Tribune leader, 24 April 1992
It is now clear that we are not going to get a full choice in the Labour leadership election. The bounce has worked: the rapid endorsement of John Smith by several key union leaders persuaded all but two of his potential rivals for the leadership that he had it all sewn up and that it wasn’t worth even trying to challenge him. One by one, all the younger politicians whose names had been mentioned as putative Labour leaders rallied publicly to his banner – Robin Cook, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown – leaving only Bryan Gould and Ken Livingstone to offer a challenge. With Mr Livingstone almost certain to be eliminated from the contest because of the absurd anti-democratic requirement that any would–be leader needs the nominations of 20 per cent of MPs to become a candidate in the election, that means that the choice is between Mr Smith and Mr Gould.
This is an unhappy state of affairs, not because there is anything wrong with either Mr Smith or Mr Gould – both are decent, honest men – but because, between them, they do not adequately represent the range of options available to Labour in the mid-nineties.
Mr Smith is the “business as usual” candidate (hardly surprising given that he was in charge of Labour’s economic policy in the run-up to the 1992 election). Although he has promised to be open to ideas, and has given Mr Brown and Mr Blair special responsibility for developing them, he has yet to convince anyone that, under his leadership, Labour would adopt anything other than a “safety first” approach. In economic policy, the recipe is familiar: modest increases in public spending paid for by modest tax increases, with industrial intervention limited to “supply-side” measures and devaluation of sterling ruled out of order. A Smith Labour Party would go with the flow on Europe, cautiously backing the EC’s moves towards European Monetary Union but wary of being seen as too pro-European, and it would support the safest option on electoral reform, whatever that turns out to be after Labour’s commission on electoral systems, chaired by Raymond Plant, reaches its conclusions. A similarly cautions approach would be taken to reforming Labour’s internal structures. All in all, Mr Smith would be a very dull leader at a time when dullness is the last thing Labour needs more of.
Mr Gould, by contrast, is brimming over with ideas for change: he is in favour of industrial interventionism and devaluation and has been critical of Mr Smith’s redistributive Shadow budget for its “insensitivity” to voters in the south-east of England. He is a decentraliser, sceptical about Europe, and a convinced environmentalist. He would move rapidly towards one member one vote as the basis for Labour’s structure.
Looking on the bright side, we are being offered a clear choice. Apart from taxation, where it is difficult to tell whether Mr Gould dislikes the Shadow budget tax increases or just the way they were put across, the differences between the two candidates have been admirably well defined. Nothing has happened in the past week to change Tribune’s belief that Mr Gould’s decentralism, environmentalism and enthusiasm for reform of Labour’s structures make him the better bet for the leadership.
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Moreover, if, as nearly everyone expects, he fails to beat Mr Smith, he would be a better choice for deputy than Margaret Beckett, who seems likely to be the other main candidate. Unlike Mr Gould, Mrs Beckett cannot these days credibly claim to be a left-wing balance to Mr Smith’s right-wing pragmatism because of her central role in economic policy in the past few years. Her antipathy to electoral reform bodes ill for Labour if she becomes deputy to Mr Smith, as does her tendency to Euro–scepticism.
But here also lies the nub of the problem with the whole contest. For Mr Gould is as much of a Eurosceptic as Mrs Beckett. No one with a serious chance of becoming leader or deputy is saying that the fault with Labour’s stance on Europe over the past couple of years has been lack of enthusiasm for Europe. The only credible way of subjecting to democratic control the key decisions in European economic policy-making is the development of a federal European executive accountable to the European Parliament. But, instead of willing the means, Labour has taken refuge in the idea that national Ministers drawn from national parliaments should have a little bit more of a role.
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Similarly, no one with a serious chance of winning is saying both that the economic policy of the past couple of years has been overcautious and that devaluation cannot be offered by Labour as a policy at the next election. Devaluation increases prices of imports and cuts prices of exports: as a result, it boosts the economy, at least until wage inflation cancels out its effects. It is sometimes necessary, and there is a strong case that now is such a time: sterling is undoubtedly over-valued against the Deutschmark, as are several other European currencies. But devaluation is not a matter of policy. It can only be used as a surprise weapon in economic management: no speculator wants to hold a currency if it is known that its value will be cut in the future, and few voters would back any party that said it would increase, at a stroke, the price of every single import.
Tribune would have preferred to be able to back a candidate for the leadership who was saying these things: as it is, we cannot. So we support Mr Gould for leader, in the knowledge that the best likely outcome, even if all the trade unions and constituency Labour parties ballot their members as they should, is Mr Smith as leader and Mr Gould as deputy.
A “dream ticket” it isn’t, but it is certainly not a nightmare.