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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 176 Contents

Socialist Review, June 1994

Notes of the Month

Labour leadership

Modern times


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Who will be the next leader of the Labour Party? If we believed what we read in the papers there should be no contest. Tony Blair is young, a Labour Party ‘moderniser’ with few ties to the unions. He is, according to the political commentators, the only person who can get Labour elected.

But will he win the leadership contest in the party itself, which thankfully still elects its own leader rather than relying on the Independent or even the Sun to do the job? That is by no means certain. Already the unseemly haste with which the media picked up the torch for Blair has created signs of a backlash among Labour supporters.

It is not that they want a left wing candidate – after all, they happily accepted John Smith’s leadership, which was always to the right of centre. But they have two reservations about Blair: the first is that he is untested, the second that he wants to go further than even most modernisers in breaking with Labour’s trade union roots.

They are right on both counts. The same political columnists who now praise Blair so effusively are likely to turn on him if he becomes leader, when his ‘freshness and originality’ can instead make him lightweight and inexperienced. A post office worker questioned about the leadership contest by the Financial Times said, ‘I will back John Prescott. He’s a strong character. The Tories would blow Tony Blair away.’ There is at least as much to be said for this analysis as for the one which claims that Blair is the Labour candidate the Tories fear most.

It is claimed that Blair’s right wing law and order line has won Labour support. But even the Economist magazine makes the following observation:

‘Voters do now prefer Labour to the Tories on crime. But they now prefer Labour on almost everything. Comparing Gallup’s poll just before the 1992 election with its latest one, the proportion of voters preferring Labour to the Tories on leading issues has grown by 37 percentage points on tax; by 26 percentage points on unemployment; by 20 percentage points on education; and by just 17 percentage points on law and order.’

At least some of the top union leaders are resistant to Blair. They fear that he wants no links with the unions – except for their money – and that his election will lead to a further decline in their influence with the Labour leaders. Even if they do feel they can live with Blair as leader, they do not want him propelled into the position without the assent of the unions.

This explains attempts by John Edmonds of the GMB union to push for an open and democratic election, and his stress on candidates committed to full employment – something which Blair has been less than forthcoming about. The Guardian explained Edmonds’ intervention by saying:

‘The GMB and other large unions are convinced that winning back Labour’s lost working class voters, rather than wooing the southern middle class, is the road to electoral success.’

The death of John Smith has, in effect, begun to open up a debate inside Labour about the sorts of policy it should follow. Smith’s policies were right wing and concerned to demonstrate above all that Labour could manage ailing British capitalism better than the Tories. There is a feeling now that perhaps such policies did not sufficiently stress inequality.

So Ian Aitken wrote in the New Statesman:

‘If there is a criticism of John Smith’s style during his all-too-brief stint as Labour leader, it is that once he became leader he did indeed appear to play down the fundamental confrontation of interest between those who own wealth and those who don’t ... it was a tactic that produced an almost eerie silence inside the Labour Party on most of today’s great issues.’

That eerie silence existed long before any political truce declared after John Smith’s death; and more than anything it has allowed the Tories to cling on to power.

All the signs are that this basic caution will continue, whoever wins the leadership election. There is little to choose between Blair and Gordon Brown, his rival among the modernisers. The supposedly ‘left’ candidates, Robin Cook, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, have all supported the party’s policies since the 1992 election, further distancing themselves from tax increases for the rich and loosening the connection with the unions.

Many left wingers favour a vote for Prescott, on the grounds that he at least represents a stronger voice for Labour in the unions. But they will do so reluctantly rather than with enthusiasm.

Those on the left who would prefer Labour to stand up and fight rather than concede ground to the Tories are hindered by the legacy of the recent past inside the Labour Party. They are also at a disadvantage with the method of election of the leader. Although the system is popularly referred to as ‘one member one vote’ and is regarded as more democratic than the old system of leadership election, in practice some members are more equal than others.

Labour MPs and MEPs have overwhelming dominance in the election process. They have one third of the votes anyway, with one third of the votes going to local constituency members and socialist societies, and the final third to trade unionists paying the political levy. Most MPs will have several different votes, and so will be able to vote for their preferred candidate up to five times: as MP, constituency member, trade unionist and member of the Fabian or Cooperative societies.

There is nothing equal about the system. Each MP’s vote is worth 14,500 trade unionists, and the 250,000 constituency members will have a vote worth 18 times that of the 4.5 million trade union levy payers.

So the parliamentary party will have an overwhelming say in who the leader is. It will therefore be difficult for even the views of Edmonds and his like to prevail.

None of this bodes well for those who want Labour to adopt a more left wing voice. The MPs are some of those least in touch with the mood of anger among working class people, and those most influenced by the pressures of the media and political commentators – most of whom have no idea what ordinary Labour voters want.

The party is still not building on the anger that is felt by so many people. Capitulating to a media backed candidate in the leadership election will only reinforce the still substantial gap between Labour and its potential supporters.

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