Tribune, 21 February 1992
Paul Anderson talks to Labour's general secretary, Larry Whitty, about the organisation behind Labour's bid for power
One thing we're unlikely to witness in the coming election campaign is Labour's general secretary appearing before the press to announce that the National Executive Committee has full confidence in the party leader, as Jim Mortimer did so memorably in 1983.
That sort of thing just isn't the party's style any more. Apart from being rather more careful about what is said in public - some say excessively so - Labour has decided that elected politicians will play all the public roles in the campaign. Larry Whitty, who took over from Mortimer in 1985, will be keeping out of the limelight. “I’ll be running the machine here,” he says, sitting in his office in Labour's Walworth Road headquarters.
Whitty seems confident that the machine will function smoothly. “There are obviously some things one leaves to the last minute in terms of the precise sequence of themes in the campaign,” he says. “But logistically and resource-wise we are very well prepared indeed. We had a false start for last June and a false start for November. We're better prepared now than we were for either of those.
“We're clear how we're going to run the campaign nationally - we've just set up the political authority for the campaign. The detail will depend on when John Major calls the election.
“At local level, I think the situation is considerably better than it was in the middle of last year. We still, of course, need more people on the ground. There's pretty good organisation in most of .our key seats but we can always do better with more people mobilised. We know more about the key seats, we know more about the kind of campaigns we can run in those key seats than we did in 1987 and I think we're fairly well-geared to ensure that they maximise their potential.”
Labour is planning to spend more than £6 million on the campaign, compared with £4 million in 1987. That is a lot of money, but it is far less than the Tories are expected to spend in their attempt to retain power. Some reckon they could splash out as much as £20 million, but most estimates of Tory plans are around the £15 million mark.
Much has been made by the media of Labour's attempts to raise cash using American-style political fundraising techniques - direct mail, telephone fundraising, credit cards, financial services packages for members and, most controversially, £500-a-head dinners, the second of which took place last Thursday at the Park Lane hotel in Mayfair, netting the party some £150,000.
But for all the success of such methods, the source of most of the general election war-chest is the traditional one. “The bulk of the general” election fund will come from the unions, as previously,” says Whitty. Unlike in 1987, however, union contribution will not turn out at the minute to be less than expected, nor will the bull of it end up being provided by a handful of unions. One of Whitty's most important initiatives as general secretary was to persuade the unions that a proportion of their affiliation fees should go automatically into the party's election fund.
“The restructuring of affiliation fees in 1988 means that we've got a guaranteed income from the union side which is equitably shared among the unions,” he says. “We don’t have to go cap-in-hand to the unions: it's part of the constitution that they pay towards the general election and European election funds.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whitty says that he is “not one of those who believes that there should be any serious distancing between the party and the unions”. “There is some updating of the relationship needed. But we have to do that in a way that doesn't dilute or diminish the union involvement in the party. The best way forward is to have far more members of trade unions who are also individual members of the party.
So far, however, attempts to recruit trade unionists to individual membership, one of the key elements of the mass membership drive launched after the 1987 election, have failed miserably. One reason, say Walworth Road insiders, has been that the national membership scheme, which was supposed to make it easier to join the party, has been plagued by teething problems - the result, according to Whitty, of underestimating the amount of work involved in setting up a system from scratch, often with inaccurate information from constituencies. Around one-quarter of the 320,000 members Labour thought it had at the beginning of 1991 still have not paid their 1991 membership subscriptions.
Now, however, says Whitty, the worst of the chaos has been sorted out and the membership scheme is working reasonably efficiently. "We've learned some lessons and I think we've a better idea of what recruits and retains members and what doesn't. It's a hard slog. I think that the election itself will bring in a lot more supporters whom we need to turn into members. We now have a reasonable system for following them up nationally and locally. Having said that, I'm not expecting miracles."
It would certainly take more than the subscriptions from the new recruits who come forward in an election to put Labour's non-election bank account back into the black. The party's general fund is around £2 million overdrawn and the party apparatus faces severe cut-backs once the election is over, win or lose. Optimists say that Labour will be able to mitigate these with the introduction of state funding for political parties; pessimists say that this assumes a Labour Victory and that, if Labour loses, the unions, themselves strapped for cash, will be in no position to bail out the party. Some have even claimed that Labour would not have the money to fight another general election campaign less than two years after the one that is about start -as it might have to in the event of a hung parliament.
Whitty is optimistic. "We're assuming that there will be a cleat and positive result to this election. All our indications are that we can take enough of those key seats to have a clear majority," he says. Nevertheless, "were we just short of an overall majority, which I suppose is just conceivable, we'd have fewer resources for a second election, but the psychology of a second election would be much better. I don't think resources would be as serious a constraint as some people are making out."
For now, of course, the priority is winning this time. Whitty says that Labour will be using its front-bench politicians to get the message across, rather than relying on advertising. The media are no longer in awe of the kind of campaign we surprised them with last time. We’ll have to be a little bit more flexible.
"The leader's campaign will be a major tone-setting and theme-setting operation but we'll also be deploying the team in a very positive way. We've got pretty good back-up advertising, but our main asset is not large amounts of advertising space in newspapers but the way in which our team is consistently outshining theirs. As far as the leadership is concerned, clearly the Tories are going to run a very leader-oriented campaign - Major is just about the only asset they think they have. But Neil Kinnock's the best campaigning politician we've seen for decades in this country. When the campaign starts he will thrive and Major will be increasingly exposed. I think the four weeks of the campaign will see us moving significantly ahead."
If Whitty is right, he will become the first Labour general secretary for 13 years to have to deal with a Labour government. In the past, party-government relations have often been marked by strife; Whitty hopes to be a mediator, and he believes he will be helped by the changes to party conference now in the pipeline, which will give Labour a rolling programme and, through pre-conference "policy forums", formally involve Labour MPs, MEPs and local councillors in policy-making.
"The policy forums are a way of keeping the party and the government much closer together than in previous eras of Labour government, when there have been serious breakdowns in the relationship at various points," he says. The role of Walworth Road, unlike Transport House, which was sometimes almost the internal opposition, will be as a means of keeping government ministers in touch with the party and the party informed of and responsive to the problems of ministers. That is a major secretariat role, which has not been performed in the past. In the past the party has done its own thing and the government has done its own thing, which has caused lots of tensions and problems.
“This year's conference will have put to it the rule changes that will set up the new system. The NEC has the power to set up the policy forums before this year's conference, but it's extremely unlikely. It will be from this year's conference onwards that we'll start drafting the proper rolling programme."
But all that is for later. Whitty is keen to get back to the task immediately in hand. This campaign could be won or lost in four weeks. It will be won in relatively few constituencies with a few hundred or a few thousand votes either way. We must get more people out there working for those four weeks. Tribune readers' efforts could make the difference."