Friday, 26 February 1993


Tribune, 26 February 1993

Paul Anderson looks at the implications of the spectacular crisis at Mirror Group Newspapers

The  rumbling crisis at Mirror Group Newspapers came spectacularly to a head last week as the Labour leader­ship woke up to the danger that the party might lose the support of the Daily Mirror and its Sunday sister titles - support that it has taken for granted for decades.

Labour's top brass kept quiet last au­tumn when MGN appointed David Mont­gomery, a former editor of Today and the News of the World and regarded as a union-busting right-winger, as chief executive. Although reported to be "concerned", they issued only mild statements of regret after he fired two editors, the Mirror's freelance journalists and a string of experienced staffers.

MGN's assurances that Montgomery would not change the political stance of the group's newspapers -he was being employed solely to get rid of over-staffing and waste, according to MGN - apparently convinced Labour's leaders that they had nothing to fear.

No doubt this had much to do with the fact that Montgomery had been brought in by Lord Hollick, the Labour peer who rung MAI Group and a key figure in the Labour leadership's inner circle in the run-up to the 1992 election. Hollick, prevented from taking a majority shareholding in MGN be­cause of his stake in broadcasting, is the brains behind the whole current MGN operation.

But last week the Labour mood turned to one of panic. John Smith publicly expressed worries about the direction of MGN and arranged emergency talks with the board, Last Wednesday, on Neil Kinnock's initia­tive, 170 Labour MPs signed a House of Commons motion on the subject.

The reason was simple. Montgomery had hired David Seymour, another former To­day hack, as "associate editor (politics)" - an appointment that was completely unac­ceptable to Alistair Campbell, the Daily Mirror's political editor. Campbell had protested and by Wednesday was no longer in his job, although whether he was forced to resign is a matter of argument.

Smith and his colleagues were up in arms because Campbell has been the na­tional newspaper journalist most loyal to the Labour leadership for several years. While other pro-Labour journalists often write stories that embarrass the leader­ship, Campbell has always presented Labour Party news sympathetically (his critics say sycophantically). To make mat­ters worse, Seymour was the author of some virulent attacks on Kinnock in the run-up to the 1992 election and has a repu­tation for hostility to trade unions.

A simple case of an enemy of Labour tak­ing over from a friend? Not quite. Seymour has his reasons for distrusting Kinnock, who used to be a personal friend. They fell out in 1986 after Kinnock lent his Welsh cottage to Seymour's then wife, Hilary Coffman (chief press officer in the Labour lead­er's office) and David Hill (then Roy Hattersley's chief adviser but now the party's di­rector of communications), who needed a bolt-hole to pursue an affair. Seymour is still a little sore.

Campbell, by contrast, is still a personal friend of Kinnock. They went to the ballet together on the evening that Campbell had his run-in with Montgomery over the appointment of Sey­mour. Kinnock last week defended Camp­bell in an article in the London Evening Stan­dard.

In response, Sey­mour says that he is as committed to Labour as Campbell is and that the support for Campbell in the Parliamentary Labour Party is a simple product of Kinnock's per­sonal friendship - a point echoed by George Galloway and six other Labour MPs who last week presented a Commons motion supporting Seymour's appointment. Gal­loway himself has reasons to dislike Camp­bell, however, because of his coverage of the affairs of War on Want, the charity that Galloway ran before becoming an MP.

With this colourful story of sex and well-ground axes as a backdrop, the Mirror in an editorial promised undying support for Labour. Montgomery has made it clear that he thinks that Campbell’s closeness to the Labour leadership is unhealthy for any journalist.
The banks, which have owned MGN since the collapse of Robert Maxwell's busi­ness empire, have expressed worries that the MGN papers will not make money un­less they back Labour. And Hollick has been reported to be at daggers drawn with Montgomery over the papers' political stance.


It is  unclear what will happen next, al­though a showdown of some description seems inevitable. Montgomery's position is vulnerable unless he can persuade the board, on which the banks are dominant, not only that he does not want to drop Labour but that his strategy of cost-cutting and sending the MGN titles further down­market will soon yield results.

On cost-cutting, he is probably safe: the banks applaud the vigour with which Mont­gomery has axed "surplus" staff. He is also almost certainly capable of finding a form of words that satisfies the board on the commitment to Labour - at least insofar as that commitment has to do with the Mirror calling for a Labour vote at election time. But when it comes to looking at the broad marketing strategy for the newspapers, which of course includes the backing for Labour, he has a more difficult task.

The MGN tabloids have been engaged in a bitter circulation war for more than 20 years with the two mass-circulation papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Sun and the News of the World, both of which have been sold on sex, sensationalism and a sometimes-rabid anti-establishment right-wing populism that affects not to take politicians too seriously most of the time.

The Sun has been one of the great news­paper marketing successes of all time, par­ticularly among younger working-class readers: the Mirror has been on the defen­sive for most of the circulation war, unsure whether to copy the Sun formula or to take the moral high ground. For the most part, this lack of certainty has led the Mirror into the worst of all possible worlds: trying to do what the Sun does, but doing it half-heartedly and failing miserably both edito­rially and in circulation terms.

Of course, the Mirror has not simply tak­en over the  Sun’s territory. It has remained pro-Labour, its political and social coverage has remained (until recently) infinitely more serious than its rival’s, and perhaps out of regard for the sensibilities of its ageing readership, it has generally been a little less prurient.

But, with the exception of a brief period under the editorship of Roy Greenslade, when the Mirror asserted a clear identity for itself, the Mirror has copied more and more from the Sun since well before Maxwell bought MGN in 1984. Now Mont­gomery wants to take this process still fur­ther.

Even if he will allow the Mirror to call for a Labour vote at election time, he clearly wants to dilute the Mirror's political content, mod­erate its campaigning and make it even more of an "entertain­ment" paper. Under David Banks, with whom he replaced Richard Stott as editor last autumn, the Mirror's coverage of politi­cal and social stories has been pitiful. Its tone has become increasingly crass and sensationalist.

Montgomery's problem is that this strat­egy of inexorable cheapening is not only questionable on the grounds that it repre­sents a final abandonment of what was good about the Mirror, even if it is associat­ed with a "vote Labour" line at elections. It is also bad for sales. Just as under previous regimes that have taken the Mirror down­market, circulation has continued to plum­met since he seized the controls.

Meanwhile, rumours abound that Mur­doch is planning to turn Today into a Labour paper to cream off the top of the Mirror market. Belatedly, it seems that the MGN board is realising that there could be something in the notion that there might be some model other than the Sun for a successful popular newspaper.


None of this resolves precisely what sort of relationship the Mirror ought to have with Labour, however. It is clear that it would be a disaster for the Mirror if it ceased to back Labour and that further depoliticisation and trivialisation of the paper will seriously damage its credibil­ity and circulation.

But it is not obvious that the paper will benefit if it is seen to be in the pocket of the Labour leadership. The reputation of politicians is low. If they are seen to be controlling a newspaper’s every move, its credibility suffers.

What's more, Labour would benefit if the Mirror took a more critical attitude to the party leadership. During the Kinnock years, the Mirror became far too close to the Labour leader's of­fice, giving every Labour initiative a fair wind. A little more friendly candour might have shaken some of the comfortable  as­sumptions that lost Labour the last elec­tion.

The Mirror will die if it is not a Labour pa­per. But no one will care if it dies if it has no function apart from parroting the Labour leadership line. Montgomery might be dis­astrously wrong about the Mirror's market­ing strategy but he is right when he says that political journalists should not be too close to the politicians on whose affairs they are supposed to report and comment.


Tribune leader, 26 February 1993

The claim that Labour is "soft on crime" is a hardy Tory perennial and Labour has usually been torn between two responses.

One is to argue that being "tough on crime" in the manner that the Tories say they are - recruiting more police and making the penal system more severe -does not actually do much to stop crime: it is far more effective to address the causes of crime* introducing measures to reduce unemployment and poverty, to prevent the fragmentation of families and communities, and to improve the urban environment. The other response is to protest that the Tories are simply malign­ing Labour, which is just as tough as any­one else.

The first response has all too often opened Labour to the charge that it does not really want to punish criminals, while the second has always seemed somehow unauthentic.

In the past week, however, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, has come up with the wheeze of employing both re­sponses at the same time. "We need to tackle this problem in a concerted way," he said. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

In a week in which the whole country has been shocked by the death of James Bulger, the toddler allegedly abducted and then murdered by two ten-year-old boys, few will dissent from the urgency of Mr Blair's conviction that something must be done about crime.

But unless he does a lot more to explain how Labour would be "tough on the caus­es of crime", it will be difficult to avoid the conclusion that his brave new formu­la is, at best, a neat piece of rhetoric.

Although much of what the law-and-order lobby wants would be utterly undesir­able in any civilised society, there is a case for some measures that are "tough on crime".  A rather better example than locking up persistent young offenders, on which Mr Blair says that he has been mis­represented, would be changes in the law to make it impossible for crack dealers to operate openly on the streets.

This, however, is the easy populist part of Mr Blair's big idea. The difficult bit is persuading people that Labour knows what the causes of crime actually are, let alone how to deal with them.

Of course, poverty and unemployment are part of the story, but by no means all of it. As Mr Blair has said, the breakdown of a sense of community is just as impor­tant.

Yet this breakdown is not something that can easily be reversed. It has result­ed from some of the most profound changes that capitalism has undergone in the past 40 yean. As Britain has become
more affluent, people have increasingly led essentially private lives. They tend to stay at home and watch television rather than socialise. They use a car rather than public transport and change jobs fre­quently.

Meanwhile, the family has changed dra­matically. Women are far more likely to work than before, marriages are less sta­ble and the way in which children are so­cialised has been transformed by televi­sion.

Add to this the way our cities were wrecked by the disastrous housing poli­cies of the sixties and seventies, when hu­man-scale housing was replaced by tower blocks, and it is clear that dealing with the causes of crime involves nothing less than re-inventing society, the family and the city, with a view to transforming the way we live our lives.

If that is what Mr Blair means by being tough on the causes on crime, his inter­ventions of the past week can only be welcome. He should be warned, however, that it commits Labour to a great deal of imaginative policy work. As things stand, Labour's thinking about reviving a sense of community and dealing with the crises of the family and the city is at best pedes­trian and at worst non-existent.

More importantly, it is also radically at odds with his own enthusiasm for align­ing Labour with the private, consumerist aspirations of middle England and with Labour's more general acceptance of the leading role of the market in shaping our lives.

Friday, 19 February 1993


Tribune leader, 19 February 1993

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told the House of Com­mons that the government's law offi­cers had advised him - contrary to previ­ous advice - that Labour's amendment to the Maastricht bill would, if passed, nei­ther bring down the bill nor make the government accept the social chapter.

Labour has rightly condemned the shabbiness of Mr Hurd's performance. It is quite clear that the government sought legal opinion from the law officers, whose credibility is in tatters after the Matrix-Churchill affair, simply because it faced parliamentary defeat.

The more important question, however, is one of democracy. As well as reporting on his new legal advice, Mr Hurd at­tempted to reassure the Commons that the government had no intention of rati­fying the Maastricht bill "except through the normal parliamentary procedures". It  would not, in short, use the royal prerog­ative to ignore Parliament.
As Tony Benn has pointed out, the real problem is not whether or not the government is going to ignore the Commons in this particular instance but the very fact that it has powers to do so - powers that will be increased once the Maas­tricht treaty comes into force.

Mr Benn was alluding to two giant "democratic deficits" in our political sys­tem. First, the creaking British constitu­tion allows the government to get away with far too much. Secondly, the EC set­tlement reached at Maastricht, giving pride of place in the EC's political struc­tures to the (intergovernmental) Council of Ministers, gives governments even more unaccountable power.
Mr Benn believes that the way to deal with this unaccountable power is to reassert the powers of national parliaments over governments and to scupper Maas­tricht.

He is right on the first point but wrong on the second.

The time when nation states of the size of those in the EC were capable of run­ning independent economic policies is long since gone. If there is to be any pos­sibility of the countries of Europe controlling their own economic destinies, economic policy will have to operate at European level. We need European eco­nomic union. The key question is how we make it accountable.

National parliaments are wholly inade­quate to the task. With or without Maas­tricht, so is the European Parliament. But the European Parliament at least has the potential to become a body that can ade­quately control EC executive bodies. Bet­ter still, it could become a parliament from which a federal EC executive is drawn and to which it is accountable. This week's Tory manoeuvring gives Labour the opportunity to spell out a vi­sion of a democratic federal Europe. It should seize it with alacrity.

Friday, 12 February 1993


Tribune, 12 February 1993

Labour's general secretary tells Paul Anderson about the party's problems with cash and morale

"It is clear that there is a morale and in­volvement problem in many constituen­cies," says Larry Whitty.

"We need to give new life to party branches. The whole party organi­sation needs a big shake-up. We need to change the whole ethos of the organisation. The level of mem­bership at the moment is worrying. We need to take some major new initiatives. While the more alarmist figures about our real membership are wrong, we are on a declining trend and that needs some dramatic initiatives to reverse it."

It is unusual to find a politician prepared to ad­mit that his or her party is in a terrible mess, but it is hardly surprising that Labour's general secre­tary is prepared to go public about the state of the organisation of which he is manager-in-chief.

Whitty, who was appointed in 1985 and is now aged 49, has just finished presiding over production of a draconian cost-cutting plan, passed by the par­ty's National Executive Committee last month, which will see Labour's organisation slimmed down as never before in living memory. And his next task will be to steer the potentially explosive debate that will follow publication of the report on links with the trade unions.

Labour's financial plight is grave, he says, and the main reason is a projected decline in income from the unions and from membership fees. "The fundraising is going very well. But on all our esti­mates we are going to face a real income cut next year of at least 30 per cent compared with where we were before the election. A very substantial part of our support will continue to come from the trade unions but they are going to suffer further losses of membership. The worst case scenario would be that unions vote no in their political fund ballots. But income could go down further than 30 per cent in any case.”
The upshot is that, even with increases in trade union affiliation fees and levies on MPs, MEPs and councillors, massive cuts in spending arc unavoid­able: the only question is where they are made. Whitty, now backed not just by Labour's finance working party but also by the NEC, argues that the choice had to be made on the basis of the experi­ence of the last general election. The Tories had a pathetic central organisation and an almost non­-existent regional one," he says. "But they did have very effective local organisation and they did shift national resources to the local level.

"Similarly, the greatest success of the election was our performance in some key marginals. We need to shift resources closer to the ground for a longer period, away from head office and away from regional offices. Unless we shift personnel and money closer to where the battleground is going to be at the next general election and in the Euro-elections, we're not going to have the organisation that we need."

Last month the NEC agreed to change the ratio of party expenditure on head office, regions and lo­cal parties from 75:20:5 to 60:20:20. The number of staff at Labour's Walworth Road headquarters will be reduced from 130 to 90, with research particu­larly badly hit, while the party's English regions will be cut from nine to six or seven.

Other cuts will include a reduction in the regu­larity of Labour's youth, women's, local government and European conferences, the replacement of re­gional conferences with regional input into the pro­posed national policy forum process, abandonment of the bookshop and library service and a reduction in the volume of bumf put out by Labour.

Whitty puts a brave face on the cuts, arguing that the shift of resources to local parties will mean that Labour will be able to regenerate itself from the bottom up and that the paring down at the cen­tre will force greater openness on the policy-mak­ing process. The party plans a series of campaigns for ordinary members to get stuck into and hopes to draw into the policy-making process many of the experts whose services were shunned by Labour when Neil Kinnock was leader.

"I do not consider that we need to issue as many detailed policy statements as we did," Whitty says. "We need real strategic thinking about policy. Our policy-making also needs to be more outward-look­ing. We need to inspire and mobilise outside exper­tise, which to some extent we phased out in the past few years. The relationship with the pressure groups and the academic community is not as good as it should be."

He hopes that changes in policy-making will im­prove that relationship "There are resource con­straints, but the principle of a rolling programme and the principle of involving all elements of the party will be maintained. The suspicions about this process are misplaced. Policy-making will be more open than in the past."

Meanwhile, he goes on, the teething troubles of Labour's national membership system are well on the way to being ironed out. "It's been one of my most serious headaches in the past few years. But although there are still problems with it, we've got over the worst. We made a mistake in trying to in­troduce the whole system at once and by not having communication with branches, which is where members are made, not at constituency level. There were also a number of technical and staffing prob­lems." Now, however, the national party has direct communication with branches and the regions will soon be linked into the national membership scheme's computers.

As for Labour Party News, the free magazine sent to all party members, it will be slimmed down and become a newspaper but will not be closed, "It's essential that the national party has some way of communicating half-a-dozen times a year with all party members."


Whitty’s worries do not stop with money: he is also charged with the unenviable task of acting as midwife to a new settle­ment between Labour and the trade unions.

Last week, the NEC working party on the union-party link met to discuss an options paper which, says Whitty, “will almost certainly form" the basis of its submission to the NEC. "The working party reaffirms the role of the trade unions and states that the unions will continue to have a major part in our policy-making and organisation. We want to preserve involvement by the trade unions in the party, both through their delegations to conference and as a means of generating substantial support for the party among affiliated trade union mem­bers."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whitty is not very hap­py about the way that Labour's debate on the union link has turned at times into spectacular public feuding. "There are some very fundamental debates going on in the party which need to go on, not just on trade unions but also on social justice, economic policy and the electoral system. All will be subject to wide consultation. They need to be taken slowly and seriously and not degenerate into a sort of Mods versus Rockers confrontation."

The author of Labour's official post-mortem on last year's election defeat, he is particularly an­noyed at the way Labour's warring factions have learned from Bill Clinton's winning American Pres­idential campaign.

"The Clinton campaign did not have an argu­ment about whether to concentrate on the Democrats' core vote or whether to reach out to new constituencies. It first of all consolidated the core vote then extended the appeal outwards. We need to do the same. That's a real long haul.

"Having a leadership contest immediately after the election defeat, and the government being on the ropes during the autumn, delayed the self-anal­ysis that the party needed to engage in. I'm not un­happy about that. We needed the dust to settle a bit. Now we've got to structure the debate. People who are asking for immediate answers are not do­ing the party a service. The party is not in great shape in many parts of the country and is undoubt­edly disheartened by this current argument.”


Tribune leader, 12 February 1993
Why did John Smith's big speech at 'Labour's local government confer­ence in Bournemouth last weekend get so much coverage in the media? Cer­tainly not because of its novelty. Mr Smith did little more than repeat things he said during his campaign for the Labour leadership, in some cases using precisely the same formulations.

To be sure, it was a coherent speech. There were some good jokes and a couple of noteworthy rhetorical flourishes. But too much was dull and predictable. Mr Smith is in favour of "change", against "extreme ideology” and for a "new politi­cal approach" for a "new political era": precisely what one would expect of any politician in a modern democratic soci­ety.

Even his much-reported remarks about the irrelevance of ownership in the mod­ern economy were scant reason for fuss, even though, taken literally, they make nonsense of his apparent enthusiasm for such non-state forms of social ownership as co-operatives and employee share own­ership schemes.

According to Mr Smith, "In the Labour Party we see clearly the merits of a mixed economy and the need for an active and creative partnership between the public and private sectors.”

Those words could have been uttered by any Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. More important, for the best part of a decade they could have been uttered without fear of a serious re­action from the left.

Enthusiasm for extensive nationali­sation has evaporated in recent years: only a small minority in the Labour Party wants anything other than a mixed economy, and the debate about the pre­cise mix rouses few passions. Like it or not, and contrary to the claims of the Tory press, Mr Smith was not executing a stunning policy U-turn. He was saying that Labour is a mainstream social democratic party, something that has been ob­vious for ages.

Of course, it is sometimes necessary for politicians to state the bleeding obvious but Mr Smith really should have done more last weekend. Labour desperately needs to rediscover its sense of purpose and to define a radical populist politics. The most important task is to develop economic policies that command public confidence, yet Mr Smith did no more than show that he realises this.

There was even less of substance on the other areas where Labour needs to get its finger out. He said nothing about the fu­ture of the welfare state or his vision of Europe after Maastricht. There was nothing new on the environment or the democratisation of the British state.

No one expects a single speech to set the world to rights, and Mr Smith will have plenty more opportunities to show that he understands that there is more to radical new thinking than declaring that it would be a good idea. For now, howev­er, Labour's direction remains as ill-de­fined as it was a week ago.

Friday, 5 February 1993


Tribune, 5 February 1993

On the eve of Labour's local government conference, the party's environment spokesman talks to Paul Anderson

“I understand how difficult it is to be a councillor," says Jack Straw, Labour's envi­ronment spokesman. "I was a councillor myself 20 years ago in Islington."

Not that things are quite as they were in the ear­ly seventies. "The only problem we faced was spending money fast enough," he says. "We used to have urgent housing meetings because the deadline for spending money was running out."

Straw, now 46, has been MP for Blackburn since 1979 and a Labour front-bencher since 1980. But he is new to his current brief: from 1987 until John Smith's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle last summer, he was Labour's education spokesman. Many saw him move to environment as demotion, particularly as it was announced that he would be concentrating on local government, leaving the big green issues to Chris Smith. Bryan Gould, the previous environ­ment spokesman, had dealt with global warming as well as refuse collection.

Straw thinks otherwise. "Local government is a key power base for Labour," he says. "We run ur­ban Britain, quite a lot of rural Scotland and Wales and a bit of rural England. Since we've been out of power nationally for 14 years, it's the main experi­ence people have of Labour making decisions. How we run local government is central to Labour's sur­vival and success."

He admits, however, that most people find the experience of Labour in local government less than glamorous. "Partly as a result of the denigration of local government by the Tories and partly be­cause local councillors have had to manage their services in a defensive way, councillors have been seen to have a very prosaic role." As well as expos­ing the Tories* attacks on local government, he says, he wants "to make local government exciting to people and relevant to what they think they can get out of their lives. Local government is more than just a service provider for poor people. Apart from all the services that everyone uses, the urban environment is something that affects everyone."

Straw rejects the idea that the Conservatives have so reduced the autonomy and powers of local government that it has ceased even to be the "dent­ed shield" that Neil Kinnock talked of in the mid-eighties.

"I understand the problems," he says. "But at any level of service, there's an efficient, sensitive way of delivering it and an inefficient, insensitive way. Even within the current constraints, there are lots of ways in which Labour makes a difference. They may appear limited but they can be very im­portant." He goes on to mention councils' roles in education and social services and the ways in which their planning decisions and initiatives on transport can transform the built environment.

At the moment, however, his most immediate problem is not selling the idea that local govern­ment makes a difference but convincing a sceptical public that Lambeth, currently rocked by a giant corruption scandal, is not typical of Labour coun­cils. "I'm damned if we're going to be tarred with the brush of Lambeth," he says. "Especially as we cleared out the 13 semi-Trotskyist councillors. It is since the new leadership has been installed that ac­tion has been taken." Labour will be using Lam­beth to warn people of the dangers of "ultra-left" politics, he goes on.

"Corruption, wherever it happens, whether in government or private business, needs to be stamped on firmly. It rips people off. There are at least as many examples of corruption in central government and in Tory authorities as in Labour authorities. The insinuation that Labour equals corruption is completely untrue." All the same, he reckons that the Lambeth scandal should prompt a "thorough review" of local government accounting systems and that a new statement of ethics for councillors and officers needs to be drawn up.
In the longer term, ways of improving the quality of councillors need to be found. Labour should take seriously all the options, from paying full-time councillors to introducing American-style elected mayors, says Straw. Rather than defending exist­ing local government structures, he says, "We must not forget that the status quo is a status quo creat­ed by the Tories."

On policy, however, he is prepared to accept two of the key changes introduced by the Conservatives in recent years. Compulsory competitive tendering and the council tax would be retained by Labour, he says. "There is wide acceptance that the division between contractor and provider that CCT has pro­duced has been sensible. It has meant that in areas of basic services there are now clear definitions of what services should be provided. But, while I have seen the case for CCT for the provision of basic ser­vices such as refuse collection, I'm very sceptical about using it for core management functions. I'm not in favour of following the Tories' agenda. They want wholly contracted-out public services.”

He takes a similar line on the council tax. "The underlying principle of council tax is OK - it's a property tax. But some of its practice is bad. We’ll be working out how it can be changed so that it be­comes much more like what we wanted in the fair rates system."

In particular, Labour would ditch the "capping" system to control the level of council tax. "On that Fm, absolutely clear," says Straw. "Central govern­ment should not have control over what local au­thorities raise locally. What I want to see is a sys­tem in which central government makes its alloca­tion of grant based on what it thinks is needed and, beyond that, what an authority raises is a matter between it and its electors." There should be annu­al local elections, and their timing should be changed so that voting takes place immediately af­ter council budgets are set.


In recent weeks, of course, Straw has been making the headlines not for his pronounce­ments on local government finance but for speaking out on the monarchy and on Clause Four of Labour's constitution, which commits the party to social ownership.

He says that he is amazed at the reaction to his speech calling for a Scandinavian-style monarchy, a conclusion he came to after reading Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton, "a remarkably subversive document that exposes a deeply decadent and detached system for which we are all paying”.

"It hadn't occurred to me before that the royals were at the apex of a separate society of extremely rich people," he says, adding that he has had as many supportive letters as critical ones in the fort­night since his speech.

On Clause Four, on which he has been writing a "small treatise", he complains that he has been misrepresented. "It doesn't follow that if you mention the words and suggest that there should be some alteration that you have the blood of the traitor within you. I passionately believe in the role of public ownership and control within the econo­my.

"But we have to develop a much deeper analysis of the defects of free markets. We ought to have the confidence to develop from that analysis a new set of words to express our beliefs for the next century. What I want to do is stimulate a debate about ide­ology, and Clause Four is at the heart of the argu­ment about what the party stands for."

Straw's willingness to rethink Clause Four caused the Sunday Times to describe him as "the leader of Labour's new radicals" but on several of the key issues now facing the party he is what Wapping journalists usually describe as a conser­vative. Although he reckons that there is "a fair amount" to learn from Bill Clinton's campaign in the United States - the Democrats won middle America, concentrated on the economy and re­sponded quickly to Republican attacks - he is no uncritical admirer of the American President or his programme. "Workfare is just barmy," says Straw.

Similarly, on the thorny question of Labour's re­lationship with the unions, he favours "close consti­tutional links", while on electoral reform he is a bit­ter enemy of anything smacking of proportional representation for the House of Commons. On Eu­rope, he is one of the most sceptical members of the Shadow Cabinet.
So is Straw inconsistent? Perhaps, but the real problem is the categories used by the Sunday Times (along with the rest of the media and much of the Labour Party) to describe Labour's current arguments. As Straw himself says, "The debate is damaged by the tendency to pigeon-hole people and issues and come up with pejorative terms for them. What we need is a cool debate, not one conducted in slogans and with megaphones.”