Labour’s campaign for the next election started on 12 June 1987, the day after the Party’s third successive defeat at the polls.
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
A friend from the Hornsey Labour Party came up and told me of something else that participants in the ‘Funday’ were expected to give up. Like everyone she had been searched at the door—an operation that I had assumed to be a routine security matter. But as her belongings were being inspected, one steward had turned to another and asked: ‘Is The Listener all right?’ Not quite believing her ears, my friend asked what would have happened if she had brought in a copy of Socialist Worker. ‘You’d have been interviewed by a higher authority’, came the reply, without a smile. Not being able to believe my ears, I went outside with a colleague, bought a single copy of Socialist Worker and returned with it under my arm. When I came to be searched, an earnest young man, clearly carrying out instructions, asked me: ‘Please would you leave the paper on one side and pick it up afterwards.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, I replied. ‘Why should I do that?’ ‘Please,’ he pleaded, ‘it will embarrass Neil Kinnock.’
Two women stewards, members of sogat and veterans of the Wapping picket line, later provided the full explanation. As stewards, they had been briefed at a special meeting that Labour Weekly was the only political paper that anyone was allowed to bring into the building. A case of over-assiduous stewarding, perhaps.
It seems, however, that a similar drive to exclude underlies the attitude of many Labour leaders to a wide spectrum of independent voices on the left of the Party. Before the election, we had seen evidence of this in the hue-and-cry over black sections. After the 11th of June, in the run-up to the Shadow Cabinet elections, the talk was of ‘how to
Kinnock himself gave such moves a wider legitimacy with his dramatic defeat of Militant at the Bournemouth Conference in 1985. Rather as the ‘victory’ of the Falklands task force became the symbol of Thatcher’s leadership, Kinnock’s war on Militant was escalated to demonstrate the leader’s prowess. And in the same way that Tory propaganda played on the symbolism of the Falklands in 1983, Labour’s media experts exploited the emotional value of Bournemouth in the ’87 campaign. Subsequent defeats of the dissident left, regardless of their distance from the politics of Militant, have gained a certain heroic aura, as if somehow they will help the party to win. However, the June election results indicate that the left candidates—including supporters of Militant—are not vote-losers. In several cases their swing was higher than that of right-wing or centre candidates in similar constituencies. footnote1
Exclusion is one aspect of conservative centralism; another is the avoidance of risk, uncertainty and unpredictability. Indeed, the policy-making process appears to have been governed by a kind of productionline mentality (despite the numerous breakdowns), rather than by a laboratory approach of testing new ideas, building on successful experiments, generalizing from practical experiences. Peter Mandelson, the man recruited to streamline Labour’s publicity and communications, talks approvingly of Kinnock as a ‘walking quality controller’. The miners’ strike—which, in spite and sometimes because of internal problems, generated a flood of new ideas—is known in Kinnock’s office as ‘the lost year’, in much the same way that managers talk of ‘lost days in production’. It was a mentality that was blind to the real challenges of that year, to the opportunities of explaining the case for democracy
Local government has been another risky, unpredictable area full of ideas on which the party could have built at a national level. A number of genuine experiments, with all the problems involved in going on to new ground in unpropitious circumstances, contained at least the elements of a radical and socialist alternative to Thatcherism—elements which emerged in parallel, sometimes prior, to Thatcherism as an opposite reaction to the collapse of the Keynesian consensus. Potentially, many of them answered Thatcher’s siren calls to the employed working class with the principles of economic democracy, community control and flexible state provision. While the project of Thatcherism has been to reconstruct a state that releases market forces and excludes the working class from political power, the left in local government has been seeking to support a process through which working people gain in political power and counter some of the unaccountable forces of the market.