Friday, 21 February 1992


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."


Tribune leader, 21 February 1992

Labour can win an outright majority at the election. Despite what the pundits say, Labour is not doing badly in the opinion polls; with a good campaign it is certainly capable of achieving the four-point lead it needs to gain an absolute majority in the House of Com­mons. Like party members everywhere, that is what Tribune wants and that is what we will work to achieve.

This does not mean, however, that Labour will neces­sarily win the outright majority it wants. It is possible that the election will have some other result: a hung Parliament of some description or a reduced Tory ma­jority. And it is not an act of disloyalty to speculate about Labour's actions in such circumstances.

Indeed, in the bars and cafes of Westminster and among Labour's electoral reformers, talk turns repeat­edly these days to the question of what Labour could or should do If it finds itself the largest single party but short of an overall majority, with the Liberal Democrats (or perhaps, at a pinch, some combination of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party) holding the balance of power. Labour's traditional position is simple: Labour should form a mi­nority government on its own and challenge the Lib Dems (perhaps plus others) to bring it down, perhaps of­fering a few succulent policy scraps (freedom of infor­mation legislation, Scottish devolution, maybe a Speak­er's Conference on electoral reform) as an incentive for toleration.

Until recently, most Labour Party members would have accepted this approach without question: antipa­thy to anything smacking of coalition runs deep in the Labour Party. Now, however, there are signs of heresy abroad. No one senior in the party is saying anything of the sort in public, but a surprising number of Labour people are mumbling, off the record, that, given that so little separates the two parties, it might not be a bad idea to give the Liberal Democrats a cabinet seat and a constitutional reform package - including a clear com­mitment to the Additional Member System for the Com­mons and a democratic second chamber - in return for five years in power.

Are these would-be coalitionists right? They are cer­tainly open to the criticism that their scenario is im­probable because the Lib Dems are unlikely to hold the balance of power on their own. More importantly, there are arguments of principle and party advantage. Labour advocates of retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system are implacably opposed to any deal on electoral reform with Paddy Ashdown for obvious rea­sons.

There are also those who argue that the Liberal Democrats, particularly after their party conference last year, are an explicitly pro-free-market anti-trade union party, radically at odds with Labour's own pro­gramme even after the changes of the past four years, and are thus unsuitable coalition partners. And then there are many who object on principle to the building of coalitions behind closed doors. Add the argument that there would be a very real danger of Labour split­ting over the prospect of coalition, and the case against is strong.

But it is not so formidable as to rule out coalition in all circumstances or on all terms. A centre-left coali­tion is preferable to a centre-right one, if that is the choice. The Labour leadership should not tie its hands during the coming campaign by saying that it would never consider forming a government with anyone else.

Friday, 7 February 1992


Tribune leader, 7 February 1992

The relationship between the British Labour Party and the Soviet Union is a fascinating subject. 

The diplomatic reports from the Soviet embassy in Lon­don on meetings with Labour politicians during the eighties, unearthed by Tim Sebastian, are without a doubt a legitimate, if unreliable, source for researchers. 

But they are not news. There was nothing in the Sun­day Times "exclusive” last weekend on what the paper's promotions department called “Kinnock’s Kremlin con­nection” which told anyone anything not already wide­ly known. The opinions of Denis Healey and Michael Foot on the arms race and the dangers of Reaganism were expressed forcefully in speeches and articles throughout the early eighties. That Neil Kinnock was critical of Arthur Scargill’s leadership of the 1984-85 miners' strike can surprise no one who sat through Mr Kinnock’s speech at the 1985 Labour Party conference. The Labour National Executive Committee's arguments over the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981 were widely reported at the time.One could go on.

It could be that the Sunday Times's decision to splash Mr Sebastian's report was simply a matter of misjudgment on the part of Andrew Neil, its editor. But such an explanation is too charitable to Mr Neil and his paper. The "Kremlin connection" story is nothing more or less than a traditional red-scare smear, an attempt, in the run-up to an election, to encourage voters to speculate that maybe there was something in the idea of Labour being part of a giant Soviet conspiracy to take over the world.

One expects this sort of garbage from the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. They have always been lower than vermin. But the Sunday Times used to have a reputation as a serious paper. Mr Neil severely damaged that reputation with his handling of the Gibraltar shootings. Now he should hang his head in shame.


Tribune, 7 February 1992

Paul Anderson quizzes Labour's environment spokesman, Bryan Gould, about the election campaign and Labour's plans for local government

Bryan Gould is a busy man. On top of a massive brief as Labour's front-bench environment spokesman, which covers everything from standard spending as­sessments to global warming, he is due to play a major role in Labour's election campaign, just as he did in 1987.

When Neil Kinnock is out of London, John Cunningham, the party's campaigns co-ordinator, will take the chair for Labour's morning cam­paign press conferences. And when Cunningham is away - as he often will be, not least because his own constituency, Copeland, is anything but safe - Gould will be master of ceremonies.

He also has particular responsibility for the campaign in London, where Labour could win or lose the election and where the reputation of Labour councils is likely to be a major factor. At present, though, there is no doubt what is most on his mind: making sure that Labour wins the campaign battle on local government taxation.

"The poll tax is certain to be a dominant elec­tion issue whether the election is on April 9 or May 7," he says. "I think it has got to be one of those two dates now. If it's April 9, the election will take place when the bills have just arrived. If it's May 7, the campaign will start the week the bills go out.

"The question is whether we can repeat our success so far in equating poll tax with the Tory Government. Michael Heseltine will be doing all he can to blame Labour local authorities for high poll tax bills. On everyone's bill there will be a figure for 'other adjustments', which is really a euphemism for non-collection costs, and he will say: 'That's what's pushed up your bill.'

"So we're working very hard right now and through to the election to explain that these are problems intrinsic to the poll tax. They are not the fault of any local authority, Labour or otherwise. Even the Prime Minister described the poll tax as ‘virtually uncollectable'. We're going to dump it on the Tories' doorstep and say: 'That's where responsibility lies'."

In line with this, Labour has done its best in the past fortnight to emphasise the extent of the chaos created by the poll tax. Last week, David Blunkett, the party's local government spokesman, released figures showing that more than 10,500,000 summonses for poll tax debt had been issued. Both he and Gould have repeatedly blamed government incompetence for the recent breakdown in poll-tax non-payment prosecutions caused by the refusal of several magistrates' courts to refuse to accept computerised records as valid evidence.

So far, the Labour poll tax assault seems to be working, although it is a moot point what happens if the Tories are panicked into using the budget on March 10 to reduce bills, as they did last year.

There is certainly less mileage for Labour in the council tax, the Government's replacement for the poll tax from spring 1993. A banded property tax, it is not so radically different from Labour's own proposed "fair rates" system. Indeed, there has been much speculation that a Labour government might find it useful to adapt the council tax to its own purposes.

Gould says that Labour has considered this option but has now rejected it. "One thing we've always been clear about is that we are detennined to get rid of the poll tax as early as possible  - which now means, unfortunately, April 1 1993. When we get to office we will pursue whatever course takes us most directly to a position on that date when poll tax ends and the fair rates system begins. Now, we did concede last year, because it made sense and it was reassuring to local government, that, if it had emerged that the council tax preparations offered the quickest way; to get rid of the poll tax and pick up on our fair: rates proposals, we would not be dog in the manger on political or ideological grounds and; say: 'No, it's a Tory idea and we’ll have nothing to do with it.'

"But that was only ever a possibility if preparations for the council tax were acceptable to us, if the valuation was a proper valuation and not a Mickey Mouse operation. In the event, the coun­cil tax preparations are a lot of rubbish and virtually unusable by us. In almost any conceivable circumstances we will be legislating to pick up the 1973 rates valuations which were in opera­tion until 1990, not because it's ideal but because it's the quickest way."

In anticipation of Tory attacks on the profliga­cy of Labour councils, the Labour leadership has pulled out all the stops to dissuade Labour local authorities from going on a spending spree in the expectation of a Labour government, as many did in the run-up to 1987. The implicit message is that Labour will not bail out anyone who gets into trouble under the existing Tory rules.

"A lot of people got their fingers burnt last time," says Gould. "Our message now is that councils should frame budgets and take other de­cisions on the basis of known facts and not future hopes and expectations. One can't stop people from hoping, but no prudent and sensible author­ity will budget other than on the assumption that the current regime will apply during the next financial year. We're not saying that with a Labour government there would not be some relaxation of rules on spending, but that's a sepa­rate issue."

The main areas for relaxation are the ending of the "ring-fencing'' of receipts from council house sales, which earmarks them for repayment of borrowing, and the abolition of central govern­ment "capping" of local government taxation (al­though not until 1993).

"On the capital side, there's a total of between £6,000 million and £8,000 million in capital re­ceipts and we think it's crazy that this should be tied up when it's desperately needed, especially for house-building," says Gould. "We'll progres­sively relax those constraints, although not overnight. The construction industry resources just aren't there to use it all.

"On the revenue side, we can promise nothing for the next year. In future years, we're absolute­ly clear: no capping. We're certainly looking to local authorities being responsible when setting fair rates bills, but it will be their judgment as to what they think is a proper programme to put before the electors. Annual elections will subject their judgment to the judgment of the electors. In terms of grant, we're not promising more tax­payers' money, but we are promising a better and fairer distribution."

Tb ensure that councils provide "value for mon­ey", Labour plans to introduce a "Quality Com­mission" to oversee standards of services, with powers to send in its own management to take over and improve a poor service or to compel the council to put it out to tender. That, says Gould, is the only area where Labour will retain the compulsory element in competitive tendering: in all other cases, councils which want to put ser­vices out to tender will be free to do so but will not have to.

That existing councils spend and do is only part of the election problem, however. The Tories have also begun to attack on grounds of cost Labour's plans for regional government in England. Inside the Labour Party, the scheme has been widely criticised as nothing more than a sop to get northern English MPs to vote for Scottish devolution. Many commentators believe that the commitment to regional government will be qui­etly forgotten as soon as a Scottish parliament is up and running.

Gould insists that regional government will not be ditched. "The objective will be to lead, within the lifetime of a first Labour government, to legislation which will provide for regional gov­ernment," he says. "We can't be absolutely certain that the legislative framework we will establish will be implemented by that first government.

"But, to give a flavour of the sort of timing we'd be thinking of, it has been suggested, and I wouldn't dissent from it, that it might be possible to hold the first election for regional assemblies at the same time as the general election after next." As for paying for regional government, he says it "would be financed by block grant".

The Tories have attempted as well to raise the spectre of a free-spending "Greater London Council Mark Two" emerging from Labour's plans for an all-London authority. Gould is keen to emphasise that it won't be like that at all. "It will have no powers to intervene in what the bor­oughs do now," he says. "What we need is a strategic authority which does what is not being done at present and does in a democratically ac­countable way what these numberless quangos now do." Land-use, economic and environmental planning, emergency services and transport would come under the new body, but not housing.

If local government is already a focus for the election campaign, the same cannot be said for Gould's other responsibilities as environment spokesman: carbon dioxide emissions and cli­mate change, destruction of the ozone layer, chemical waste, nuclear reprocessing and so on.
With the economy deep in recession and the Green Party at around 2 per cent in the opinion polls, the received wisdom is that there are fewer votes in green issues than there were three years ago.

Nevertheless, they remain important, says Gould, and, especially in the south-east and among younger voters, they could affect the elec­tion result. "One of the reasons that they have gone off the boil is that, while the Tories have lost interest, we have established a good compre­hensive position. While I wouldn't say that the environment campaigners have given up press­ing us, they feel they've made their number with us. Our job now is to bring these issues back to the fore." With the profile of environmental poli­tics due to be given a much-needed boost by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, coming up in June, he could be making a shrewd judgment.