Tribune leader, 17 April 1992
Although it is understandable that Neil Kinnock decided to resign the Labour leadership after last week’s general election defeat, there was no need for the trade unions to bounce the party into an instant leadership election. It would have been perfectly easy to find a caretaker acceptable to all for the silly season from July to party conference, and such a course of action would have allowed party members at every level to chew over the reasons for the defeat, debate the way forward and come to informed conclusions about which politicians they prefer to lead it. If the move to rush the leadership elections was not an attempt to stifle discussion and fix the result for John Smith, it looked remarkably like one.
Still, the National Executive Committee managed to get an extra three weeks before the special conference, and the time must be used by all affiliated unions and Constituency Labour Parties to ballot their members. If it is not, the new leader will lack democratic legitimacy.
The immediate priorities for Labour’s democratic left are to ensure that the debate over the party’s future direction is the defining feature of the leadership election campaign and that the debate is not ended as soon as it is over or, perhaps worse, simply marginalised and ignored. More has got to change in the Labour Party than the face of its leader if it is to win next time. Whoever wins must preside over a transformation of the party.
This is not most importantly a matter of changing detailed policy (even on taxation) nor is it about improving presentation, though these things have a part to play later on. Before getting bogged down in detail, the party needs to address the big questions: how British society has changed in the past decade; how the European economy can be managed for social democratic purposes in an era in which the capacities of the individual European nation states are wholly inadequate to the task; whether there is any future for socialism except as redistribution; how a root-and-branch democratisation of Britain and Europe can be achieved; how the impending collapse of Britain’s military industries can be handled; what can be done about the runaway crises of Third World poverty and environmental degradation. In other words, Labour needs to do what it failed to do after 1987: subject itself to a thoroughgoing political critique.
Tribune believes that the results of this process should include adoption of proportional representation for the Commons, an unambiguous embrace of the goal of a democratic federal Europe and development of Europe-wide strategies for economic management, environmental policy, and global development of Europe-wide strategies for economic management, environmental policy and global development. But at this stage, what is important is not what Tribune or anyone else thinks but the party’s willingness to engage in the process.
At the same time, Labour needs radically to democratise its own structures. One member one vote for all major decisions and elections is essential and urgent. So too is a serious attempt to revitalise the party’s political culture and membership, emphasising not just recruitment but participation, particularly of women, and political education.
No single leader can possibly deliver all this on his or her own, but the leadership can make some difference. What Labour needs now is people at the top who are open-minded, dynamic, intellectually creative and above all adventurous. Both the contenders so far declared for the leadership are capable men, and both are up to the task of leading Labour during a period of profound reassessment. Bryan Gould has more of a record as a creative thinker and is more influenced by radical democratic and environmentalist ideas; John Smith has a much better grasp of the need for an essentially European orientation for Labour. If the choice remains as it was when we went to press on Wednesday, on balance Tribune prefers Mr Gould, but will of course give both sides ample opportunity to make their cases.
Obviously, however, there is no reason for the choice to remain as it is. Indeed, the best thing that could happen between now and the closing date for nominations would be the emergence of more candidates so that party members can choose among the full range of political positions put forward in the Labour Party.