Friday, 26 August 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 26 August 1994

This week, Rupert Murdoch raised the price of the Sun from 20p to 22p – leaving it 5p instead of 7p cheaper than the Daily Mirror and just 3p cheaper than the Daily Star – amid speculation that a price hike was also imminent for the Times, which has been selling at 20p for the past two months.

The reason for Murdoch's move, and for the speculation about the Times, is simple. By the time most NSS readers get this issue, his company, News Corporation, will have published its full-year figures. Murdoch was worried that investors would be scared off by the hole that the newspaper price war has blown in News Corporation's profits – so it was necessary at least to make it look as if he was thinking of calling the whole thing off.

Whether he is really contemplating a truce only time will tell, although it would certainly seem to make sense with the Sun. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, pub¬lished earlier this month, show the Mirror's circulation increasing by 1.28 per cent in July despite its price disadvantage, while the Sun was up by only 0.31 per cent. After a year at 20p, the Sun's average daily sale has soared from 3.5 million to 4.2 million, while the Mirror's has declined from 2.7 million to 2.5 million. Now, however, the Sun has got just about all the readers that it is going to get by price-cutting – so it would be sensible for News Corporation to start paring back on the costs of the tabloid price war.

The quality market is more complex. Two months at 20p have seen the Times rise to an average daily sale of nearly 600,000. In the first half of 1993, the paper was selling just over 360,000. And the Independent, with an average of just under 260,000 in July, down about a third in 18 months, is suffering badly (although it claims to have recovered sales since it joined the price war it had hitherto shunned by dropping its price to 30p at the beginning of the month). Murdoch might well be thinking that it is worth keeping up the pressure on the Independent for a couple more months in the hope that it will be forced to close.

For that, quite simply, is the sole purpose of Murdoch's price-cutting. Newspaper reading is declining in Britain, and so is the newspapers' share of the advertising pot. There is, moreover, no sign of either trend being reversible – and for Murdoch that means one thing. He must kill off the competition to ensure that his titles increase their market share to compensate for the smaller size of the market. At the popular end of the tabloid market, the target is the Daily Star, a paper so bad that only its employees will miss it. In the quality market, the target is the Independent. But the loss of the Independent would be a serious blow to British public life.

This is not to claim that the paper's politics are wonderful: its mix of free-market economics, civil libertarianism and social concern is not particularly to NSS tastes. Still less is it to deny that the Independent is partially re¬sponsible for its current predicament: if it had not made the mistake of launching the Independent on Sunday to kill off the short-lived Sunday Correspondent, it would not have been forced into the bout of editorial cost-cutting and the desperate search for new investment that, along with a ham-fisted redesign, led it into the spiral of directionlessness and circulation decline from which it has never recovered.

But the Independent remains a serious paper, and its point of view deserves a place in the daily press. Murdoch's ability to subsidise a price war against the Independent with profits from other parts of his worldwide media empire – just as he used profits from the Sun to subsidise Sky television in its battle with British Satellite Broadcasting – is a grave threat to the press pluralism essential in any democracy.

Yet it is at just this point that Labour has chosen to indicate that it is thinking of relax¬ing its stance on media cross-ownership to allow newspaper publishing companies to own terrestrial broadcasting channels. Labour arts and culture spokesperson Mo Mowlam was reported a fortnight ago to have decided on an essentially deregulatory approach. Although she subsequently claimed that all that was happening was an open-ended review of Labour's media policy commitments, it is significant that she has not denied that Labour policy is moving in precisely such a Murdoch-friendly direction.

Why the change of heart? The charitable explanation is that Labour is simply recognising brutal economic realities – that, with the media increasingly global, it is going to be giant transnational media conglomerates that matter, and that if Britain is going to be home to some of the major global players, there can't be too many legal constraints on cross-ownership. That is a coherent argument, although not one with which this magazine agrees: limitations on the extent to which any particular corporation can dominate the media in Britain need have no knock-on effect on that corporation's ability to compete elsewhere in the world.

The more worrying theory doing the rounds is that Labour hopes to curry favour with Murdoch. Labour politicians know that he is not averse to backing parties nominally of the left when it suits his commercial interests – and of course he has indicated, albeit in the most guarded way, that it is conceivable that he might support Tony Blair. Labour's dalliance with deregulation, the argument goes, is in preparation for a pre-election Faustian pact like that between Murdoch and the Australian Labor Party of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. A glance at the cesspit that is Australian Labor politics should be enough to convince anyone tempted by such a course to reject it forever. Whatever he says, Murdoch remains the enemy of everything – equality, democratic pluralism, freedom of expression, decency and honesty – at the centre of the left's project.

Friday, 19 August 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 19 August 1994

this week, Labour Party members should be receiving their voting papers for the first-ever one member, one vote elections to the constituency section of the party's National Executive Committee. This helps to explain, of course, the unusually high media profile of certain Labour politicians at a time when they are more normally to be found in their favoured holiday locations than floating ideas such as Mo Mowlam's peculiar suggestion about moving the royal family out of Buckingham Palace (whatever happened to republicanism anyway?). There are 21 candidates for seven places, and no one is quite sure what will happen now that they are no longer to be decided by constituency party block votes. The outcome will, however, be crucially important in helping to shape the kind of party that Labour becomes under its new leader.

The NEC is, as it has always been, the most powerful body in the party. Its composition will have a significant effect on the sort of campaign that Labour fights at the next general election. It could even have a significant impact on the next government if Labour wins. This year's election is rather more than a "beauty contest".

Of course, it is extremely unlikely that the NEC results will be a major upset for Tony Blair. The days are long gone when the constituency section returned a 100 per cent left slate as a two-fingered salute to the leadership. Indeed, the danger this year is that the NEC ends up without a single member in the constituency section who is not in the shadow cabinet. Although – because Blair, Kinnock and John Prescott have gone on to higher things – there are three constituency places up for grabs (one of which must go to a woman), if all the incumbents are returned, the consensus among the pundits is that the three most likely newcomers are shadow cabinet members Straw, Smith and Mowlam. This is a danger not because there is any¬thing necessarily wrong with any of them.

Smith in particular would bring a welcome green tinge to the NEC. Rather, it is because, as Peter Hain argued last week in NSS as he set out his platform, it is an inherently bad idea for the constituency section to be a mini¬ature shadow cabinet, bound by the principle of collective responsibility and all the inhibitions on free and open discussion that that entails. Neither does the shadow cabinet adequately represent the spread of political opinion in the party as a whole: instead it covers a narrow range between centre-left and right. A voice or two from the left – and the most cogent on offer this year is undoubtedly Hain's – would not go amiss.

More important than the NEC – and far more trying for Blair – is the shadow cabinet reshuffle that will follow the shadow cabinet elections in late October. Having spurned a reshuffle immediately upon being elected, this is effectively his only chance to change his team before the next election.

He does not have an easy task. He has no option but to use the material the Parliamentary Labour Party serves up to him – and it has a perverse habit at times of preferring the affable incompetent, the fixer or the bully to the intelligent, creative and able. Then he has to make sure that the best possible team is put together without causing offence to fragile egos that could turn dangerous if they feel that they have been snubbed.

But he is helped by two things: his own job at home affairs is vacant, and Jack Cunningham has put in such a miserable performance at foreign affairs that it would be no problem to remove him (if indeed he makes it back into the shadow cabinet – and there are some in the Blair team who are hoping for a Cunningham defeat to avoid the unpleasantness of a sacking). That means that two of the "big three" jobs are effectively open – which in¬creases his room for manoeuvre.

So what should he do? The crucial posts are shadow chancellor and shadow.foreign secretary. With the 1996 intergovernmental conference coming up and the economy still in a depressed state, Europe and the economy are set to dominate British politics in the next couple of years. Labour needs the right people in post to handle them.

Taking Europe first, because that is where the incumbent is so weak, what is needed is someone with an unerring enthusiasm for Europe and a proven ability to find gaps in the Tories' armour. Of the four shadow cabinet members who are serious candidates for the job, George Robertson has the former but not the latter, while Robin Cook and John Prescott have the latter without the former. The ideal candidate is Gordon Brown, who has been a consistent advocate of closer European political and economic union and, crucially, an enthusiast for pan-European alternative economic strategies – but the problem is that he's already got the other key post of shadow chancellor, in which he has done a brilliant job of labelling the Tories as a party of high taxation and low competence, but less well in communicating a convincing alternative strategy of the left.

The answer is to shift Brown sideways and promote Cook to shadow chancellor. In his trade and industry brief, Cook has again shown himself to be Labour's leading thinker. He understands the necessity for getting to grips with the structures of modern capitalism, as well as grappling with the ethics of modern socialism. He has an extraordinary grasp of detail, a sense of the "big idea", and he is a great communicator. Most important of all, his appointment would be a signal that a Blair government really would be interven¬tionist in its economic policies – Labour's greatest weakness on the economy these days is that it sometimes seems as if it wouldn't do anything different from the Tories except on education and training. If Blair wants the best possible government-in-waiting, he really ought to explore the possibility of building his team around Cook as shadow chancellor and Brown as shadow foreign secretary.

Friday, 12 August 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 12 August 1994

There can be no doubt that Tony Blair's arrival in the Labour leadership has had the effect of inducing near-panic among the Liberal Democrats. With the opinion polls showing the Lib Dems los¬ing ground to Labour, three of the Gang of Four who left Labour in 1981 to form the SDP have declared that Blair is their kind of Labour leader, prompting Paddy Ashdown to disown them and their views. Lib Dem publications are stuffed with arguments about what to do next.

Old-fashioned Labour types who never much liked the 1980s fashion for talk about cooperation between Britain's two centre-left parties are crowing. But it would be wrong to take too much notice of them. Even though the Lib Dems are in a mess, they are not in such a mess that they can be written off as an electoral force. And there remain strong political reasons for the left to back cross-party collaboration.

To take the electoral arithmetic first: it is still the case that, in large parts of Britain, it is the Lib Dems and not Labour who are best placed to beat incumbent Conservatives at the next general election. In the current parliament, there are 92 Tory seats vulnerable on a swing of 5 per cent to the second-placed opposition party: on the 1992 result, the Lib Dems are the second-placed party in 19, mostly in the south-west and the rural south-east, with Labour the challenger in 70, mostly in the north, the Midlands, and the urban south. Even if one takes the extraordinary Labour performance in the 1994 European elections as a starting point, Labour can consider that only three of the Lib Dems' 19 most promising Tory-held seats are three-way marginals in which it has a realistic chance of coming from third to win.

The Euro-elections showed the Lib Dem vote holding up well in the areas where its key marginal Westminster seats are to be found even though the overall Lib Dem perfor¬mance a percentage of the total vote was poor. Much the same goes for recent opinion polls: the Lib Dems might be losing ground overall, but they are not doing as badly where it matters to them.

What's more, Labour has an interest in the Lib Dems doing well. As Labour's Last Chance?, the recent study of the 1992 election by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice, shows conclusively, Labour is the main beneficiary of any shift from Tory to Lib Dem because, as the Tory vote falls, Labour starts to win seats where it is just behind the Tories, and there are far more of these than Tory seats where the Lib Dems are in second place. Heath, Jowell and Curtice calculate that a 4 per cent swing from Tory to Lib Dem would produce 29 Labour gains from the Tories and just 14 Lib Dem gains.

In similar vein, there is a serious downside for Labour if the Lib Dems do badly. Of the 11 Lib Dem seats that are vulnerable on a 5 per cent swing to the party placed second in 1992, three are vulnerable to Labour and eight to the Tories. A Lib Dem slump could be enough for the Conservatives to keep power.

But enough of psephology. No one knows what will intervene between now and the election to determine the performance of the parties on the day. Blair has not yet secured his passage to No 10: his honeymoon could prove to be short. With a little luck on the economy and a couple of tax-cutting budgets, John Major could still be Prime Minister in the year 2000.

In any case, the best argument for Labour's not writing off the Lib Dems was never about numbers but about policy. As NSS has argued consistently, there has been precious little dividing the two parties since the mid-1980s, when Labour ditched its Alternative Economic Strategy. Like it or not – and much of Labour's rightward drift has been far from the liking of this magazine – since Labour's late-1980s policy review, the policy differences have been so small as to be unimportant on

economic and social policy, on the environment and transport, on Europe, on defence, and on every important constitutional issue bar one – proportional representation. The Lib Dems favour a single transferable vote system for the Commons; Labour has promised only to hold a referendum on electoral reform, and Blair has made it clear that he is not prepared to take the party any further.

And this is precisely why the radical left really needs the Lib Dems. Without the introducion of proportional representation for the Commons, no package of constitutional reform will be adequate to the task, in other respects admirably embraced by Blair, of turning Britain into a genuinely pluralist modern democracy. Labour's commitments to a Bill of Rights, Scottish and Welsh parlia¬ments, devolution of powers to the English regions and abolition of the House of Lords are all excellent and long-overdue reforms – but the country also needs an electoral system for Westminster's lower house that allows it adequately to reflect the spread of opinion across the country.

Proportional representation is the great blind spot of those who style themselves "modernisers" in today's Labour Party. They are still, for all their rhetoric of pluralism, interested in the winner-takes-all game, still scared of sharing power, still afraid that their own party's culture would somehow be tainted by contact with the Lib Dems – not to mention the new green and left groupings that would come into being with the advent of PR. There is a serious danger that, when push came to shove, a majority Labour govern¬ment would decide that the promised referendum on electoral reform could wait until a second term or maybe even for ever. That's why NSS still reckons, as in 1992, that a degree of Liberal Democrat influence over any future Labour government would be no bad thing. Let's wish Paddy Ashdown a speedy recovery.

Friday, 5 August 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 5 August 1994

Oh, well, at least it's novel. Presenting his annual report on Monday, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, laid the blame for at least part of the crime wave on the public's ambivalent attitude to crime, citing as an example our affection for Arthur Daley. On this view, if we really are to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", as Tony Blair wants, it is obviously imperative that Minder is never shown again on British television.

But there is a serious side to all this. Condon's remarks about the deleterious effect of a television comedy character were very much in tune with his whole presentation. His message on Monday was simple: the Met takes full responsibility for its successes, but where it fails it is always someone else's fault. Burglaries are down in London because of the success of the Met's "Operation Bumblebee", targeting known burglars and handlers of stolen goods. But racial and sexual assaults are up because of increased reporting by victims, and firearms offences (particularly against police officers) are up because gun control legislation isn't tough enough. As for the increase in muggings, well, that's nothing to do with the police either.

Worse, some people just don't appreciate what sterling work the Met does. Particularly reprehensible are those lawyers who specialise in legal actions against the police. Condon's report reveals that the Met paid out £1.8 million in damages in the past year for assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and other misconduct. In the previous year, the figure was £1.1 million, and in 1991-92 a paltry £571,000. Clearly, there is a conspiracy to do down our wonderful boys in blue. "One of the things that we fear is that more and more people are suing the police, and the Metropolitan Police is being seen as a soft target," the commissioner complained.

Of course, there is another possible explanation – that the police have indeed been guilty of assault, false imprisonment and so on, and that they have been getting their come-uppance because their victims have refused to take this lying down. Similarly, it could be that the rise in muggings has something to do with the absence of police on the beat in certain areas – and that the rise in racial assaults relates at least in part to the Met's lack of seriousness in tackling racist violence. It might even be that the lack of cooperation from the public that Condon blames on Arthur Daley is actually down to a decline in public confidence in the police brought on by the relentless flow of stories of police corruption and by bitter experience of the Met's inadequacies.

Condon's refusal even to consider the most obvious explanations for the problems that his force undoubtedly faces is a symptom of a worrying bunker mentality all too common among Britain's police. In some ways, of course, it is quite understandable. During the postwar boom years, the British police en-joyed a reputation for fairness, decency and non-violence unrivalled by any other police force in the world. Until the mid-1970s, there was a cross-party consensus that Britain's tradition of unarmed, decentralised policing was simply the best.

But then everything started to go wrong – and the scale of the disaster was such that the police are still reeling. First, the Met was revealed to be riddled with corruption. Then, as the economy went into crisis in the 1970s, the police were pushed further and further into adopting a politically charged public-order role – defending strike-breakers against pickets, neo-fascists against the Anti-Nazi League, nuclear bases against protesters. Increasingly, ethnic minority groups complained of police racism and women of police attitudes to domestic violence.

Then came the riots of the early 1980s, then the miners' strike, then revelations of police frame-ups in the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, then more corruption scandals. And all the time crime rose inexorably, including violent crime – even as the Conservative government increased expenditure on the police. By the mid-1980s, the British bobby's reputation was in tatters.

Things have improved since then in some ways. Safeguards against abuses of police powers have been strengthened, complaints procedures introduced and refined. Corrupt officers have been sacked (although rarely prosecuted). Serious efforts have been made to eliminate police racism and to get police forces to take domestic violence seriously. There has been a genuine attempt to get police back on the beat in the inner cities. Condon has some right to feel that all his critics don't appreciate just how much has been done to put the police back on course.

But more is required. To gain the trust and confidence of the public, justice must be seen to be done with officers who fiddle evidence or take bribes. Measures must be taken to connect the police to local communities and to gain the confidence of ethnic minorities. Resources must continue to be shifted from harassing drug-takers, prostitutes and drunks to deterring and catching muggers, burglars and rapists.

And, yes, there need to be changes in the law too – but not just on guns. One of the defining characteristics of this Tory government has been its enthusiasm for criminalising more and more behaviour – picketing, drinking at football matches, squatting, computer hacking – a tendency that has reached its nadir with the Criminal Justice Bill. Most of this anti-libertarian legislation serves only to waste police time.

If an incoming Labour government is serious about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, as soon as it takes office it should embark on a radical programme of decriminalisation to allow the police to concentrate on stopping real villainy.