Tribune leader, 1 May 1992
The morning after the election, Labour supporters everywhere were in a very bad way. Not only had Labour lost, it had done so in the belief that it would win.
Nevertheless, everyone who had been involved in Labour’s effort felt a strong sense of pride in having done something worthwhile as part of a team. Of course there had been mistakes, and the party needed to think hard about what had gone wrong. But everyone had pulled together; everyone had done their best.
Three weeks later, that sense of pride has all but disappeared. Ordinary party members are now not just depressed by the result but sickened by the way in which the post mortem has been eclipsed by a leadership contest and embarrassed by the manner in which trade union leaders, MPs and party officials have made a farce of that contest.
First there was the spectacle of a couple of trade union leaders with a large number of electoral college votes making it obvious that they wanted John Smith as leader. To party members who thought that a change of leader was not a priority until after the post mortem, the move to rush a contest was bad enough; that it was crudely arranged to bounce one candidate into the job, particularly when there were several other serious contenders, was an insult.
Then there was the unseemly rush of MPs to back what they saw as the winning ticket of John Smith and Margaret Beckett – unseemly because it was so blatantly motivated in many cases by the hope of preferment when front-bench jobs were being doled out.
By the middle of last week, so much of the Parliamentary Labour Party had flocked to Mr Smith’s and Mrs Beckett’s banner that there was a real danger that there would not be a contest for the leadership or for the deputy leadership because no one else would secure the MPs’ nominations needed to enter either race. Mr Gould asked the party apparatus whether MPs could make more than one nomination. “Yes,” came the answer on Friday evening. By Sunday Walworth Road had changed its mind. And Labour had the nerve to accuse John Major of “dithering”.
There will now be two contests: Mr Gould got enough nominations to stand for leader and deputy and Mr Prescott got enough for deputy. The worst-case scenario, of a Smith-Beckett leadership being elected without a contest, has been narrowly averted.
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But it will take a lot of work for Labour to repair the damage it has done itself in the past three weeks. It is now clear that, for a variety of reasons, only two or perhaps three of the top six unions will ballot their members on the leadership. Labour looks impulsive, incompetent, divided and undemocratic, dominated by cynical fixers and careerists. It has to find a way quickly to clean up its act. The easy bit is a thoroughgoing reform of its structures. The 20-per-cent-of-the-Parliamentary-Labour-Party nomination threshold for leadership elections has proved itself iniquitous and must go. It is also essential to move towards abolition of the block vote at conference and reform of internal party elections and parliamentary selections on the basis of one member, one vote. This does not mean abandoning the trade union link but democratising it: it would be possible and desirable to give union members who pay the political levy a direct say in key elections, counting their individual votes as worth one-third of those of full members.
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Changing the rule book is only part of the story, however. The party needs radically to transform and renew its entire political culture, and the block vote is by no means the biggest problem. Even without it, the party would be unattractive if nothing else changed. Labour’s whole way of doing things is outdated, elitist and boring.
The party does nothing to encourage participation of its members except at election time. There is little serious, sustained, public, political debate at any level of the party: the real arguments take place behind closed doors among a small elite of sycophantic advertising executives and academics. Labour’s political education programme is non-existent and its rituals and language are incomprehensible to all but a handful of cognoscenti.
During the campaign, it was possible to forget all that and concentrate on the prospect of victory. Now, however, it is clear that if Labour does not become a party of democratic, open, plural, participatory political debate rather than one of carve-ups and knives in the back in smoke-filled rooms, it cannot expect people to join or support it.