Labour’s campaign for the next election started on 12 June 1987, the day after the Party’s third successive defeat at the polls. footnote 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?’

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 marginalize the Campaign Group’, and Labour mps spoke off the record to journalists about ‘plans to crush the hard left’. This moving target, subtly distinct from but readily blurring into the ‘loony left’, has now shifted south from Liverpool to London. ‘One Northern mp described the London Labour Party as a “cess pit”,’ reported The Independent. Ken Livingstone cannot do a thing right in the eyes of such Honourable Members. Soon after he had embarrassed the Prime Minister and enraged the Tories—the job of an opposition party, surely—with his accusations about the mi5 in Northern Ireland, one complained: ‘Here we are, not three weeks from losing the election, and the bugger stirs things up over Ireland . . . Ugh . . . It’s outrageous.’ The story is the same wherever a particular section of the centre or right has the whip hand and feels itself under threat. In Birmingham, for instance, already before the election, the Leader of the Council disbanded the Women’s Committee, withdrew the whip from a black councillor, Phil Murphy, who was involved in the movement for black sections, and removed senior councillors such as Teresa Stewart, the long-standing campaigner on social service issues, from their committee posts.

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 in the nationalized industries, for a shorter working week, for safe energy employing the country’s natural resources, and so on. Rather than build the ‘Jobs and Industry’ campaign around the issues raised by the strike, challenging the Tories’ then slippery hold on the high ground of the economy, the Labour leadership postponed its launch until this immense social struggle was over.

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.