Friday, 24 January 1992


Tribune leader, 24 January 1992

It is difficult not to have some sympathy with Neil Kinnock over last week's upset about Labour's taxa­tion plans. If any of the journalists eating at Luigi's had bothered to read the string of policy documents produced in the past two-and-a-half years - and, how­ever dull the documents, that is part of their job - it would Have come as no surprise to any of them that Labour planned to introduce its tax increases on higher incomes gradually rather than in one fell swoop. As it was, Mr Kinnock's off-the-cuff remarks came over to them as desperate back-tracking in the face of an un­favourable opinion poll. When members of the Labour Treasury team subsequently also showed only a hazy acquaintance with the small print, the journalists had a good story on their hands almost by accident.

Nevertheless, the episode did show that taxation re­mains a banana-skin for Labour, and that is cause for concern. Tax, along with public spending, is at the heart of the Tories' election campaign against Labour.

The Tories believe that voters who tell pollsters that they would rather have public spending than tax cuts are not telling the truth and that Labour has failed to convince the electorate that it would not increase in­come tax for those on average as well as high incomes. The Tories are already getting up a head of campaign­ing steam on tax. If Labour starts to look evasive on its tax plans, the Tories will punish it mercilessly.

That means two things. First, the front bench needs to work out precisely how a Labour government will in­troduce its new taxes and everyone needs to stick to the same story. Secondly, and crucially, Labour needs to toll the whole truth about its tax plans as soon as possible.

It is not enough to state, in the words of the party's election campaign pack, that "nobody earning leas than £21,000 annually - about £400 a week - will pay a penny extra in income tax or in national insurance contribu­tions". Particularly in the south-east, it is not unusual to earn between £21,000 and £30,000, nor, because of housing and commuting costs, is such an income neces­sarily a guarantee of notable affluence. Voters in that income bracket have to be reassured that they are not going to be stung by Labour.

Of course, they are not going to be stung: Labour's plans mean that a single person on £25,000 a year will pay less than £10 extra a week. Given that it will pay for improved child benefits and pensions, that should not be too difficult to sell except to the extraordinarily self­ish. But Labour has to make all this absolutely clear. Until it produces accurate and credible "What you will pay under Labour" charts, it will remain vulnerable to Tory attack.


"The next Labour government has no intention of legalising cannabis," Roy Hattersley said last week in response to a suggestion from Tony Banks to the contrary. Mr Hattersley should reconsid­er. Cannabis is non-addictive and not harmful to health, and the law banning it is a joke - except to the 30,000-odd people every year who are prosecuted for possession: Even the Home Office reckons that 1,500,000 people have smoked it. Does Mr Hattersley really want to turn them off voting Labour at the election?

Friday, 17 January 1992


Tribune leader, 17 January 1992

It is almost incredible that the Tories have decided to make a big issue of Labour's defence policy in the election campaign. Almost, but not quite.

Although fear of the Soviet threat is no more, it has been replaced in the popular mind by a vague sense of unease at what the former Soviet republic will be like; and, in the wake of the Gulf war, many people are wor­ried by what nuclear-armed Third World dictators might do. The military industries, despite large-scale redundancies, in the past year, remain major; employ­ers and workers in those industries are worried about their future. There are probably also a few votes in pandering to nostalgia among older members of the electorate for the days when Britain really mattered in the world.

The Tories believe Labour to be vulnerable on de­fence, despite its policy U-turns in the past four years, on several grounds. First, they think that Labour can­not live down having so recently  advocated unilateral abandonment of British nuclear weapons. Then there is the detail of Labour's current policy. The party leader­ship might now say that a Labour government would retain British nuclear weapons as long as other states kept theirs, but Labour would not build the fourth Tri­dent (unless it turns out cheaper to build than to can­cel) nor develop a British tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile. Labour conference, although disowned by the leadership, has consistently voted to reduce arms spending to the "average European level".

So how should Labour respond to the Tory assault? It certainly should not trim any more. Further "minor ad­justments" in Labour's position, particularly on the fourth Trident, would be a very bad idea. As Tribune has argued tune and again, there is now no significant nuclear threat to Britain that anyone can convincingly identify as a justification for "deterrence": the "independent deterrent" serves no function apart from deluding the British public that Britannia still rules the waves. Three Tridents are three too many; a fourth might-stave off the collapse of VSEL in Barrow-in-Furness for four years, but in the long run far more jobs would be saved, and still more created, if the money earmarked by the present government for the fourth Trident submarine were diverted at once into funding a comprehensive arms industry conversion programme. The same goes for the European Fighter Aircraft and several other large-scale military spending projects.

In the Labour Party's current mood, however, such arguments are unlikely to dissuade the leadership from moving still closer to the Government on defence. What might dissuade it are electoral considerations. The par­ty's shifts on defence policy since 1987 have been moti­vated by the belief that affluent working-class voters were particularly turned off by namby-pamby, middle-class nuclear pacifism. Now those voters are back on board - but Labour has lost a great deal of credibility among those who were broadly in favour of nuclear pacifism. So far, most have stuck to Labour but if the leadership goes any further, it risks losing even their grudging support. Party strategists should remind themselves just how big CND was in the mid-eighties - and remember that the explicitly anti-nuclear Greens took 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European elec­tions. Of course, times have changed, and defence poli­cy is unlikely to be the sole determining factor in even the most ardent CNDer's choice at the general election. 

   But with the polls as tight as they are, for Labour to throw away the (already wavering) nuclear pacifist vote could be to throw away the chance of office.

Friday, 10 January 1992


Tribune, 10 January 1992

The left in the Parliamentary Labour Party has rarely been a model of unity, but the past decade has seen it more divided than ever before. For more than nine years, there have been two parliamentary  left  factions,  the “hard Left” Campaign Group, currently with around 30 members, and the “soft left” Tribune Group, now about 80 strong.

The split had its origins in deep differences over Tony Benn’s unsuccessful attempt to wrest Labour’s deputy leadership from Denis Healey in 1981. Twenty Tribune Group MPs voted for Healey or abstained in the second ballot, thus ensuring Benn’s defeat – and Benn’s supporters were outraged. Tensions within the Tribune Group, already high over attitudes to Michael Foot’s leadership of the party (Foot, a Tribune Group member himself, appointed 25 Tri­bune MPs to the front bench), reached breaking point over the party’s proposal, passed by the party conference in 1982, to estab­lish a register of internal party pressure groups. In December 1982, 23 members of the PLP for­mally set up the Campaign Group as an alternative to the Tribune Group.

The story since then is familiar. The election of Neil Kinnock to the party leadership in 1983 was followed by a brief period in which there was much half-hearted talk of healing old wounds, but all that came to an abrupt end when Kinnock distanced himself from the 1984-85 miners’ strike. After that, the gulf between the hard and soft parliamentary Lefts grew ever larger as Kinnock gradually shift­ed Labour towards the political centre. The final straw was the policy review after the 1987 elec­tion defeat, culminating in the abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1989. The Campaign Group rejected the whole process and denounced the leadership for finally dumping any commitment to socialism. Most of the Tribune Group went along with the policy changes, albeit grudgingly in some cases. Much the same division was visible during the Gulf crisis and subsequent war in 1990-91.

Today, the gap between the Tri­bune and Campaign Groups ap­pears, at first sight, completely unbridgeable. Campaign politicians accuse the Tribune Group of being little more than a cheer-leader for Kinnock’s apostasy; Tribunite MPs accuse their Campaign colleagues of self-indulgent posturing. Hardly anyone in either camp is on rea­sonable terms with many col­leagues from the other.

It is easy to see what both sides are getting at. The Tribune Group is undoubtedly more closely tied to the party leadership today than ever before: 45 of its members hold front bench posts, 14 of them in the Shadow Cabinet. Partly as a result, even left Tribunite MPs’ criticisms of the leadership have been muted and fragmentary. The Campaign Group, for its part, has been consigned to the margins of Labour politics and is simply ig­nored by party policy-makers and managers.

Unlikely as it may seem, howev­er, change could be on the way. Over the past six months, the signs have multiplied that both parliamentary left camps are los­ing their coherence. Although no one expects any significant re­alignment in the period before the election, there is a small but grow­ing number of left MPs who are beginning to wonder aloud whether the early-eighties split on the left is still going to be relevant a year hence.

One symptom of the breakdown of the coherence of the two groups has been a slump in participation in each. The Tribune Group, which used to hold well-attended weekly meetings, now meets on average once a month and attendance is sometimes down to four or five MPs. The Campaign Group meets more frequently but has also suf­fered a fall-off in numbers.

In  the  case of the Tribune Group, the decline has a lot to do with the imminence of a general election. As a result of the diversity of its members’ opinions and responsibilities, it has long since ceased to be more than an open discussion group, which many members long ago rejected on grounds of its openness, prefer­ring more ad hoc invitation-only gatherings; now, with the election almost upon them, even those Tri­bune MPs who were turning up two years ago for a free and frank exchange of views reckon that there are more important priori­ties.

Labour’s election programme has already effectively been fi­nalised and there is a general feel­ing, even among the group’s more left-wing members, that it would be a bad idea to do anything that might be perceived as rocking the boat before the election – mainly because MPs desperately want a Labour government, but partly be­cause no one wants to be made a scapegoat if Labour loses.

Once the election is out of the way, says one Tribune Group back­bencher, those MPs who don’t have front-bench jobs, either in govern­ment or in opposition, will be far more prepared to stick their heads above the parapet unless Labour has only a wafer-thin parliamen­tary majority. The unspoken impli­cation is that a Tribune Group without front-benchers could once again be a rallying point for a left constructively critical of the Labour leadership. Campaign Group MPs are sceptical, arguing that the Tribune Group is bereft of ideas and that the chances of a revival are small in any circumstances simply because its membership is so tied up with the leadership. They could well be right, but that does not mean that the Campaign Group will benefit.

Indeed, the Campaign Group’s problems are as profound as the Tribune Group’s. If the Tribune Group has been incapacitated be­cause so many of its members are so close to the teadership, the Cam­paign Group is suffering severely from the strains of exile. Set up to reassert old socialist verities, al­most from the beginning it lost members who came to see it as ei­ther out of touch or a bar to personal advancement in the new model Labour Party or both. By 1988, it was down to a hard-left rump – but at least its supporters could console themselves with the thought that it was ideologically coherent: for nationalisation and planning, reflation and unilateral nuclear disarmament; against the European Community, Tory union laws and expulsions of Trotskyists from Labour.

Now, however, it is going through its first ever major ideo­logical split, over Europe, and for the first time some MPs are asking whether the group will hold to­gether after the election.
The split is at first sight hardly spectacular, amounting to little more than an agreement to dis­agree among Campaign MPs over a proposal late last year from Ken Livingstone, Harry Barnes and others to endorse “democratic fed­eralism” for Europe. But put into context it becomes extremely sig­nificant.

The Labour left was in the forefront of opposition to British mem­bership of the Common Market in the sixties and seventies, and it was largely as a result of Ieft pressure that Labour came to advocate withdrawal from the EC in the early eighties. The rationale was simple: the EC was a capitalist club, and British membership stood in the way of a Labour gov­ernment implementing its Alternative Economic Strategy, in which import and exchange controls, de­valuation and reflation would play key roles.

After 1983, Labour moved away from this position, initially advo­cating reform of the EC with withdrawal as an option and then, after 1987, embracing the EC with enthusiasm. One of the Campaign Group’s most consistent (and central) themes through the late eighties was opposition to this leadership U-turn. For Livingstone, Barnes et al to embrace the EC, even though they retain many of their criticisms, particularly of the waste of the Common Agricul­tural Policy, marks a profound change of direction.

What precisely it signifies in terms of a possible realignment of the parliamentary left is more dif­ficult to judge. In a letter to the Guardian, Peter Hain, the Tri­bunite MP for Neath, welcomed the Barnes-Livingstone move and speculated: “It may be just as Eu­ropean integration is fashioning a new terrain for socialism, so it is forcing a realignment within Labour’s left.” Another left Tri­bunite with an eye on a post-elec­tion realignment of the parliamen­tary left says: “They’re coming in from the cold and we ought to keep the door open.”

But a Campaign MP says that the division inside the Campaign Group on Europe is merely generational, with the older members around Benn sticking to anti-Europeanism: on this reading, what is going on is nothing more than jock­eying for position for leadership of the parliamentary hard left in preparation for the Benn genera­tion’s retirement from politics.
It is undoubtedly early days yet for any talk of breaking the parlia­mentary left mould. But who knows what might happen when normal politics resumes?


Tribune leader, 10 January 1992

It is by no means guaranteed, but it is increasingly likely that within six months Britain will have a Labour prime minister, if not a majority Labour gov­ernment. The focus of British politics has shifted from Europe, on which the Tories, however dismal their ac­tual performance, had a significant advantage over Labour simply by dint of being in office. From now un­til the election, Labour should be able to get the upper hand by focusing attention on the domestic issues that touch everyone's everday life: the recession, the health service, the housing crisis, the appalling state of the economic infrastructure and so on.

It is possible that Labour will fail to turn all this to its advantage. Accidents and the effects of Tory accusations about Labour's tax plans apart, a commanding opinion poll lead could be undermined by a giveaway budget in March. Nevertheless, it is not un­reasonable to ask again what has seemed for most of the past decade a daft question: What will the next Labour government be like?

A minority Labour government would put together a Queen's Speech largely composed of measures with which the Liberal Democrats and nationalists had little argument and challenge them to vote against it. If they didn't, Labour would spend a few months doing all it could to give the impression of being a new broom then, as in 1974, go to the country again, perhaps on a quite different manifesto. (Here, the bets must be on adop­tion of electoral reform.)

A government with a small Commons majority would be only slightly different. Given the dire state of the economy and the tiny amount of room any government now has for macroeconomic manoeuvre, the best any­one can expect from a Labour government without a large majority is small but significant changes and clear signals of radical energy and intent. Socialism, in any commonly understood sense of the word, is not on the agenda for some time yet, if at all.

But a start can be made on repairing some of the damage done to our economy, our society and our poli­tics by 13 years of Tory misrule. Labour can take Britain into the European social democratic main­stream. If Labour manages to increase spending on pensions, child benefits, education, health and public transport, sets up its new industrial relations frame­work and makes a vigorous start on implementing its ambitious plans for democratic reform, it will earn it­self the respect of the British people and a thumping election victory when it goes to the country again. If it dithers, it will fail, with consequences almost too horri­ble to contemplate.


Last week, a Yorkshire policeman shot dead Ian Bennett, a drunk wielding an ornamental gun who had just had a blazing row with his girlfriend. The killing has provoked much argument about whether replica guns should be banned, but that is not the most important question it should raise. The police made only a cursory attempt to talk Bennett into surrendering and the warning given him before he was shot was wholly inadequate. The police should use firearms only as a last resort in exceptional circumstances. In this case, they fired first and made their excuses later. Guidelines for police use of guns need to be tightened up at once.

Friday, 3 January 1992


Tribune leader, 3 January 1992

With few exceptions, the democratic left in the west has responded to Mikhail Gorbachev's de­parture from the Kremlin with praise for his record in office.

Much of it is understandable. Gorbachev presided over a period of extraordinary, and for the most part welcome, change, both domestically and in Soviet rela­tions with the rest of the world. When he gained the up­per hand in the political apparatus, tension between the super-powers was at its height, east-central Eu­rope was under Soviet domination and war raged be­tween Soviet occupying forces and Mujahedin guerril­las in Afghanistan; at home, the regime was one of the most oppressive in the world. Today, the cold war is over and the Soviet Union, having given up east-cen­tral Europe, has ceased to exist. Most of the former satellite states are now functioning democracies and several of the former republics of the Soviet Union seem to be on the way to joining them. Despite the im­mense challenges ahead for the post-communist world, all this is cause for the democratic left to be pleased.

Yet, although much was Gorbachev's responsibility, almost none of it was what he intended. The changes associated with his name were mostly by-products of an attempt to modernise and revitalise the stagnant Soviet system without fundamentally changing it. From any point of view, the attempt failed.

When Gorbachev and his team of ambitious tech­nocrats came to power (he was never elected by popu­lar vote), the only part of the Soviet economy operating at anything like contemporary western levels of tech­nology and quality was the military sector; and the mil­itary sector was an unbearable burden for the rest of the economy. Economic growth had slowed almost to a standstill. The Soviet workforce was apathetic and unproductive, the ruling bureaucracy corrupt and immobile.

Gorbachev's "modernising" reforms merely exacer­bated the crisis. The disengagement from the cold war and the arms race, culminating in the withdrawal from east-central Europe, won Gorbachev many friends in the west; but it happened too late (and latterly too fast) to benefit the domestic economy, in the process losing Gorbachev the support of the military-industrial com­plex.

Meanwhile, the succession of half-baked plans for introducing market forces to the creaking mechanisms of production and distribution foundered against bureau­cratic antipathy and the growing resistance of the working class. By the end of the eighties, the economy was in tatters.

Cultural liberalisation and the policy of "openness" – initially at least intended as little more than part of an anti-corruption campaign - won the support of the in­telligentsia for a while but also unleashed demands for national self-determination and democracy which inexorably undermined the very foundations of the Soviet political system. Slowly but surely, Gorbachev's popu­larity ebbed away as the crisis intensified. Last Au­gust's coup and its bizarre collapse left Gorbachev with just one card to play: his status as world statesman. Boris Yeltsin and the republican leaders soon found they could trump it (although it remains an open ques­tion whether they will make it even more of a pig's ear).

Gorbachev's is a heroic record, perhaps, but it is a heroic record of failure. Western left-wing politicians would be advised not to adopt him as a role model.


Tribune, 3 January 1992

John Edmonds, the general secretary of the GMB, Britain’s second largest union, talks to Paul Anderson about the aftermath of last month’s European summit in Maastricht

John Edmonds is not pleased that the British gov­ernment opted out of the so­cial provisions agreed by the other 11 European Community govern­ments at the Maastricht summit last month. But, he says, it all could have been much worse.

“I went to Brussels the Friday before Maastricht and talked to people in the Socialist Group of the European Parliament to get their views of what was going on,” he says. “And their worry was not that Britain would effectively opt out. It was that an attempt would be made by Helmut Kohl to accommodate John Major, and the social chapter would be so diluted, par­ticularly in respect of majority vot­ing, that it would lose a lot of its force. That really was a nightmare scenario.”

Instead, the French government stood firm against a last-ditch at­tempt to water down the social chapter of the treaty to make it ac­ceptable to Britain. Major refused to budge and the 11 signed a proto­col committing them to develop common policies on workers’ rights which they will transcribe into na­tional law.

“I was delighted by the attitude of the French,” says Edmonds. “They played a blinder. Their atti­tude throughout was that if Britain didn’t want to come along with the social chapter it would have no involvement whatsoever. The French insisted that the proto­col signed by the 11 excluded Britain.”

The priority now, he says, is to get a Labour government which will sign up with the 11. Failing that, although “a lot of companies will be operating from 1993 onwards through standard policies applied to Britain as elsewhere”, the unions “will have to take ac­tion with individual companies to ensure that they match the rights they have to give elsewhere. There are plenty of options for us. In the long term, no one can see Britain standing aside from the social di­mension because more and more the social issues are going to be in­tegrated with economic decisions.”

Edmonds is scathing about the Tories’ attempts to justify the re­fusal to back the social chapter, ac­cusing Michael Howard, the Em­ployment Secretary, of lying in his claim that signing up would have cost Britain £5,000 million. “I don’t know where he got that figure from,” he says. “The first batch of measures are to do with consulta­tion and information rights. There are no costs at all.”

“The other point where the gov­ernment lied was when Major said that the social chapter would drive a coach and horses through the trade union legislation of the eighties. This is absolutely untrue. The social chapter is all about individual rights. It has nothing to do with trade union rights. In fact, freedom of association is specifical­ly excluded as an issue.”

So far, there has been no at­tempt to prescribe the precise in­stitutional framework within which workers’ rights to be con­sulted and informed will be exer­cised. But the 11 are likely to  agree that works councils be set up in larger companies, either on the German model, where works councils consist only of workers, or the French, involving workers and management. In either case, the trade unions have no formal role in representing workers at workplace level: works councils are elected by balloting workers directly, regardless of whether or not they are in a union.

The British trade unions are tra­ditionally hostile to works councils, but Edmonds’ union, the GMB, Britain’s second largest, believes that the German model is the way forward. “We’re going to get it any­way as a result of increasing EC integration,” he says. “The trade union movement can fight a rear­guard action against it, but that would be stupid.

“The German model of industri­al relations is much better than the British model. Here, in order to have proper rights at work you have to be a member of a trade union, your employer has to recog­nise the union, you have to get an agreement establishing your rights and then you have to have the industrial power to enforce them, Many workers in Britain don’t have all that. A system that pro­vides for rights in law of represen­tation and consultation is  much better.”

Not that Edmonds wants simply to copy the German system with no modifications: “No one is argu­ing that the German system is the perfect one. If the support given by the trade unions to elected repre­sentatives was rather more direct than in Germany I think that would be a good thing. One of the worries about the German system is that the German unions don’t have the constant commitment to recruiting people that we have in Britain. The level of unionisation is comparable but it is sustained in many industries by a series of campaigns. Normally when you start work in Britain you get a form pushed at you and you’re asked ‘Would you like to join the trade union?’ That isn’t so much the norm in Germany.”

On the other hand, “pay bar­gaining can come out of the work­place and be made regional or na­tional. That does seem to be an ad­vantage. The local representatives are not obsessed with pay bargain­ing and the local committee has more time to deal with and promo­tional opportunities, health and safety issues and so on.”

All this fits in neatly with anoth­er of Edmonds’ ideas which has been the cause of much controver­sy. He was the principle architect of Labour’s proposals for rational­ising the structure and timing of Britain’s pay bargaining by intro­ducing an annual National Eco­nomic Assessment.

Critics say that this is just an old-fashioned incomes policy in disguise, but Edmonds disagrees. “There is nothing in the proposals that would mean wage controls. The whole thing is about whether trade unions can co-ordinal* col­lective bargaining with employers. It’s an attempt to work out a new set of pay-bargaining arrange­ments so we’re less caught up in chasing each other’s tails.

“With the system contemplated by the Labour Party and strongly supported by the TUC, we’d have a well-informed debate involving the social partners in the run up to Xmas and a pay-bargaining period that lasted the first three months of the year. Most of the keynote settlements would be made at that time – everybody knows which ones they are: Ford, ICI, local government manual workers and so on – instead of playing this silly game when everyone ends up feel­ing very unhappy because every­one feels that someone, somewhere is getting a better deal. We’d try to co-ordinate the pay settlements in the light of the economic perfor­mance of the country. The govern­ment would find it much easier to manage the economy because the Chancellor would have a much bet­ter view of the level of pay settle­ments before the budget.”

It is clear that Edmonds does not see the TUC playing as large a part in the National Economic Assessment as it did in previous labour-union arrangements. “It would have a role in the co-ordi­nated pay bargaining, providing a forum for discussion and from time to time some leadership,” he says, but he is also keen to emphasise that “the TUC is going to have to change very rapidly” to provide more services to member unions, mainly on the research and legal front.

The reason for this attitude to­wards the TUC is simple: with the growth of giant super-unions in re­cent years as a result of mergers the TUC’s co-ordinating function has waned considerably. The GMB has been one of the most active in the merger field and is likely to re­main so in the nineties: Edmonds even raises the distant possibility of continent-wide union mergers, He will not, however, be drawn on the rumours that the next merger on the cards is with the Transport and General Workers’ Union – a joining of forces that would create a super-super-union.

“It is obviously the case that the TGWU and the GMB will work more closely together in the fu­ture,” he says. “We should do that because we overlap to such an ex­traordinary extent in our member­ship. There are all sorts of influ­ences pushing us in that direction. Neither of us is rich enough to waste resources. The services we could provide if we complemented each other would be a lot better. And if we have a continental sys­tem of works councils, it would force us to have a different, closer relationship at a local level.

“I think we ought to put a lot of effort into a closer working ar­rangement. If it leads to something else, so be it.”