Tribune leader, 2 October 1992
Not for the first time, the biggest excitement of this week’s Labour conference came before it formally opened. The dramatic resignation of Bryan Gould from the Shadow Cabinet has overshadowed everything else that has happened in Blackpool this week.
Although Tribunedisagrees with Mr Gould over Europe and economic policy, the issues on which he decided that he could not accept Shadow Cabinet collective responsibility, we regret his decision to go.
It is not that his position is incomprehensible. Mr Gould’s core beliefs about management of the economy (he remains a stalwart of the “Keynesianism in one country” school) are radically at odds with the “co-ordinated European reflation” approach taken by the Labour leadership and overwhelmingly endorsed by this week’s conference.
It is hardly surprising that Mr Gould decided that a life of back-bench freedom was preferable to four years of sitting on his hands, particularly given his experience between 1989 and last April. Then Mr Gould kept quiet in the face of what he saw as a disastrous Labour economic policy shift, away from the interventionist industrial strategy he had elaborated as trade and industry spokesman and towards an approach emphasising only “supply side” measures, mainly education and training.
The prospect of another frustrating period of not disagreeing in public with what he saw as party policy was understandably unattractive for Mr Gould. What made it even worse was that, having been so roundly beaten in the Labour leadership contest this summer, he was in an even weaker position inside the Shadow Cabinet than he had been in the three years before the general election. Knowing by last weekend that he was also certain to lose his seat on the National Executive Committee, Mr Gould walked.
No one can blame him for doing so, but there is something deeply disturbing about the circumstances. The impossibility of his predicament came about only because of the enforcement last week of Shadow Cabinet collective responsibility on Europe and economic policy. Yet there was no need to foreclose Labour’s debate on these issues, apart, possibly, for last week’s emergency House of Commons debate on the economy. However essential it might be for any political party to present a show of unity in the couple of years before a general election, there is no convincing argument for Labour doing any such thing right now.
It is less than six months since the party suffered a humiliating general election defeat. It has still only begun to chew over why it lost and what it should do next. Two years of free and frank debate, with the tolerance of the widest range of views at every level of the party is essential if Labour is to have any hope of getting to grips with its predicament.
The departure of Mr Gould is a worrying sign that the Labour leadership thinks that the debate is not necessary. It also inevitably casts a shadow of doubt over the seriousness of John Smith’s promise during the leadership campaign to operate a more relaxed disciplinary regime than his predecessor. The least we should now expect from Mr Smith is a ringing declaration of the value he places on dissent in the Labour Party.