Tribune leader, 11 October 1991
To be sure, the defence spending cuts motion passed last Thursday by Labour conference was poorly drafted and vague – but then so were most of the motions debated last week. And, to be sure, there is something rather absurd about the way Labour conference makes decisions, with frantic lobbying of union delegations behind the scenes counting for more than the debate itself.
But the fact remains that Labour conference did decide last week to advocate cutting British defence spending to the west European average, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask how the Labour leadership can dismiss that decision in such a cavalier fashion. After all, it is perfectly happy to accept the legitimacy of conference decisions when they go its way, however ambiguously worded the motions. If conference decisions are acceptable only when they are in tune with leadership thinking, the notion that conference is there to decide policy becomes meaningless.
Labour’s leaders must learn that they have to take the rough with the smooth. If they are worried about the ambiguity of the motion, they should be looking at ways of ironing out the ambiguity, not announcing that they will ignore the conference vote when drawing up the manifesto.
If there is an alternative to the pro-austerity Euro-social-democracy currently advocated by Labour, it is not the package on offer from the group of left-wing economists, trade unionists and politicians which was advertised in Tribune a fortnight ago and is endorsed by Ken Livingstone this week.
Much of what they say is unexceptionable: on training, low pay, defence diversification and international economic co-operation, the differences with Labour policy are of degree rather than of kind. Where they part company is in advocating devaluation, exchange controls and nationalisation – the meat and potatoes of the Alternative Economic Strategy of the seventies minus the import controls.
The problems with all this are multiple, but the most important is that there is no reason to believe that an essentially national economic programme can possibly work for a medium-sized country in the modern world. Capital is increasingly mobile and the main effect of Britain attempting to carry out a national alternative economic strategy would simply be to scare it away.
Instead of putting forward a nostalgic vision of plucky little socialist Britain standing alone, possibly outside the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, the left should be exploring the possibilities for European alternative economic strategies. The fact that this task is more demanding intellectually than recycling yesterday’s panaceas is no reason to shirk it.
New technology at last
This is the first issue of Tribune to be produced entirely on desktop publishing equipment. Our thanks to everyone who made it possible by giving generously to our appeal. Tribune will be back to 12 pages a week just as soon as we have mastered the new kit – which should be before the end of the year.