New Statesman & Society leader, 1 September 1995

Labour seems to have learned the lessons of its Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign: that no-holds-barred populism cannot work

After what seems in every newspaper office to have been an eternity of desperate scrabbling for decent domestic political stories, the silly season is at last drawing to a close.

The senior politicians and spin-doctors are trickling back from the Dordogne and Tuscany and starting their preparations for the conference season; the so-called B-teams that have been holding the fort over the summer are packing their bags for what they reckon are well-deserved belated rests.

A little later than most years – because the TUC has at long last been persuaded not to hold its Congress during the school holidays – normal political life is resuming again.

Unusually, however, it is resuming in circumstances significantly different from those before the break – particularly for the opposition parties. It’s too early to tell whether there has been any movement in public opinion in the past few weeks: the first polls to be taken since the controversy in the Labour Party that dominated the news in the middle of August and the hoo-hah over water shortages, are published at the end of this week.

But there has been a perceptible change in the relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems. Just about the last significant event in British politics before most of the leading players went off with their buckets and spades was the by-election in Littleborough and Saddleworth, won by the Lib Dems from Labour after an unusually bitter campaign.

The consensus among the commentators the day after the count was that everyone had grounds to be well pleased: the Lib Dems, most obviously, because they had gained one of their main target seats from the Tories; Labour because it had come from distant third in 1992 to a close second; and the Tories because they had not done quite as disastrously as they had feared.

Within a couple of weeks, however, Littleborough and Saddleworth had started to look less of a success for Labour, as a wave of criticism of the party’s campaign tactics in the by-election swept through the ranks. That criticism – most eloquently expressed by Richard Burden, the MP for Birmingham Northfield, in these pages three weeks ago – was widely reported, often in a ludicrously sensationalist manner. But its significance has been missed.

Put fairly simply, Labour ran the Littleborough and Saddleworth campaign as a dry run for the general election –much as it used the 1991 Monmouth by-election to try out themes that dominated its efforts in the 1992 general election. Resources and people were poured in, the tactics meticulously planned.

But whereas in Monmouth the all-out campaign focused on the Tory threat to the health service, in Littleborough and Saddleworth Labour spared no effort in pillorying the Lib Dem candidate for his “soft” line on drugs, raves and immigration and his enthusiasm for raising taxes.

The outrage that this generated throughout the party has been a major shock to party strategists, who have long worked on the assumption that the party is so desperate to win the next election that it will put up with anything to get Tony Blair into Number Ten. For all the wounded expressions and claims that the dirtiness of the Littlebor-ough and Saddleworth campaign has been exaggerated, the Labour leadership now knows that it cannot rely on the acquiescence of a large section of the party if it decides to base the next general election campaign on no-holds-barred populism, attacking the Lib Dems from the authoritarian right.

That is all to the good. So, too, is the first practical expression of this knowledge, the announcement by shadow home secretary Jack Straw in the Guardian last week that Labour’s commitment to a referendum on the electoral system for the House of Commons will not, after all, be dropped by the party.

That commitment is the single most important sym¬bol not just of Labour’s belief in a radical programme of constitutional reform, but also of its openness to the pos¬sibility of working with the Liberal Democrats in government. As NSS argued two weeks ago, its abandonment – as urged by Labour’s numbskull tribalist tendency – would have been a disaster for Tony Blair’s credibility as a democratic reformer and, particularly after Littleborough and Saddleworth, a fatal blow to the prospects for Lib-Lab co-operation either before or after the general election.

Unsurprisingly, the Lib Dems – who this week launched an economic policy that to all intents and pur¬poses is the same as Labour’s – are pleased as punch with the referendum pledge. So too is NSS. That little spell of “summer madness”, as John Prescott called it, seems to have knocked some sense into Labour heads.

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