Friday, 25 October 1991


Tribune leader, 25 October 1991

By-elections, particularly those just before gen­eral elections, have for years been national rather than local political events, and the cost of failure is immense. The defeats for Labour in Bermondsey in 1983 and Greenwich in 1987 dealt savage blows to the party's morale throughout the country and severely damaged its credibility with the voters.

No one in the Labour Party wants anything like those defeats to happen again, and it is reasonable for Labour nationally to do what it can to minimise the risk of by-election embarrassment. Regrettably, but un­avoidably given the vulnerability to hostile media cov­erage of Labour candidates, that includes the national party intervening in the local selection procedure to ensure that candidates can withstand the inevitable heat during the campaign – even in seats in which the proverbial donkey wearing a Labour rosette would have no difficulty in a general election. Hemsworth might be one of the safest Labour seats in the country, but then so were Glasgow Govan and Bermondsey.

That does not, however, excuse the heavy-handed way in which the National Executive Committee panel dealt last week with the selection for the November 7 by-election in Hemsworth in Yorkshire. Ken Capstick, the vice-chair of the National Union of Mineworkers  Yorkshire area, had been nominated by half the con­stituency's branches and most of its affiliated unions. Hemsworth is a mining constituency and Mr Capstick is, from all accounts, a decent man and a popular local figure. He is on the left and perhaps a little unenthusiastic about certain elements of current Labour policy; but he is by no means a wild-eyed Trotskyist, and it is no crime to have views at variance with party policy – just about everyone does on something or other. It is difficult to see how his selection could possibly have prejudiced Labour's chances in either Hemsworth or Langbaurgh, the Tory-held marginal which also has a by-election on November 7 and which Ashok Kumar should win for Labour.

In short, on almost any grounds Mr Capstick would seem to be an acceptable candidate. Yet the NEC panel decided to remove his name from the shortlist and, when the constituency party refused to make a selec­tion from a shortlist that did not include him, simply imposed Derek Enright as the Labour candidate.

The Hemsworth party is up in arms, and it has good reason to be, although not because the NEC committee decision has somehow deprived the NUM of a god-giv­en right to choose whomsoever it wants to sit for Hemsworth. One of the main advantages of an electoral system based on single-member constituencies is sup­posed to be that MPs are first and foremost representa­tives of a local community rather than mere parliamen­tary lobby fodder. For this reason, local parties should have the major say in selecting parliamentary candi­dates. In Hemsworth that did not happen.

Mr Enright is a good candidate and will no doubt get full support from the Hemsworth party as soon as the campaign gets into swing; he will undoubtedly retain the seat for Labour. But Mr Capstick was the members' choice. At very least, the members deserve an explana­tion of why he was deemed unsuitable: the criteria used by the NEC panel in judging by-election candi­dates should immediately be made public. In the longer term, the Hemsworth selection debacle should force Labour into a serious reconsideration of its procedures for by-election candidate selections.

Friday, 18 October 1991


Tribune leader, 18 October 1991

Like the Citizens' Charter before it, John Major's long, boring speech at Tory Party conference last week will soon be forgotten. Indeed, it is already difficult to remember exactly what it was about – apart, of course, from the boy from Brixton made good. Just about the only bit of policy that sticks in the mind is the pledge not to privatise the National Health Ser­vice, and it does so only because Tory party managers have spent so much time repeating in an attempt to wrest the initiative on health from Labour.

They are unlikely to succeed. Perhaps the Tories do not intend to float hospitals on the stock market. But their record of starving the NHS of resources suggests that they are quite happy to see it turned into a safety – net service used only by those who cannot afford to go private: in that sense, Labour has been quite right to accuse them of wishing to privatise health care. Equal­ly important, their current programme of introducing market forces into the NHS shows that they are more worried about the cost of the service to the taxpayer than its quality to the patient. Even if that is not, strictly speaking, privatisation (though it could all too easily be a prelude to it), it is commercialisation, an in­troduction of the ethics of private enterprise to a sphere in which most voters do not wish to see them.

The NHS is a potential election – winning issue for Labour: the party should shun the advice of those now suggesting that it should let up in its assault. But it will not be enough simply to attack the Tories. In the peri­od between now and the election, Labour must make its positive alternatives to Tory policies on the NHS much clearer and much more detailed.

On the wrong track

Two events in the past fortnight have illustrated perfectly how little John Major's 11 months in office have changed Tory policy on the railways.

First, Malcolm Rifkind announced last week that the high-speed rail link from the Channel Tunnel to Lon­don would not, after all, pass through Tory south- east London but would instead be diverted through Labour east London. The change means that the completion date for the line, already laughably distant by conti­nental standards, is put off to 2002 at the earliest — four years after the tunnel opens. British Rail, its plans in tatters, was understandably outraged.

Then, this week, BR announced fare increases of roughly double the rate of inflation (except, that is, on routes which Mr Major believes offer a poor service, in­cluding that from King's Cross to his own constituen­cy). The reason is simple. The government, alone in Europe, wants to privatise the railway system and, alone in Europe, is reducing its subsidies while BR, its revenue hit by recession, does not want to cut its in­vestment programme. BR's only option is to increase fares. The increase will drive more and more passen­gers into using the private motor car – leading to more pollution, more traffic jams and, unless there is a change of government, more fare increases next year.

Everywhere else in Europe, the railway has been recognised as worthy of massive subsidy and invest­ment on any number of economic and environmental grounds. Here, it is starved of cash and developed only half- heartedly and belatedly. The British railway sys­tem, once the best in the world, is now one of the worst in Europe. While the Tories remain in charge, it can only fall further behind.

Friday, 11 October 1991


Tribune leader, 11 October 1991

To be sure, the defence spending cuts motion passed last Thursday by Labour conference was poorly drafted and vague – but then so were most of the motions debated last week. And, to be sure, there is something rather absurd about the way Labour con­ference makes decisions, with frantic lobbying of union delegations behind the scenes counting for more than the debate itself.

But the fact remains that Labour conference did de­cide last week to advocate cutting British defence spending to the west European average, and it is per­fectly reasonable to ask how the Labour leadership can dismiss that decision in such a cavalier fashion. After all, it is perfectly happy to accept the legitimacy of con­ference decisions when they go its way, however am­biguously worded the motions. If conference decisions are acceptable only when they are in tune with leader­ship thinking, the notion that conference is there to de­cide policy becomes meaningless.

Labour's leaders must learn that they have to take the rough with the smooth. If they are worried about the ambiguity of the motion, they should be looking at ways of ironing out the ambiguity, not announcing that they will ignore the conference vote when drawing up the manifesto.

Alternative economics

If there is an alternative to the pro-austerity Euro-social-democracy currently advocated by Labour, it is not the package on offer from the group of left-wing economists, trade unionists and politicians which was advertised in Tribune a fortnight ago and is en­dorsed by Ken Livingstone this week.

Much of what they say is unexceptionable: on training, low pay, defence diversification and international economic co-operation, the differences with Labour policy are of degree rather than of kind. Where they part company is in advocating devaluation, exchange controls and nationalisation – the meat and potatoes of the Alternative Economic Strategy of the seventies minus the import controls.

The problems with all this are multiple, but the most important is that there is no reason to believe that an essentially national economic programme can possibly work for a medium-sized country in the modern world. Capital is increasingly mobile and the main effect of Britain attempting to carry out a national alternative economic strategy would simply be to scare it away.

Instead of putting forward a nostalgic vision of plucky little socialist Britain standing alone, possibly outside the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, the left should be exploring the pos­sibilities for European alternative economic strategies. The fact that this task is more demanding intellectual­ly than recycling yesterday's panaceas is no reason to shirk it.

New technology at last

This is the first issue of Tribune to be produced entirely on desktop publishing equipment. Our thanks to everyone who made it possible by giving generously to our appeal. Tribune will be back to 12 pages a week just as soon as we have mastered the new kit – which should be before the end of the year.

Friday, 4 October 1991


Tribune leader, 4 October 1991

This week's Labour Party conference in Brighton has been the least fractious ever. The Labour leadership is keen to show itself not just fit for government bat ready for it, and delegates have willingly buried differ­ences in the interests of giving the impression of party unity in the run-up to the election, which until Monday night many expected to happen as soon as November. Everyone in Brighton knows that Labour stands a very good chance of winning; and everyone knows that the implications of losing are too horrible to contemplate. No one wants to rock the boat. And if the result is a rather boring conference, with rows of empty chairs except when a frontbench spokesman or spokeswoman is giving a keynote speech, so be it.

But although party unity is a necessary condition for winning elections, it is not in itself sufficient. At the beginning of the week, the challenge facing Labour was not just that of projecting an image of unity: it also had to advance a coherent and attractive vision of the future for Britain under a Labour government The party needed to put behind it the jibes that it no longer stood for anything, that it was unnecessarily timid, that it wasn't really very different from the Tory Party.

So how has Labour shaped up? On the whole, not badly. This week has seen the party making a determined effort to emphasise its differences with the Conservatives on the welfare state, on education and training, on industrial policy and, most notably, on Europe. The message in speech after speech, but particularly in Neil Kinnock's address to conference on Tuesday, has been that Labour is a mainstream European social-democratic party that will bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe on everything from the minimum wage to environmental protection.

There is still plenty to do, however. Labour's enthu­siasm for Europe remains short of detail or fudged on several key points. The party still gives the impression of timidity in certain areas, particularly after George Bush's announcement last week of sweeping cuts nuclear arms, defence policy. Labour is also going to have to handle Tory attacks on its taxation proposals rather more convincingly than it has done this week. Neverthe­less, the party can afford to feel a little pleased with itself. If it can keep up its momentum, Mr Kinnock should be inside Number Ten within nine months.

Nellist and Fields

Tribune does not oppose the suspension pending investigation of alleged membership of the Militant Tendency of Dave Nellist and Terry Fields. Militant is a conspiratorial revolutionary party with its own disci­pline and programme which has stood candidates against Labour and plans to do so again in the general election. Membership of Militant is incompatible with Labour Party membership. If there is a prima facie case for believing the two MPs are Militant members they should be investigated and, if found guilty, expelled. Whether or not either is a good bloke or a fine constituency MP is wholly beside the point.

The process of investigation must, however, be fair and seen to be fair. In particular, given that a November election is no longer on the cards, nothing must be done to find alternative Labour candidates for the two men's seats unless and until the National Constitutional Com­mittee comes to the conclusion that they are indeed guilty as charged.