Tribune leader, 15 May 1992
A consensus is slowly emerging from Labour’s centre-left and right about the way forward. Tony Blair says that Labour should be the party of the “individual against the vested interests that hold him or her back” and Robin Cook declares that Labour should “stand up to big business, private or public, on behalf of the consumer”.
There, is nothing wrong with Labour making a populist appeal to the “little man”, even if such rhetoric comes strangely from someone like Mr Blair, an architect of Labour’s 1987-92 strategy, which made a virtue of not attacking vested interests in the City of London, the military-industrial complex and elsewhere.
But talk of redefining the left’s project as defending “the individual”, seen essentially as “a consumer”, from “vested interests” is not just a plea for populism: it is also, implicitly, a call to jettison the idea that people’s common experience as workers should be the most important factor in mobilising their support for a left party.
Mr Blair and Mr Cook are effectively saying that the days of a party based on the working class (even if it also attracts other voters) are over. The upshot is that Labour must ditch its links with “producer interests”, otherwise known as the trade unions, if it is to survive and prosper.
This is an increasingly popular view among the chattering classes, but it is profoundly mistaken.
Of course, the manual working class has declined and white-collar workers tend to identify themselves as middle-class. Certainly the consumer society has transformed everyone’s expectations of life outside work.
But employment remains the single most important aspect of most people’s everyday lives; class remains the single most important determinant of political behaviour; the trade unions, for all their faults, remain the single most important way in which Labour can keep in touch with and mobilise manual workers.
Labour does have to make itself more attractive to large groups of voters whom it has railed to attract, and one way is to become a party which defends consumers. Another is to embrace electoral reform wholeheartedly, adopt a much greener environmental policy and take an uncompromisingly pro-European federalist stance – not because all this might make it easier to work with Paddy Ashdown but because it is right and would further squeeze the Liberal Democrat vote.
(Mr Ashdown’s call last weekend for Labour to join him in building “a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives” is a desperate attempt to find a role for his party. It is entirely irrelevant to Labour’s need to think through how it can win the nest general election and should be shunned without reservation.)
There is also a strong case for Labour to be much more imaginative on a whole series of questions, from European security to the future of cities, which it has hardly addressed so far.
But Labour needs to broaden ha support without destroying its base. The trade union link should be radically democratised, not severed, and the party’s appeal to voters’ interests as workers needs to be augmented and modernised, not abandoned.