Tribune leader, 2 August 1991
Has the tide turned in favour of the Conservatives? The pundits in the quality newspapers certainly think so. It has been difficult to keep count of the number of articles in the past fortnight opining that Labour has run out of steam and that the Tories are making the running in British politics again. How different from just after the Monmouth by-election, when the word from precisely the same pundits was that the Tories, riven by dissent over Europe, were on the ropes and that Labour was the odds-on favourite to win the next election.
Whether there are any particularly good reasons for the pundits’ change of heart is arguable. To be sure, there has been a string of opinion polls showing a massive Labour lead turning into a small one. John Major does seem to have emerged stronger from the row over Europe and there is little doubt that the Tories spent the run-up to the parliamentary recess spewing out policy documents and attacks on Labour faster and more furiously than seemed possible in the spring. Labour, meanwhile, has appeared introverted. After a spell of frantic activity when it seemed likely that there would be an election in June, Labour’s supply of policy launches almost dried up. For the past few weeks, Labour has come across as being preoccupied with getting rid of Militant.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the dynamism of Mr Major and his party. The big Tory initiatives of the past month, the Citizen’s Charter and the Green Papers on trade unions and local government, are dull and uninspiring, and the emerging themes of the Tories’ attack on Labour – that Neil Kinnock is unimpressive and his party profligate, weak on defence and dominated by the hard left and the unions – are tired and unconvincing. The Tory split over Europe will be difficult to camouflage as the autumn wears on, and the Tories remain vulnerable on the economy (still in deep recession) and the welfare state. Mr Major’s ministerial team is an electoral liability. Beneath the surface, the Tories remain in deep trouble.
Labour’s apparent loss of momentum is a stickier problem. There are good reasons for believing that it does not amount to much. It was always going to be impossible to keep campaigning throughout the summer at the pitch reached in April and May, and the nasty but necessary business of getting rid of Militant should not be diverting the party from more important matters for very much longer. Moreover, the party can take heart from the consistency of its share of the opinion polls. The cut in its lead has been almost completely the result of Liberal Democrat voters turning to the Tories and, during an election campaign, the Liberal Democrats are likely to win many of them back.
But it is not enough simply to sit back and hope for the best or even to keep thumping out the same old tunes, however good some of them might be. Labour must learn from the skirmishes of the past couple of months, which have revealed several areas where Labour needs to hone its policies during the summer. That does not mean emulating Gerald Kaufman’s incompetent kite-flying on nuclear arms talks: rather it is a matter of ironing out ambiguities by filling in detail missing from agreed policies. In particular, Labour’s proposals for a minimum wage and a defence diversification agency could both be vote-winners with a little extra attention to detail, and a more explicit commitment to European union could reap the party substantial benefits. Labour must use the hiatus of the silly season for a cool assessment of what needs to