Friday, 19 April 1996


New Statesman & Society, leader 19 April 1996

The miserable failure of the Conservative candidate in last week's by-election suggests that they are doomed to lose the next general election

Voters' behaviour in by-elections is notoriously untrustworthy as a means for predicting what they do in a subsequent general election. Every single one of the seven seats the Tories lost in by-elections between 1987 and 1992 returned to the fold at the 1992 general election. Only a fool would claim that, next spring or perhaps this autumn, Staffordshire South East (or rather the Tamworth constituency that will encompass all but 5,500 of its voters) couldn't go the way that Vale of Glamorgan, Mid-Staffordshire, Monmouth and Langbaurgh went four years ago.

But it would be equally foolish to deny the significance of Labour's victory last week. The Staffordshire South East campaign began in circumstances as favourable as they could have been for John Major's administration. The economy was on the up at last, the government had survived the Scott report on arms sales to Iraq, and the backbench Tory rebellion over Europe appeared to be over. In Jimmy James, the Conservatives had the best by-election candidate they had fielded for ages – and the seat seemed pretty safe, with a majority of more than 7,100 over Labour.

In other words, it appeared that the by-election offered Major a good chance to demonstrate that the tide had turned for his party and that Labour's popularity had passed its peak. If Labour failed to win, it would hardly be a disaster on the scale of Bermondsey in 1983 or Greenwich in 1987, but a Tory victory would do untold damage to Labour morale. Even a narrow Labour victory could be portrayed as proof that the party could not win the next election, much as happened with the Langbaurgh by-election in 1992.

That nothing of the sort happened has a little to do with the Tories' bad luck: the mad cow crisis blew up just as the campaign got into gear, and it did immense harm in what is still a farming constituency. It's also a tribute to an effective Labour campaign to get local council leader Brian Jenkins elected. But the scale of his victory – he took 60 per cent of the vote and a 13,762 majority over James – suggests something more profound at work.

Given the state of the economy, the affluence of the constituency, the quality of the candidate and all the rest, the Tories should at least have made a close fight of it. Their failure suggests an unprecedented level of disillusionment with the government among the voters – and it is difficult to imagine how the Conservatives can possibly counter it. Even if they manage to hang on until next spring before calling an election – for which they will need a combination of cooperation from the Ulster unionists and an absence of defections and deaths among their own MPs – and then pull off a 1992-style scare on Labour's tax plans, it's hard to imagine them being returned to office.

For Labour, the message from Staffordshire South East is as optimistic as it is pessimistic for the Tories. The result shows that the party can now win in Middle England even when the economy is going the Conservatives' way. For a change, the opinion polls seem to be an accurate reflection of people's voting intentions. If it keeps up the momentum, Labour could be looking at a Commons majority of 1945 proportions after the next general election. Tony Blair had good reason to look as pleased as he did when he gave his news conference outside the White House after hearing the result.

Of course, Labour cannot afford to be complacent, as Blair never ceases to remind us. But the big question in British politics is increasingly not whether Labour will win but what it will do once it has won. Up to now, Labour has preferred to be vague about its intentions on most things: indeed, it is only on certain constitutional reform issues that its detailed plans have been made public (although the broad outline of Labour policy is clear enough in several other areas) . But with the imminence of the general election, it is going to have to get specific sooner rather than later. If it does so without either alienating its traditional supporters or scaring off the middle-class voters who backed it in Staffordshire South East last week, Tony Blair will have pulled off a political trick that none of his predecessors since Harold Wilson has managed to master.

Friday, 12 April 1996


New Statesman & Society, 12 April 1996

Last week's Labour back-bench revolt on new police powers to combat terrorism worked a treat, writes Paul Anderson

For anyone who thought that new Labour wasn't vulnerable to back-bench revolt, last week must have been a salutary experience.

On the Monday, Home Secretary Michael Howard announced a surprise bill of new police powers as an extension of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. His shadow, Jack Straw, after a briefing by the security service, agreed that Labour would not oppose it. On the Tuesday, the measures were rushed through the Commons. The cursory debate was remarkable only for Straw's miserable performance and for the barracking he got from his own backbenchers. Thirty Labour MPs, rather than abstaining, rebelled against their whips and voted in opposition to the government's guillotine motion to speed passage of the bill (see below), a figure that would have been larger had many MPs not already left Westminster for the Easter break before Howard's announcement.

Plenty more abstained ashamedly or toed the line only after several drinks as the sitting wore on until the small hours of Wednesday. And at the weekend, after a deserved rubbishing not just from civil libertarians but from the columnists in the quality press who are normally most sympathetic to new Labour, Straw sheepishly made it known that a Labour government would abandon the most controversial part of the PTA, the provisions for "exclusion orders" to prevent "suspected terrorists" from travelling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.

It wasn't quite a U-turn. But the backbench revolt, aided by some acerbic press comment (a Martin Kettle column in the Guardian hit home particularly hard), had at least managed to push Straw into making an unambiguously civil libertarian policy promise in public for the first time since he was given his job. This week, libertarian Labour MPs sounded unusually chirpy. "Straw got a nice fright," said one of the many who felt like rebelling last week but didn't have the bottle. "He'll think twice before doing anything quite so stupid again."

It would be wrong to claim that the revolt says too much about Labour MPs' capacity for bloody-minded independence: by the end of the night it had dwindled to 12 on the third reading of Howard's bill, all but three of them the usual suspects from the hard-left Campaign Group. By comparison with the May 1993 rebellion against ratification of the Maastricht treaty, when 68 Labour MPs defied the whips to vote against rather than abstain, it was small beer. Nor do last week's events prove that libertarians hold sway on the Labour back benches: the number of dissidents even on the guillotine motion was smaller than the number of Labour MPs (39) who voted against a homosexual age of consent of 16 two years ago. It is notable, too, that last month, when the PTA proper came up for its annual renewal and Straw backed abstention rather than Labour's traditional opposition, there were only 23 rebels – and that was arguably a much more important policy shift than last week's little kow-tow to the Tories.

The rebellion is nevertheless significant. Considering how close a general election might be, and how tough Labour's parliamentary discipline has been of late as a consequence, it was big and just a little reckless, particularly given the widespread suspicion on the opposition benches that Howard had introduced the bill mainly to sow dissent in Labour's ranks – but it worked all the same. That will undoubtedly give heart to any MP worried about the powerlessness of the humble backbencher under a Labour government.

More important, the back-bench revulsion at the Labour leadership's backing for Howard's illiberal reinforcement of police powers is a welcome signal – at last – that there are limits to at least some Labour MPs' tolerance of the authoritarian populism on law and order that has come to characterise Labour's approach to home affairs in recent years.

Tony Blair's period as shadow home secretary, best remembered for his coining the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", marked the start of the process with Labour's stupid and unprincipled abstention on the Criminal Justice Bill. Since Straw took over in 1994, we've had in rapid succession the slapping down of Clare Short for suggesting that it might be legitimate to discuss legalisation of cannabis, the hysterical anti-drugs sloganeering of the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign, Straw's own ill-advised remarks last year on "squeegee merchants, winos and addicts" and Labour's distinctly half-hearted opposition to the Asylum and Immigration Bill.

What is surprising is that it has taken quite so long for a significant minority to say "enough". But it's better late than never.


The Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Act, which sped through parliament and acquired royal assent last week, is the fourth major revision of the original 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). On each of the previous three occasions – 1976, 1984 and 1989-the powers contained within the act were significantly expanded and strengthened, and the most recent offering is no exception.

The new powers agreed by parliament will need to be renewed on an annual basis in the same way as the previous version of the PTA, which was given its latest 12-month extension just last month.

The PTA contains a wide range of provisions, which can be divided into a number of distinct headings: arrest, search and detention; "exclusion orders"; banning of organisations; port and airport control; and withholding of information from the police about terrorism. Of the five measures in the new act, three provide the police with new search powers.

First, on the authority of a police officer of ACPO rank (the Association of Chief Police Officers represents chief and assistant chief constables), the police may stop and search any pedestrian within a given area over a specified period (maximum 28 days). Similar provisions already exist in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act for vehicles, their passengers and any objects carried by pedestrians: the new measure extends them to pedestrians themselves. It is apparently designed to allow searches for small incendiary devices which may be carried by terrorists in their pockets-but civil libertarians fear that the "stop-and-search" powers mark a return to the old "sus" laws and are likely to be abused.

Second, the police may obtain granted search warrants to cover several non-residential premises. Any such warrant must be executed in full within 24 hours and cannot be used to search a home. According to the Home Office, the intention is that they be used "when police have intelligence warning of a general threat" so that, for example, several streets of buildings may be searched after a bomb warning that does not give the device's precise location.

The third measure is intended to rectify an apparent deficiency in the law: unaccompanied goods entering into the country may now be searched at ports and airports without permission.

The other two measures contained in the additional powers legislation allow the police absolute control over pedestrian and vehicle movements within a certain area. An officer of superintendent rank or above may cordon off a specified area of any size for a "limited period" (again, up to a maximum of 28 days), while an ACPO rank officer may prevent parking and remove vehicles underthe same terms. The police decision must be ratified by the Home Secretary within 48 hours.

The purpose is to give the police instant power to clear an area, although it is less than obvious how they were previously lacking in this respect. A police spokesman said: "There is no intention to designate areas unless there is good intelligence or a reasonable suspicion that a terrorist act is imminent or to prevent one taking place."

The timing of the introduction of the new act was determined largely by political factors, although Home Secretary Michael • Howard has insisted that "the police have asked me for these extra powers now, both to protect the public and to help them prevent further terrorist outrages". Whether the new measures will have any effect at all on the incidence of terrorism is a moot point, however: perhaps the most telling criticism of the PTA is that, in more than 20 years, it has failed utterly to prevent terrorism-and the new act is unlikely to change that. (Patrick Fitzgerald)


The following Labour MPs voted with the Liberal Democrats and various small-party MPs against the government's guillotine motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Additional Powers) Bill last week: Diane Abbott (Hackney North);Tony Banks (Newham NW); Harry Barnes (Derbyshire NE); Tony Benn (Chesterfield); Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish); Richard Burden (Birmingham Northfield); Dennis Canavan (Falkirk W); Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley); Harry Cohen (Leyton); Robin Corbett (Birmingham Erdington); Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North);Terry Davis (Birmingham Hodge Hill); Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow); Norman Godman(Greenock); Bernie Grant (Tottenham); Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak);Terry Lewis (Worsley); Ken Livingstone (Brent E); Eddie Loyden (Liverpool Garston); Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock); Kevin McNamara (Hull N); Max Madden (Bradford W); Alice Mahon (Halifax); Jim Marshall (Leicester S); Bill Michie (Sheffield Heeley); Peter Pike (Burnley); Brian Sedgemore (Hackney S); Dennis Skinner (Bolsover); Rob Wareing (Liverpool W Derby); Audrey Wise (Preston).

The following Labour MPs voted against the third reading of the bill: Harry Barnes; Tony Benn; Andrew Bennett; Bernie Grant; Ken Livingstone; Kevin McNamara; Max Madden; Bill Michie; Brian Sedgemore; Dennis Skinner. Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Canavan were tellers.


New Statesman & Society, leader 12 April 1996

The Labour leader's warm reception in the United States does not mean that the "special relationship" is due for a revival

This week, for the first time since Labour left government in 1979, a Labour leader is making an official visit to the United States in the expectation that it will be a rip-roaring success. Tony Blair has been preceded across the Atlantic by the sort of press coverage that politicians dream about – and the political class in Washington is dying to meet him.

Despite the Tories' crude attempts to smear him for "un-American activities", Blair can be sure that there will be no repeat of Neil Kinnock's humiliation in 1987. Then, the Labour leader, still an enthusiast for unilateral nuclear disarmament, was given a frosty 2o-minute audience by Ronald Reagan, who also famously mistook Denis Healey for the British ambassador. Blair, by contrast, can expect a warm reception from Bill Clinton.

The two men share the conviction that they have rescued political parties that appeared to have gone into terminal decline (although Blair has yet to win power) – and Clinton sees Blair as something of a political protégé who has taken up many of his own themes, particularly on crime, tax and economic policy. The defence and security policy stances that caused Reagan to shun Kinnock nine years ago are now ancient history. These days, Labour is an impeccably Atlanticist party, its antipathy to nuclear weapons and its criticisms of Nato and US foreign policy long forgotten. Clinton even shares Blair's antipathy to John Major: he has not forgiven the Tories for backing George Bush in 1992 and helping the Republicans dig for dirt on his days as a student in Oxford.

All of which makes for a good photo-opportunity for both men – but what does the razzmattazz mean in the long term? It certainly makes it difficult for the Tories to claim in the run-up to the election that Labour is somehow disloyal to the Atlantic alliance (which, as we all know, has preserved the peace for nearly 50 years). And it probably presages warmer relations between Britain and the US if Clinton is re-elected and Blair makes it to Number Ten.

But that's about it. What it doesn 't mean is that a return to the "special relationship" between Britain and America is on the cards, at least as the "special relationship" has normally been construed. Of course, Britain and the US will continue to share the English language, and the cross-fertilisation of cultures that has marked the past 200 years will go on as before (with America inevitably having far more influence here than Britain has there). Britain will be reliant on the US to remain a nuclear weapons power, just as it has been since the early 1960s; and the links between the two countries' intelligence services will still be close. As long as Britain stays a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and retains substantial military capabilities, it will be a key ally of the world's only superpower.

But none of this is particularly "special". The fact is that, with the end of the cold war, Britain's role as America's favoured partner in western Europe no longer makes much sense to US policy-makers. During the cold war, the French were too independent for Washington's liking and the Germans too prone to neutralism. Britain, by contrast, under both Tory and Labour governments, could be relied upon to back the US on every key policy decision. When the Americans said "Jump!", we jumped, in other words, and in return felt mightily pleased to be patted on the head.

Today, however, the value of such unquestioning loyalty is much reduced – and, with Tory Britain a bit-player in the process of European integration and Germany increasingly dominant in Europe both economically and politically, Washington has looked more and more to Bonn as its most important European ally. That is unlikely to change even if Labour wins.

The upshot, as Blair himself has recognised, is that the best way for Britain to develop its relations with the US is as part of Europe. Crucial as the Atlantic alliance is, it is with the countries the other side of the Channel and the North Sea that a Labour government will have to work most closely. However much the photographs of this week's trip remind everyone of the young Harold Wilson's visit to see the young John Kennedy in 1963, the world today is a very different place – like it or not.

Friday, 5 April 1996


New Statesman & Society, 5 April 1996

Tony Blair's plans to put an early draft of Labour's manifesto to a vote of party members has been welcomed by the media – although not by the trade unions. But what does it actually mean? Paul Anderson investigates

Tony Blair's announcement last week that his party's National I Executive Committee had agreed to put an early version of the Labour manifesto to a vote of all individual party members came as a complete surprise to just about everyone – including, apparently, most of the people who were at the NEC meeting just before Blair's press conference.

Trade union members of the NEC say that they thought the Labour leader had agreed to tone down his proposal for a referendum of individual members, replacing it with a plan to invite party members "to pledge support" for Labour's programme. And they were not pleased when Blair announced to the television cameras that the plebiscite would go ahead. "I've never known the NEC to be so furious," said one. "The trade union group is apoplectic."

The apoplexy is unlikely to last too long, however. It's mainly the result of union resentment at yet again being outmanoeuvred, not just by Blair himself but by his spin-doctors, who managed to give the impression that the referendum marked a definitive downgrading of the unions' role in Labour politics. That resentment is real enough, and will eventually rebound on the Labour leader – but on the substantive question of the plebiscite the dust is likely to settle sooner rather than later. Although the vote is undoubtedly intended to give the public the impression that Labour has utterly transformed its policy-making procedures, in fact its direct effects are marginal.

For a start, it will make no difference to the method the party uses to draw up the first draft of the manifesto: a committee under the firm control of the party leadership, but with serious input from the unions, will distil and refine various policy documents that have been produced by the party's National Policy Forum, endorsed by the NEC and (in most cases) passed by the annual conference. The policy forum, the NEC and the conference all give the unions key roles, most notably the conference, in which they still command 50 per cent of votes.

Nor will the referendum on the draft manifesto materially affect the role of the conference: the document – after modifications to take account of "consultations" with members over the summer – will be voted upon in Blackpool this autumn just like any other policy paper from the NEC, before it is put to the membership.

What's more, after the vote of all members, the draft programme will be subject to change by the party leadership to take account of changing circumstances (in particular, on taxation and public spending, on which shadow chancellor Gordon Brown will not pronounce – assuming John Major does not decide to go early to the polls – until after this autumn's budget). In the last instance, it can be given a final tweaking at the "Clause Five" meeting of the shadow cabinet and NEC (so-called because of the section of the party constitution that defines its role) on the eve of the election campaign proper.

On the face of it, in other words, there's no arguing with Robin Cook's claim in an interview with GMTV's Sunday Programme last weekend that "this document will go through the full party procedures". Those procedures are of course somewhat unfamiliar because the National Policy Forum has been going only since the last general election – but last week's announcement changes them only at the edges.

Nevertheless, the plebiscite decision is significant – partly because of what it says about Blair's fear of losing the party's support when in government, and partly because of what it might presage in Labour's internal politics.

Like many of his political generation, the Labour leader is haunted by the revolt of the constituency left in the late 19705 and early 19805, which he believes has kept his party out of government ever since. And the reason for that revolt, he thinks, was that the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan lost touch with the party, allowing the left free rein with its rhetoric of "betrayal". The idea of the referendum is that it will tie the party – in parliament and outside – into support for a minimalist, responsible programme, and that as a consequence the cries of betrayal two or three years into a Labour government will have no purchase.

But will it work? There's no doubt that a vote of all individual members will give the manifesto a legitimacy within the party that it has not enjoyed before – which will make it difficult for anyone to complain because a Blair government hasn't done what it never promised to do in the first place. That, however, wasn't actually the problem that did so much damage to the 1970s Labour governments: rather, it was that – under duress – they really did renege on promises that Labour had made to the electorate in 1974. If a Blair government fails to do what it says it will do – which is not impossible, however minimal the programme – the fact that the promises have been explicitly endorsed by the party membership will be a liability, not a strength. Moreover, there will be plenty that the manifesto will not cover or will fudge. Whether or not it is backed by the membership, it will not be the last word on European monetary union, for example, nor will it guarantee the party's support for a Blair government's handling of, say, a sterling crisis in 2001.

All the same, Blair's initiative might presage a shift in Labour's political culture that would have major implications. Although the use of a referendum to rubber-stamp the manifesto will have little impact in itself on Labour's policy-making process, and is unlikely to do much to stem party criticism of a Labour government, there's no doubt that habitual use of plebiscites would radically change the balance of power inside the Labour Party. If the Labour leadership decided, as a matter of course, to appeal on matters of controversy directly to individual members over the heads of the representatives of the party's various parts in the NEC and at conference, the power of both NEC and conference would be seriously reduced vis a vis the leadership, much as regular use of referenda in a country's politics reduces the power of the legislature over the executive.

That would be a real blow to the unions, and it's not surprising that their NEC members are keen to emphasise that, whatever else, the manifesto poll should not be seen as a precedent. The GMB's decision to ballot all its members on the manifesto, but to deduct the £250,000 it will cost from funds that would otherwise go to the Labour Party, is the sort of support for Blair's initiative that a rope gives a hanged man.

How far the power of the ordinary membership would be enhanced by the regular use of internal party referenda is a moot point. If only the party leadership could choose what went to a vote of all members, plebiscites would empower the grass-roots not a jot – whereas if ordinary members could choose (for example, if a certain percentage of them signed a petition demanding a poll on a particular issue), referenda could make Labour an unprecedentedly democratic party. Something says that it's the first of these models that Blair has in mind.


New Statesman & Society, leader 5 April 1996

John Major and Kenneth Clarke have stolen a march on the Tory anti-Europeans with their deal on a referendum on the single European currency. Now the ball is in Labour's court

You've got to hand it to Kenneth Clarke. Last week, he appeared to be heading for the back benches in protest at John Major's insistence on committing the Tories to a referendum on joining a single European currency. Now, after this Tuesday's deal with Major on the terms for such a referendum, he looks by far the most effective political operator in the cabinet.

Although Clarke has conceded that the Tories should promise to hold a single currency referendum in certain circumstances, he and Major have contrived to ensure that those circumstances will be as favourable as possible to securing the result both want: popular endorsement of monetary union once the government decides that the conditions are right. The Eurosceptics' bluff has been called.

The deal is that the Tories will go into the next election promising a referendum, but only if the government has decided to join a single currency during its next term and parliament has legislated accordingly. Collective cabinet responsibility will be maintained, which means that cabinet opponents of joining will have to resign if they want to campaign for a "no" vote. It's a set-up even more likely to produce a large "yes" majority than the arrangements for Labour's 1975 referendum on continued membership of the EEC.

Of course, as Labour has said, all this has more to do with papering over Tory cracks than with laying down a credible policy on monetary union – but it would be foolish for Labour not to take it seriously. At the very least, it means that the Conservatives will go into the election temporarily united on Europe. More important, it could be an effective vote-winner. For the first time in years, Labour is now on the defensive on Europe.

So what should Labour do? For a start, match the Tories' promise of a referendum on joining a single currency. Labour has been playing with the idea for the best part of 18 months, and both Tony Blair and shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook have made it clear that a Labour government will hold a single currency referendum if the electorate is not faced with a clear choice in a general election among parties holding different views on the issue. It is now time to endorse a referendum without this qualification. Even if there is a growing sense in Labour circles that Britain will not have to decide on whether to join a single currency during the next five or six years – with some senior figures now reckoning that a single currency is not feasible for 20 years or more, if at all – it would be a mistake to allow the Tories to steal a march on the party on such an easy populist issue.

This said, there are real questions about what sort of referendum Labour should advocate. The party's Europhobes – who still haven't quite died out – would like to hold the vote before any negotiations start, but that's hardly a serious option because it would run directly counter to party policy of agreeing to a single currency in principle, but making sure the conditions for it are right.

A thornier question is whether cabinet collective responsibility should be upheld during a referendum campaign that takes place after negotiations have been successfully concluded. There's no problem in theory with allowing cabinet members to do what they want. That, after all, was what happened in 1975. But Tony Blair is all too aware of the damage done by the deep Labour divisions over Europe that the 1975 campaign opened up – and which will almost certainly dictate that Labour adopts an arrangement similar to that embraced by the Tories, with the cabinet bound to arguing for a "yes" vote.

If the conditions for monetary union are right, that will be no problem. But what are the "right" conditions? Labour has made much of the importance of "real economic convergence" on top of the criteria for inflation, government debt and public-sector borrowing laid down in the Maastricht treaty – which is enough to keep all but the Europhobes happy in the run-up to the election. It has not, however, defined what it means by "real economic convergence" – and that means there is plenty of room for fierce internal Labour disagreements once the party comes to power. As with the Tories, a referendum is useful for Labour, but by no means a panacea.

John Major and Kenneth Clarke have stolen a march on the Tory anti-Europeans with their deal on a referendum on a single European currency. Now the ball is in Labour's court