Tribune, 26 June 1992
Labour’s failure to think through the reasons for its April 9 defeat bodes ill for the future, writes Paul Anderson
The analysis of the election defeat presented last week to Labour’s National Executive Committee by the Shadow Communications Agency has stirred up a hornets’ nest.
The general conclusion of the post mortem by the party’s public relations advisers is that Labour lost not because of faults in the campaign, nor because of (easily changeable) unpopular policies, but for much the same reason that it lost in 1987. Under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, Labour was simply not trusted by the floating voters it had to attract to win.
According to, the SCA, it is seen as old-fashioned, too concerned with no-hopers and minorities, too reliant on the trade unions.
Unsurprisingly, this has caused a furore among critics of the SCA’s role in the run-up to the election. John Prescott has accused the SCA, which played a major role in decision-making during the election campaign, of attempting to divert criticism away from itself.
Supporters of Bryan Gould have detected a different hidden agenda behind the SCA’s findings: they are too convenient by half for all those, particularly the architects of Labour’s tax and economic policies, who want to keep Labour on the same tack that it has taken since 1987.
But, for all the legitimate concern about the power and politics of an unelected body at the top of the Labour Party, the reality is that the SCA’s analysis gives no comfort to anyone in the leadership. Indeed, it suggests that the whole approach adopted by Labour from 1987 to 1992, designed precisely to address lack of trust in the party and its perceived obsolescence, failed miserably to achieve its objectives.
The unpalatable truth is that, between 1987 and 1992, Labour did everything in its power to appear modern, responsible and trustworthy. It ditched what the opinion pollsters said were unpopular and impractical policies and it finalised a prudent minimal programme well before the election. It threw out Leninist entrists, played down its links with the unions and exercised an unprecedented collective self-discipline.
The party fought the 1992 election on a cautious social democratic platform, of modest, redistribution and “supply-side” intervention in industry, all carefully costed and easily understandable. Punitive taxation was out. So was nationalisation. Capital had nothing to fear apart from stricter regulation. Labour promised nothing to upset the status quo on defence. On Europe, the line was “go with the flow”.
No party could have gone further, in pursuit of respectability and media-friendliness, Labour even got the endorsement of the Financial Times.
Yet all this was in vain. Ever with substantial help from the Tories, in the shape of the poll tax and the recession, Labour failed to persuade the voters’ that Britain would be safe in its hands.
There is indeed no easy excuse to be found in the conduct of the campaign. Far from leading Labour to conclude that its-general approach in 1987-92 was just about right, the result should provoke the party into a thorough and self-critical, examination of why the strategy didn’t work: why, after all this effort and all these years, Labour is still widely seen as the party of bureaucratic statism and corporatist carve-up, Is it all about folk memories of the early eighties or the Winter of Discontent or has it more to do with the party’s current practice and culture?
But so far there are few signs that very many of Labour’s senior politicians have the stomach for debate about fundamentals. Apart from Bryan Gould, members of the Shadow Cabinet have given only the vaguest indications that they have been thinking critically about Labour’s predicament, and the best that most seem capable of coming up with is that things weren’t taken far enough between 1987 and 1992.
A couple of them have said that Labour did not adopt a sufficiently individualist and consumerist rhetoric; rather more have said that Labour’s relationship with the trade unions was still too close; and several appear to think that Clause Pour of the party constitution was a problem.
More helpfully, one or two have listed concerns – notably the environment and constitutional reform – which could have been exploited more effectively by Labour, and John Prescott has used his deputy leadership campaign as a platform to make some trenchant remarks on Labour’s organisational failings.
For the most part, however, Labour’s leaders have spent the past ten weeks resolutely defending everything they did in the previous five years. Most notably, John Smith, now virtually certain to be the party’s next leader, has gone out of his way to identify himself with the broad thrust of the Kinnock years. His only significant innovation is a cross-party commission on, social justice to reassess the structure of the welfare state.
By contrast, Gould has made some telling points during his campaign for the leadership and the deputy leadership. He has argued convincingly that Labour’s macho style put off many women voters and that Labour needlessly played down several key issues (the environment, housing, transport) in its campaigning, and he has made a powerful case tor the inadequacy of Labour’s approach to the democratic agenda. Perhaps most importantly, he has dared to criticise the party’s economic policies for being too timid to convince anyone that a Labour government would do anything about unemployment.
But even Gould’s approach has been flawed. He has been forced to pull too many punches in the struggle for votes and his national Keynesian programme for the economy has taken a battering, for good reason. The distinctive element in his proposed alternative economic policy, devaluation (trimmed to devaluation as part of a general realignment of currencies in the European exchange rate mechanism), is more problematic in electoral terms than anything Labour offered in April. No political party could win an election promising to devalue.
Perhaps the shortage of ideas at the top of the party would not matter quite so much if there were signs of critical life elsewhere. But they are few and far between.
Apart from the few remaining anti-EC Keynesians around Peter Shore, there is no cogent voice of the right independent of the leadership these days, and the hard left, although acerbic on Kinnock’s stewardship of the party, seems motivated almost entirely by nostalgia for the good old days of the seventies and early eighties.
Its politics are dominated by a rhetoric of betrayal-by-the-leadership and its priorities are conservative and uninspiring: defence of the block vote and first-past-the-post elections, opposition to the EC and military spending.
Ken Livingstone is alone on the hard left in articulating a coherent programme, but it holds few attractions. He has hit on military spending cuts as the key to all Labour’s problems. But it is a solution that offers as little in electoral terms as Gould’s devaluationism (which Livingstone endorses with knobs on): firing workers in arms factories to pay for teachers and nurses is hardly electorally feasible.
That leaves the amorphous mass of Labour’s “soft left” (or centre-left), slowly coming to terms with the prospects of life under a leader who, unlike Kinnock, cannot claim the sentimental loyally of any section of the left. The centre-left kept its head down in the two years before the general election but it is likely that, with Kinnock gone, it will experience something of a revival as backbench MPs and others feel freer to speak their minds. Already the Tribune Group at Westminster is back to weekly meetings and centre-left MPs say that they detect a hunger for open discussion throughout the party.
As yet, however, this is all promise. Perhaps because of the leadership campaign, the centre-left has as yet contributed little of substance: a handful of articles in the Guardian, Tribune and the New Statesman and a few discussion papers for conferences. Indeed, it is difficult to work out exactly where the centre-left sees Labour going.
There is no centre-left consensus on most of the big questions that the party will have to face in the next couple of years – Europe, economic policy, environmentalism, electoral reform – let alone on internal party affairs.
Optimists say that it is simply a matter of time before this sorts itself out; pessimists argue that the centre-left is as short of ideas as the hard left and will almost inevitably end up meekly following in the footsteps of the “businesses-usual” right.
This weekend’s Tribune/Labour Co-ordinating Committee conference in London (see advertisement on page 10) is a forum for a free and frank exchange of views rather than a meeting to forge a new radical consensus, but it should give a good indication of what we can expect, from the centre-left in the next couple of years.