Friday, 26 March 1993


Tribune, 26 March 1993

Try as one might, it is impossible to suppress feelings of unease about last weekend's public show of Christianity by John Smith and several other Labour front-benchers.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with Labour making a pitch for the "moral high ground" (as long as that is not all it does): the Tory government is shabby and dishonest and Labour needs to live down its reputation for being pre­pared to say just about anything to get a whiff of power. Nor is there any problem about senior members of the Labour Par­ty holding any particular religious views or, indeed, none: freedom of religious be­lief is a fundamental Labour principle.

But publicly presenting Christianity as the basis of an appeal for morality in poli­tics is a deeply distressing thing for a se­nior Labour politician to do, even with Mr Smith's caveat that “an ethical ap­proach to life and politics can be held as firmly by people of other faiths and by those who hold no religious conviction".

Despite its historical origins in non­conformist Christianity, Labour has been an essentially secular party for at least 50 years. Although people of all religious be­liefs and none are members, the basis on which they come together for political ac­tivity assumes that such matters are pri­vate, not part of politics, and that politics is best conducted without the interfer­ence of religion.

This secularism has been too often hon­oured in the breach, even in recent times: if the days of Chapel dominance of Welsh Labour politics are over, Catholicism still has too much influence in large swathes of the party's Scottish and north-west En­glish heartlands. And there have been plenty of Labour MEPs unwilling to con­demn the death sentence on Salman Rushdie because of their worries about the Muslim vote.

Nevertheless, in the past few years, Labour leaders have at least made an ef­fort not to undermine the party's commit­ment to secular politics: they have not made a big deal of their own personal opinions about religion.

This is not simply because Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock were not (and are not) believers. There are good reasons to keep religion out of politics. Most obviously, we are living in an increasingly secular society: there are few votes to be had by talking up religion. Only a tiny minority of our fellow citizens now participate reg­ularly in any sort of organised religious activity (and, of that tiny minority, very few are Anglican Christians). Most self-styled believers in a deity have only the haziest notion of what their preferred supreme beings supposedly do.

More important than any electoral consideration, however, are the real dangers inherent in allowing reli­gion back into political life. One reasoned speech by a mild-mannered Christian so­cialist does not presage an imminent col­lapse of UK politics into the sectarian ha­treds of Northern Ireland or even the va­pid protestations of faith that have in­creasingly come to characterise American politics. But there is no doubt that the as­sumption of secularism has civilised British politics. It would be a tragedy for Labour to throw that achievement away.

Friday, 12 March 1993


Tribune, 12 March 1993

On the eve of Labour's Scottish party conference, the Shadow Scottish Secretary talks to Paul Anderson

“There was a lot of frustration and heart-searching in Scotland after the election," says Tom Clarke, the Shadow Scottish Secretary. "That was inevitable given the huge disappointment. There was this expectation of at very least a hung Parlia­ment and at best a Labour victory. In the end, we won 49 seats out of 72 in Scotland and lost in the UK."

Last year's general election was indeed a bad shock to Labour in Scotland. The party had believed that the To­ries' representation in Scotland could he reduced from ten to four or five MPs, with Labour gains in Ayr, Dum­fries, Edinburgh Pentlands and Stirling. Instead, all four target seats stayed Conservative and, to make matters worse, the Tories defeated Labour's sitting MP in afflu­ent Aberdeen South, Frank Doran.

Labour's poor showing unleashed a storm inside the party. Sections of the Left joined prominent members of the Scottish TUC and the Scottish National Party to sup­port Scotland United, a pressure group calling for a ref­erendum on Scottish constitutional arrangements: others denounced them for making overtures to the SNP, Labour's main enemy in Scotland. When Clarke, now aged 52, took over from Donald Dewar as shadow Scot­tish Secretary in July, having made it into the Shadow Cabinet for the first time, his first task was to calm frayed nerves in the Scottish Labour Party.

He did this by promising to campaign on the bread-and-butter issues (the economy, the welfare state, water privatisation) while keeping up the pressure on the con­stitutional question and shunning the SNP. It is a deli­cate balancing act, and Clarke knows that the constitu­tional question remains potentially dangerous for Labour: while he was out of action with a viral infection late last year, a demonstration for home rule largely or­ganised by Scotland United attracted 25,000 people on to the streets of Edinburgh, the biggest protest in the coun­try for more than a decade. He is nevertheless confident that the approach he promised last summer is the best option.

On the constitution, he says that he wants a revival of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the body, group­ing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, trade unions and churches (but not the SNP, which withdrew), that forged a consensus for a Scottish parliament within the UK in the run-up to the 1992 election.

"We want a reborn Convention that's out there cam­paigning, much more representative of the whole of Scot­land," he says, arguing against the idea of replacing it with a new forum. The Liberal Democrats, who had been lukewarm about reviving the Convention, are back on board following a meeting last week. "It was perceived, I think wrongly, that people like Malcolm Bruce, the Lib­eral Democrat MP for Gordon, did very badly in the elec­tion because the Lib Dems were too closely associated with Labour. But we had a very good meeting and the Convention's still in business. The Liberal Democrats were outspoken and very helpful."

As for the SNP, he says: "I don't think there will ever be a really close working relationship between the SNP and the Labour Party. There's a lot of contempt among the grass roots of the party for the SNP if only because it fights the party harder than anybody else." This week, Clarke came down heavily on the SNP for negotiating a deal with the Government during the House of Commons debate on the European regional council. His hope is clearly that the SNFs apostasy will turn even the most nationalist in Labour's ranks against the idea of SNP-Labour co-operation.

Meanwhile, "we're trying to be very careful that issues like unemployment, health and water privatisation are kept in view" as well as constitutional issues. The Scot­tish economy is in a dire state, Clarke says. "There has been closure after closure in every field. I used to repre­sent a steel and mining area. We no longer have any steelworks or any pits." Labour has to keep pushing its vision of a "modern industrial Scotland", maintain the pressure over the welfare state and assert itself as "the leading organisation which has been fighting water pri­vatisation" – which, unlike in England where water privatisation passed off with barely a squeak in 1989, has sparked a major public controversy.
Clarke is confident that Labour can be at the forefront in all this campaigning, although he admits that there was a small blip in its water privatisation efforts a fort­night ago after a furore followed his being misinterpreted on Labour's plans for bringing privatised Scottish water back into public ownership. This weekend's Scottish par­ty conference is expected to back calls for water to be re­turned to the public sector, a prospect which Clarke is "very happy" to accept.

The spectre haunting Labour in all of this is, of course, its response to popular antipathy to the poll tax after 1989, when Labour caution was wide­ly seen as benefiting the SNP and Militant. Now as then, the SNP and Militant are doing what they can to take on Labour in its urban heartlands, with Militant, now firm­ly outside the Labour Party as an electoral rival, making significant gains in council by-elections.

Clarke clearly believes that the best way to deal with the danger of being outflanked on the left is to insist that Labour is the only party that can actually make a difference. "The party in Scotland is very keen that we keep our separate identity as the biggest party in Scot­land, the opposition, the alternative government, the only party that can deliver a Scottish Parliament."

Militant, he says, has "done well" in taking council seats from Labour and "should be taken seriously". "Be­cause of the attacks by the Tory Government on local government, it's very easy to condemn local Labour coun­cils and the Militant is very good at that. Without being complacent about the genuine concerns of ordinary work­ing people, we have to make it clear that Militant cannot deliver."

One of Labour's problems is that it is seen as the es­tablishment in much of Scotland. Another, related, prob­lem is that it has a very small membership in Scotland by comparison with its electoral support. According to of­ficial Labour Party statistics, the average membership of a Constituency Labour Party in Scotland is 283, com­pared with 440 in the UK as a whole.

"It makes a very strong case for a mass party," says Clarke, while stressing that there are some very active CLPs with large memberships. "I'd like to see the mod­ern Labour Party in Scotland taking over the role that the Co-op had in an earlier day, when everyone went to the Co-op and it was a real part of the local community.”

Clarke is a Catholic – his opposition to abortion has made him unpopular with feminists – and his Monklands West constituency, centred on the town of Coatbridge, consists of the Catholic part of the area covered by Mon­klands council (the Protestant part, Monklands East, is represented by John Smith).

The council, run by Labour, has been in the news recently after allegations that it has discriminated in favour of Catholics, and the local party was the subject of an inquiry by Labour's Scottish executive, the results of which were published last week demanding reorganisa­tion of its procedures in line with party rules.

There is no suggestion that Clarke has been involved in any local skulduggery – executive members went out of their way last week to emphasise that he and Smith had given full support to the inquiry – but the Monk-lands affair has given new life to old complaints about re­ligious tribalism in Scottish politics. Clarke counters such rumblings by pointing out that more of Labour's Scottish MPs are Protestant than are Catholic and argues that religion is no longer the force it used to be in Scottish politics.

"Historically, the party has taken most Catholic votes because most Catholics were Irish and saw themselves as underdogs," he says. "As time has gone on, some Catholics are more reflective and don't necessarily vote Labour as instinctively as earlier generations did. And in 1992 the party took five times the number of votes as there are Catholics. I don't see it as a major factor in Scottish politics – although obviously I want the party to appeal to Catholic voters."

This week, the government announced its long-awaited sop to Scottish demands for home rule -some minor administrative devolution and an in­creased role for Scottish MPs in the Scottish Grand Com­mittee.

Clarke has had a field-day with this "weak unworthy whimper of a plan". The solutions offered by the govern­ment only make the democratic deficit worse," he told the Commons on Tuesday. "This is a cosmetic exercise. It does not represent the aspirations of the Scottish people." Judging by the sheepish look on the face of the Scot­tish Secretary, Ian Lang, as Clarke savaged him, the government knows that most Scots share Clarke's low opinion. The big question is whether Labour can manage to make itself the beneficiary of such sentiment


Tribune leader, 12 March 1993

In Germany, the Social Democrats dropped a stunning 8 percentage points in local elections in their Hesse heart­land last weekend, even though Helmut Kohl's Centre-Right coalition Govern­ment in Bonn is in the doldrums. The French Socialist Party is heading for hu­miliation in next weekend's general elec­tion.

Meanwhile, the Italian Socialist Party, utterly compromised by its corruption, faces near-extinction at the next general election, likely later this year, with the former-communist (and relatively clean) Party of the Democratic Left, now also a member of the Socialist International, slumping to around 17 per cent of the popular vote. Spain's ruling Socialist Workers’ Party is also on the slide in the wake of revelations that it has been in­volved in bribery rackets.

If one adds the electoral failures in re­cent years of the Greek, Swedish and Dutch socialists and the miserable experi­ence of democratic socialists in the for­mer communist countries of eastern Eu­rope, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that social democracy is in a real mess across the continent. And that is before Labour's plight in Britain is taken into account.

So what has gone wrong with European social democracy? There is, of course, no single answer. In eastern Europe, social­ism is understandably unpopular, even in democratic garb. In the west, each social­ist party has particular reasons for not doing well: corruption here, an incompe­tent leadership there.

But, once the east-west divide is taken into account, to consider only the prob­lems faced by each party in its own coun­try is to miss the point. It is not merely a coincidence of unpropitious national cir­cumstances that is responsible for the mess in which west European socialists find themselves.
Every socialist party is suffering from the collapse in the past 20 years of the na­tional Keynesian model of economic man­agement, a collapse that has pushed so­cial democracy inexorably towards accommodation with economic neo-liberal-ism. Not one left party in Europe has an economic strategy capable of persuading voters that it can do any more about un­employment than the free-market right.

Every socialist party has also been hit by much the same social changes. Every­where in western Europe, the manual working class has declined. Everywhere, social democracy's attempts to augment class-based politics with technocratic managerialism have failed to provide a stable new electoral base. Young people in particular find social democratic par­ties a major turn-off throughout the continent.

In short, European social democracy faces a crisis - not the one so long pre­dicted by Leninists, according to whom social democrats would be outflanked by a militant working class under Leninist leadership, but something just as pro­found. The fact that so few in the Labour Party have recognised that this crisis ex­ists (let alone thought it through) is a deeply depressing comment on the parochialism and lack of intellectual depth that now characterises Labour's political culture.

Friday, 5 March 1993


Tribune leader, 5 March 1993

The second of John Smith's promised series of keynote speeches, on the state of the constitution, was better than his first, on Labour's values.

Speaking on Monday at a meeting or­ganised by Charter 88, Mr Smith laid out a coherent programme of constitutional reform, with a conviction entirely lacking in Labour's statements during Neil Kin-nock's leadership.

Mr Smith's package is well short of per­fect. In particular, if Labour's enthusiasm for pluralism is to be credible, the party cannot echo Mr Smith's silence on the question of electoral reform for the House of Commons. Nor should Labour opt for a referendum on electoral reform instead of coming out with a strong recommenda­tion for a particular electoral system.

As Tribune has argued, the way in which the people are represented at na­tional level must be changed to ensure that the House of Commons really is a re­flection of the whole spread of opinion across the country. Of the options now being considered by Labour's Plant Commission on electoral systems, the only one that makes sense in this context is a ver­sion of the German additional member system of proportional representation for the Commons.

The commission should make a recom­mendation of AMS and the party should adopt it at its next conference. A referen­dum on changing the electoral system, as advocated by Charter 88, is no more nec­essary than a referendum on the Maas­tricht treaty. For Labour to support one would signal a singular loss of nerve.

But back to what Mr Smith did say. His proposals include a great deal that de­serves support: incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, greater openness in the bud­get process and a new Ministry of Justice, as well as Labour's familiar promises of a new tier of government for Wales, Scot­land and the English regions, reform of the House of Lords and freedom of infor­mation legislation.

More generally, it is entirely welcome that Mr Smith's speech embraced whole­heartedly the rhetoric of citizenship rights. While much of the most interest­ing thinking on the intellectual left in Europe in the past decade has been about reclaiming the language of citizenship and rights for the left, Labour has tend­ed to fight shy of such concerns – the left on the Marxist grounds that bourgeois property rights are cover for exploitation, the right on the basis of a deep-seated belief in corporatism. One speech by the leader does not mean that the party as a whole is changing the way it thinks about politics but at least Mr Smith is moving in the right direction.


Tribune leader, 5 February 1993

It is remarkable how much cant has poured from the press in the week since John Major issued his libel writ against New Statesman and Society.

At some point in the two years before last week's events, nearly every national newspaper had made some knowing refer­ence to the rumour about Mr Major and Claire Latimer, who runs a catering company that does parties for Number Ten.

Those references were made only be­cause of the wide knowledge of the ru­mour among the public. Gossip spreads exponentially and this snippet had been doing the rounds for some time. By the time the Statesman published, it was com­mon currency in saloon bars throughout the land. Millions had heard it.

Journalists, particularly the diary and gossip columnists who make their livings by making their readers feel like insiders, knew that titillating references to the ru­mour would be widely recognised. The Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Evening Standard, the Observer, Today and the In­dependent on Sunday all ran items with precisely this goal. Yet these same papers, in unison, condemned the New Statesman for having the gall to publish a sober, well-researched article making it clear that “no one has produced a shred of evidence" to support the rumour. The writs from Mr Major and Ms Latimer were what the Statesman deserved, they crowed.

In Tribune's view, this consensus is not just hypocritical but wrong. Unlike the big newspapers, which ran the rumours as pure nudge-nudge, wink-wink, never making it clear that there was no evidence for them, the Statesman treated the story re­sponsibly and without sensationalism. Far from suing for libel, Mr Major and Ms Latimer should both have been grateful to the authors of the article for having cleared the air and exposed the rumour machine for what it is.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr Major acted impulsively in decid­ing to sue. The costs of defending against a libel action being what they are, the New Statesman's survival will be imperilled if the case goes much further. If the Statesman goes under, the British left will be deprived of one of its few remaining peri­odicals committed to open debate, and British democracy will lose one of its most important gadflies. If Mr Major brings the Statesman down, he will do infinitely more damage to his reputation among democrats than the most calamitous con­ceivable libel could ever do.