Tribune, 7 December 1990
John Major’s accession to the Tory leadership could make it more difficult for Labour to provide effective opposition, writes Paul Anderson
The Tories’ choice of John Major as leader has already had a dramatic effect on British politics.
Less than a month ago, it seemed most unlikely that the Conservatives could win the next election. The party was running consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls and was split down the middle on Europe. In Margaret Thatcher, the Tories had a leader who was an electoral liability but apparently impossible to replace without a spectacular bout of blood-letting. All Labour needed to do, it seemed, was to sit back and wait.
Today the picture has been completely changed. Mrs Thatcher has gone. The Tories have united behind Mr Major and leapt ahead in the opinion polls. The poll tax is to be reformed and a more conciliatoryline taken on Europe. The least popular figures of Mrs Thatcher’s Government have been eased out of the limelight. Cabinet government is to be restored.
Of course, public enthusiasm for Mr Major might be just a passing fad. Unemployment is set to rise as the economy enters the deepest recession for a decade, yet it is unlikely that interest rates will come down significantly for several months.
If war breaks out in the Gulf, heavy British casualties would harm the Government in the short term -and in the long term the effects of a Gulf war on the economy could be disastrous. In the even longer term, the ceasefire on European policy within the Tory Party will break down if the rest of Europe forces the pace on monetary and political union.
But even a mere blip in the Tories’ popularity could last long enough to keep them in power for another term. If, in early January, the opinion polls still show a Tory lead, it is highly probable that Mr Major will go to the country some time in the spring, perhaps as early as February – whatever he says now. Labour knows this, and is hurriedly gearing up its campaigning for a snap election.
This means that big changes in Labour’s basic policy to counter the new-look Tories are virtually impossible: there simply isn’t time for anything but minor adjustments.
It also means that, despite the speculation in the newspapers, Neil Kinnock’s position as Labour leader is secure this side of a general election. The opinion polls show that Labour would do better with John Smith as leader, but the whole of the Labour leadership recognises that attempting to replace Mr Kinnock involves greater risk than uniting behind him. Apart from anything else, the process of choosing a new leader would take longer than the minimum length of a general election campaign.
In the short term, Labour has no alternative but to force its way back into public view, emphasising the coherence of its package of policies and the competence of its leaders, doing all it can to ensure that Mr Major’s honeymoon is over by the new year.
The danger for Labour is that Mr Major’s honeymoon will last until the general election, which he will then win by a comfortable margin. Mr Major might be “the boring man with the glasses” to Spitting Image, but he has already persuaded most of Britain’s quality newspaper columnists that he is a technocratic pro-European social liberal, committed to the market as well as to the welfare state – rather like David Owen, in fact, and not that far removed from the modern Mr Kinnock.
That is bad enough for Labour. But the party’s nightmare is that Mr Major will convince skilled workers who have shifted allegiance from Tory to Labour in the past couple of years that he will replace the poll tax, get interest rates down and spend more money on education, health and transport, all without giving too much power to the unions, raising income tax or leaving the country defenceless.
The root of Labour’s problem is that its political strategy over the past seven years has beer to appeal to the self-interest of affluent skilled workers while occupying the centre ground ideologically.
In the 1987-89 policy review and subsequently, Labour has adopted policies that have much in common with those of the Centre parties and the pro-Europe left of the Conservative Party.
Labour has abandoned the last vestiges of Keynesianism to advocate tight fiscal and monetary policies. It no longer proposes nationalisation and is cautious about any form of intervention in industry. Labour is against high taxation and for home-ownership, and its enthusiasm for the EC and NATO is unrivalled.
This strategy certainly had its critics on the Labour left, but the alternatives on offer were electoral-ly worse (particularly the hard left’s “vision” of nationalisation and a siege economy). More importantly, the strategy worked while Mrs Thatcher was in office. But the result today is that Labour does not seem to be saying much that the Tories are not saying.
This is not to claim that there are not many policy differences between Labour and the Tories: it’s just that the differences suddenly seem not matters of broad principle but questions of detail within a shared framework of assumptions. That makes the big issue of the next election the competence of Britain’s would-be rulers. Here the Tories are vulnerable to Labour’s attacks, particularly on the economy. Only a fool would dismiss Labour’s chances. But it’s hardly the election campaign that Mr Kinnock was planning to fight, and it’s not going to be easy.