on this ground: that they help to ‘empower’ people as citizens. Moreover, such reforms, while being authentically radical, are perfectly compatible with the kind of political rhetoric that Mr Blair is developing and are within the Labour tradition which the defenders of Clause IV were trying to protect. Labour should do everything that they possibly can to encourage voters to behave as citizens, just as the Conservatives have done everything to ensure that they don’t. Political parties must accept social reality, but they can also shape it, as Mrs Thatcher tried to do, with considerable success. Labour must also try to shape it – in its case by repoliticising our social relationships and political institutions. There is nothing in Mrs Blair’s approach which precludes that.

That would also justify the modernisation of Parliament and the electoral system which the Labour Party, to its almost infinite cost, has in the past refused to undertake. On democratic grounds such modernisation needs no justification. The electoral system is grossly unrepresentative, Parliament scarcely significant and local government increasingly irrelevant. Were the country able to start again, as the Germans did after 1945, it is inconceivable that we would put in place such a ruined system. No modern and modernising party can leave it intact.

The Labour Party has a particular reason for reforming it, however, and this is the second sphere where New and Old Labour come together: self-interest. The Labour Party’s reluctance to contemplate constitutional reform has several origins: a belief in the constitution’s basic legitimacy, a feeling that even if you were mostly in opposition the electoral and Parliamentary system gave you carte blanche on the brief occasions when you were in government, an age-old dislike of the Liberal Party and anything that favoured it, and, not least, a paradoxical fear of being in government, of holding power.

The last factor is more important than is commonly realised. Nearly all Britain’s Labour governments have, in one form or another, run away from power. The first Labour government (1924) lasted only nine months and got out as soon as it decently could. While there were certainly defensible tactical reasons for this, it was not necessary. Yet, with the exception of Philip Snowden, no Labour minister seems to have much regretted loss of office. The second government (1929-31) simply threw in the towel. Though it had little freedom of manoeuvre, it did not even make a fight of it, or publicly dispute the highly partisan ‘advice’ it was being urged to accept. In 1951 Attlee inexcusably had Parliament dissolved in order to fight an election everyone knew Labour was likely to lose. And instead of removing him as leader, as it should have done, the Labour Party allowed him to fight and lose another day (1955). The Callaghan Government, though driven to seeking a pact with the Liberals, undertook nothing which might have kept itself in and the Conservatives out: that is, electoral reform. Possibly the only Labour leader before now who loved office as much as the Tories was Harold Wilson, and he misjudged the moment in 1970. Tony Blair, as far as one can see, might lose power but he will not run away from it. He might, therefore, be the first Labour leader to see that electoral reform is not only desirable in itself but good for the Labour Party.

The reasons Labour should favour electoral reform are not hard to grasp. The first is that the Conservative vote is more cohesive than Labour’s: more people will vote Conservative regardless than will vote Labour regardless, and this is something the Labour Party has done precious little to alter. That means that the Conservative vote will tend to be larger than the Labour vote. Under first-past-the-post that is an enormous advantage. The Conservatives, however, are unlikely to get a majority of the votes cast. In fact, they have not done so since the Second World War; Mrs Thatcher, though she devoted all her efforts to it, did not even come close. Furthermore, the Parliamentary representatives of the smaller parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats, are more likely to support Labour than the Conservatives. Indeed, at the moment it is inconceivable that any of them could support a Conservative government. Any system that denies the Conservatives a Parliamentary majority is thus in Labour’s interest. As a leader, Mr Blair must surely be more aware of this than any of his predecessors.

Labour opponents of electoral reform have usually argued that Labour should not have to negotiate with minor parties: negotiations would violate the purity of a Labour programme. That argument, however, now has little worth. It is true that there are important differences of nuance between the Labour and Liberal traditions – especially over the role of the state and the degree to which government should be devolved. But these differences have ceased to mean much – if only because Thatcherism has forced both parties to huddle together against the bitter wind. If, for example, there is a Scottish constitution, its form will be (in fact, has been) determined by open bargaining between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If this is possible in Labour’s heartland it is surely possible elsewhere. In any case, so much is now outside the control of any Labour government, it will have so little autonomy in so many areas, that negotiations with the Liberal Democrats will be the least of its problems. Above all, Labour should remember that in a reformed electoral system there will in practice be only one loser: the Conservatives. And of those who gain, Labour will gain most. That alone should be enough to commend it.

Reform is also necessary to protect Labour. No matter how cautious and Blair-like a Labour government is, it will face such formidable opposition – we know, for instance, how the media-moguls will react to any proposed media legislation – that it will need all the allies it can find. In any case, being super-cautious or doing nothing is not an option available to the Labour Party. A Labour government must be impelled by some kind of dynamic. Constitutional reform and institutional modernisation can, in part, though only in part, provide that. Anything which loosens the political system, disperses power or weakens the Conservative Party, also strengthens Labour’s ability to resist such opposition. I am sure Tony Blair knows this but he risks making heavy weather of what should in principle be a simple operation. It is rumoured that he might have a referendum on electoral reform. That is not to be advised. If he thinks electoral reform (and by that I also mean reform of the upper house) is in the interests of the Labour Party then his government should just go ahead and do it. Having risked so much over the repeal of the old Clause IV it would be perverse not to take an equal risk over something very much more important.

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Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995

Ross McKibbin plays Santa Claus to Tony Blair (LRB, 25 May), but he fills Blair’s stocking with nothing more than a few airy balloons ‘repoliticisation’, ‘modernisation’, citizen ‘empowerment’) plus a rather grey parcel at the bottom, vaguely labelled ‘electoral reform’. There is of course a strong case for some sort of proportional representation in choosing representatives for the European Parliament and for local authorities because in both cases the elections are not oriented towards an adversarial legislature that produces a government. But McKibbin apparently favours electoral reform for elections to the House of Commons, and holds it up as a sort of modernising talisman, an indiscriminate wonder-cure for all the ills that earlier Labour Governments were prone to.

His grounds for doing so are very strange. He says that ‘were the country able to start again, as the Germans did after 1945, it is inconceivable that we would put in place such a ruined system’ – as though we should regret the fact that our political system has been evolving continuously for hundreds of years, and that we can’t rewrite the whole thing from scratch. And he complains that our electoral system ‘is grossly unrepresentative’, as though the exact representation of opinion in some aggregated and fictitious national constituency is the only purpose of parliamentary elections.

But his main argument is positively sleazy: that electoral reform would keep Labour in power for longer. With this, we’re back to the seedy politics of the French Fourth Republic, where each political party when in government rigged the electoral system against its rivals. Nor does McKibbin say anything about how this change in the rules is going to be sold to the electors. Opinion polls which display enthusiasm for a shiny new constitution suffer from the fallacy of the cost-free benefit. Such opinions are never reached in the knowledge of what the change is likely to cost – probably not in the light of much knowledge at all. When roasted in the heat of a general election campaign, they are likely to frizzle up. To sleaze McKibbin adds political improbability: for he envisages Blair getting power through the simple-majority system and then embracing an electoral reform that would prevent his party from ever holding office on its own again. He nowhere explains why a multi-party system would benefit Labour more than the Conservatives, or how a Labour government would get its legislative proposals on other matters past its coalition partners. As Harold Laskilong ago pointed out, government of this sort involves ‘the substitution of manoeuvre for policy’.

There is a better way. Labour has now lost four elections in a row. In 1979 Mrs Thatcher’s party had lost four out of the preceding five. Yet in her final pre-election press conference in that year she followed her predecessors of the Twenties in claiming that electoral reform was ‘the easy way of fighting socialism’: ‘the only way to fight state socialism … is to fight it head on and beat it head on.’ Neil Kinnock echoed this honesty and conviction. ‘What I don’t want,’ he told the Times in September 1990, ‘is people coming to a conclusion to change the nature of politics in Britain simply because they’re fed up with Maggie Thatcher … If they’re going to have proportional representation it must be for the right reasons.’ Even if the politically improbable occurred and electoral reform arrived by McKibbin’s route, it would not stave off ultimate failure for the Labour government which embraced it. For if your programme can get implemented only by juggling with the electoral system, it won’t have much effect. In a democratic society, there is no alternative to winning electors’ consent for the policies you favour.

So McKibbin should leave Blair to carry on with what he’s already doing: clearing out old lumber from his party’s attics, building up its mass membership, and pinching Liberal policies where they’re any good. In other words, doing to the Liberals what the Liberals did to Labour between 1906 and 1914. This is the way to build up an integrated reforming coalition among electors, if not among politicians, that will fully exploit the simple-majority electoral system and marshal all non-Conservative forces in the country with maximum effect against the enemy. For the success of the Right in British politics since 1914 has stemmed not from an undemocratic electoral system, but from knowing better than the Left how to operate a democratic one. Blair offers Labour some hope that the British Left will recover the strategy that made it so much more effective before 1914 than afterwards.

Brian Harrison
Corpus Christi College,

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