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New Left Review I/164, July-August 1987


Hilary Wainwright

The Limits of Labourism: 1987 and Beyond

Labour’s campaign for the next election started on 12 June 1987, the day after the Party’s third successive defeat at the polls. [*] This article is an edited and expanded version of the concluding chapter of H.Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, to be published by Hogarth Press on 28 September 1987, price £5.95. I am grateful to Anthony Barnett for his editorial work on the book and to him, Doreen Massey, Reg Race and Audrey Wise for their comments on the chapter on which this article is based. Neil Kinnock said as much, and although many politicians make declarations of this sort Kinnock was for once not indulging in rhetoric. He made a similar remark when he first became leader, and on both occasions he meant something quite specific—that all the Party’s activity had to be geared to winning the election. At first sight, this would seem to involve further modernizing the Party image, ridding it of extremist and old-fashioned associations, streamlining its central organization, and building its membership. A dynamic party fit to govern, under a youthful leader of the people. But the effect of Kinnock’s strategy, the labourist tradition within which he thinks and the alliances he makes, has been to encourage a regime of centralized conservatism geared more to avoiding risks than to grasping opportunities, to controlling initiative rather than releasing it. I witnessed a minor yet telling symptom of this new direction at a ‘Family Funday’ on the Sunday before polling. Children covered with ‘Vote Labour’ stickers were milling around the entrance to the Islington Business Design Centre; the usual band of paper-sellers were offering their wares. Stewards with bleepers were cheerily checking the tickets of those wishing to enter. Inside, the fun was well organized, nothing left to chance. Cartoon characters on stilts, huge nets full of balloons strung up on the ceiling, streamers bearing notes that told you to throw them ‘when the balloons come down’, stewards encouraging you to sit down ‘to show the cameras that it’s full’. The afternoon ahead promised entertainment and inspiration: Lenni Henri, Glenda Jackson, the Gospel Inspirational Choir, and then Neil Kinnock himself. Kinnock’s earlier speeches in the campaign had delivered a more powerful attack on Thatcherism than any others he had made since becoming leader. The three-party competition had led to a certain radicalization, distinguishing Labour from the sdp, and Party activists had responded by sinking their differences for the sake of the electoral cause. ‘We’ve given up nearly everything,’ said a member from Haringay, as the event became more and more like a Democratic Party convention. ‘It must succeed, mustn’t it?’

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