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Labour - the natural party of opposition?

Paul Thompson


First published in Renewal volume 1, number 1 (1993), pp. 1-10


Renewal will be a focal point for debate about the changes that Labour needs to make.


Through the long night of Tory rule, Labour has believed, deep down, that with the economic and political cycle of a two-party system, its time would come. Losing the 1992 general election, in what appeared to be the most favourable configuration of circumstances, should have finally broken that illusion. In fact Britain has been the major exception among post-war European and Anglo American democracies, 'in experiencing life without a dominant party' (Punnett in Bogdanor, 1992: 295).

The brutal facts of continuing Conservative hegemony now point to Labour as the 'natural party of opposition'. Indeed there is some evidence that the Party is becoming habituated to it. The complacency and lack of urgency about making change at the 1992 conference was as depressing as it was astonishing. One of the reasons for being comfortable with opposition is that Labour still 'runs things', notably local government and trade unions. Compare that to the Tories. In opposition they are nothing, or nothing more than a party. No wonder that they are more hungry for power.

Paradoxically conference complacency was fed by a rather different source. No-one could have predicted that within a few months both Government and country would be in such a mess. Though observation of the enemy in full flight is extremely gratifying, there is a danger that Labour becomes mesmerised by Tory self-destruction. We have been down the road of double figure poll leads before, notably after 1983 and 1987. Equally, the capacity of the Conservatives to act ruthlessly to change personnel and policy is a well-trodden path. The fact that complacency is fuelled by contradictory forces is irrelevant given that the outcome is the same.

If too many associated with Labour are not able to read the writing on the wall, plenty of others are only too willing. Since the election result, the undertakers have been out in force, not least on the left. Labour is, according to Martin Jacques in his Guardian column, 'the party that nobody wants’, while for sociologist Gavin Mackenzie, Labour, 'is an empty vessel and should be scrapped’ (Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 July, 1992). The reasoning of these and other commentators has been similar. Labour's collectivist social and class supports have disappeared in an ever-more individualistic culture and diamond-shaped class structure. Such arguments are also stale and unconvincing. Stale because we have heard them before, notably after defeats in the 1950s and in 1970.

Unconvincing because this is a species of social determinism in which there is some kind of 'natural' relationship between culture, class and party. While there are obvious material constraints set by any changing social structure, parties actively construct their relationships with the electorate through programmes, ideologies and images. The Conservatives have been far more effective than Labour in recent times, but in France, Spain and other European countries, parties of the left have successfully re-fashioned relations with the electorate and become associated with modernization projects. Whether these produce lasting success is another matter, but it does indicate that we need not be fatalistic about social trends.

If the supposed culture of British society is held to be an obstacle, then for many commentators, so is the culture of the party itself. Again to quote Martin Jacques, Labour is, 'a party unable to think', and the 'preserve of the second rate’. While the gratuitous insult is typical Jacques-speak, the view that Labour is incapable of thinking itself out of remorseless decline is more widespread.

Of course, Labour, theory and ideology have historically proven uneasy bedfellows and the British left shares the global sense of confusion and exhaustion about the socialist project. But again, we reject fatalistic views. There is both the talent and the willingness to debate and produce new ideas in the party and its supporters, which includes most of the British intelligentsia. This is the point at which it would be easy to say that what is needed is the means to think, hence the launch of this journal. There is a partial truth here. Labour movement outlets for discussion and analysis have declined, while more academic journals frequently fail to connect. We want Renewal to be a focal point of in-depth, strategic debate for Labour and centre-left.


The search for the centre

But life is not that simple. Ideas, new or otherwise, will not be written on a blank sheet. The problem for Labour has not been so much the absence of thinking, but its character. This can be seen most clearly in the failure of its policy review. This took place in an ideological vacuum and even those who hail the success of Labour’s 'Bad Godesberg' do so in terms of the abandonment of its socialist past (Tindale, 1992: 282). A more critical and increasingly widely-held view is that after a promising start, the review simply removed the negatives; those policies and images associated with past unpopularity. This coincided with and was reinforced by the attempt to occupy the middle ground in response to the perceived extremism of late Thatcherism.

Two problems can be identified with this political orientation. First, the search for the safe centre led to a passive, defensive posture that failed to articulate any coherent vision of the future or even sense of direction. Many key policies such as the minimum wage, manufacturing investment or constitutional change were not placed within any framework of what kind of society Labour wanted to create and therefore lacked any sharp political edge. Second, the replacement of Thatcher by a Major leadership with a centre-leaning style and some policy shifts, particularly the Citizen's Charter, led to considerable disarray. On both grounds the appeal of 'time for a change' was undermined.

What Labour was left with as the centrepiece of election strategy was old-fashioned welfarism in terms of benefit increases and redistribution through the tax system. This essentially Croslandite agenda, as is again widely-recognised, gave the wrong signals about Labour's ability to share the aspirations of a large section of the electorate. Those people do not trust Labour and perceive the Party as locked into the past and concerned with looking after only the poor and unsuccessful.


Post-election performance

As we have indicated, there is a surprising degree of consensus about the limits to the policies and ideas on which Labour fought the last election. But, of course, it is always easier to agree on what went wrong than to chart a future path. Brown, Blair, Blunkett and others have begun to explore some philosophical and policy issues, using notions of community and opposition to vested interests as central themes. We hope to examine these questions in our next editorial. But whether the ideas are good or bad, they are clearly at the early stages of development. To look at whether there are any signs of renewal we must focus on the central events of Labour's post-election performance.

With parliament in recess, the focal point was inevitably the leadership contest. This was a largely dispiriting affair. It began with an attempted fix in which prominent union leaders undid in a few hours the good work of previous years in changing public perceptions. It ended in an unequal contest and the overwhelming victory of the 'official' candidates. In between, despite the efforts of the Gould campaign, little light was shed on challenges and solutions.

Excuses can be found for the limitations of this exercise. This was a campaign that no-one really wanted, with a shell-shocked membership predisposed by recent experience to embrace comfortable certainties and proven competence. The latter is not to be sniffed at, but John Smith's effective performance at the dispatch box is not a substitute for a credible opposition and distinctive voice on international and domestic issues.

It is arguable that the disintegration of Yugoslavia created limited opportunities for Labour to begin to set out its own version of the 'New World Order'. But no such extenuating circumstances can be found in relation to the remarkable collapse of Tory economic policy. In one sense Labour's problematic response can be put down to what in retrospect turned out to be a mistaken tactic. That is the leadership's decision not to advocate devaluation, with the dual aim of preventing Tory claims of Labour softness on the currency and enabling criticism of any Government u-turn.

Unfortunately the consequence was an inability to advocate any alternative to Major and Lamont's suicidal defence of the exchange rate, other than the desirable but distant prospects of co-ordinated international reflation and domestic investment. Any capacity to offer effective criticism after the event quickly proved illusory. At times it seemed that all that Labour could demand from the less-than-dynamic duo was that they apologise for their mistakes. Meanwhile the Cabinet were busy abandoning that orthodoxy and constructing a more critical approach to Europe and economic policy.

But Labour's problems go deeper than tactics. The line on ERM and devaluation shows continuity with the past approach of seeking respectability and approval from the financial markets. More than that, it reflects the strategy of appearing as a government-in-waiting. Whatever logic there was in this attitude before the election (and we believe it was overrated), it makes little sense at the beginning of a five-year electoral cycle. Hugo Young was undoubtedly exaggerating when he said that, ‘The concept of opposition, certainly of effective opposition, has all but disappeared from British life’ (Guardian, 8 September, 1992). But this excess of caution and loss of populist instinct, while most apparent in economic policy, is limiting Labour's capacity to act as a focal point of resistance across a range of policy areas.

A prime example is the crisis on pit closures. It is true that the decision ended up causing a massive crisis for the Government. But the public revulsion and wave of protest caught Labour almost as equally unprepared. The scale and nature of the closure programme was widely known for weeks if not longer. While detesting the measure, Labour’s front bench reluctantly thought that it was likely to be ‘business as usual’. Notwithstanding Robin Cook's magnificent demolition job on Heseltine in the subsequent Common's debate, the fact that the Party launched a national petition on the same day as the Liberals is testimony to our failure to initiate and lead public protest.

To stop being the ‘natural party of opposition’, Labour is going to have to start behaving like one. Fortunately there are some signs that this message is getting home, as evidenced by the decision to oppose Major’s November motion on Maastricht. The tactical choices on Europe are difficult. It would be disastrous to join Dennis Skinner and Norman Tebbit in their isolationist, little England bunker. But the fact remains that this issue offers the best opportunity for Labour to ‘go for the jugular'. In the exclusion of the Social Chapter, Labour has a perfectly adequate rationale for continued opposition. We can even promise to bring back a new version at a later stage.

However, this is not just a question of tactics. As Paul Hirst makes clear in this issue, both the existing Maastricht process and content are deeply flawed. The real problems of integration and development were deliberately fudged and clouded in rhetoric by leaders who subordinated the problems to their own largely domestic political agendas. The upshot of the mutual desire to do a deal was twofold. First, it created a process which excluded Europe's citizens and therefore lacked any political legitimacy. Second, it produced a timetable for measures and institutions entirely at odds with the real economic and political circumstances on the ground. So, an independent central bank and common currency presuppose a level of convergence and growth that simply don't exist. In the absence of the latter, the imposition of the former could only result in deflation and further economic depression.

Only a re-negotiated and slower process with looser and less painful criteria can promote the legitimacy for a successful European project. It would also enable the national governments to address the other crucial problem of the democratic deficit in Community institutions and processes. Labour cannot let itself be blackmailed by the view that it would be responsible for sinking Maastricht or carrying the burden of progress for the rest of Europe and our social democratic partners. Ultimately it is a question of whether the Party wants its position to be determined by a desire to be seen as 'reliable Europeans', or the need to rescue the British people from an incompetent and morally bankrupt Government. Finally, only by creating the basis for a real public debate on Europe through taking an independent and critical stance of the Government, can Labour legitimately avoid the currently justifiable demands for a referendum.


From opposition to alternatives

Of course alternatives to government and alternative government are not mutually exclusive. The process of renewal requires that Labour presents a positive agenda for change. But the emphasis should be less on the detail of what Labour would do in office, than on what kind of Britain Labour wants to help build. The difference is crucial, for the former leads to more policy reviews and working parties, while the latter prioritises the development of strategic vision and a sharper ideological cutting edge. In other words, ideology should be the driving force of strategy, which in turn should determine policy and tactics.

It is important that Labour's efforts concentrate on a relatively limited number of areas, given that in four or five years it is only possible to get across a few core ideas. Additionally, as Patricia Hewitt remarked at the Tribune-LCC post-election conference, we cannot waste that time playing a game of catch-up with the 1992 views of the British electorate. By 1997 Britain will be a different place. That doesn't mean passive acceptance of those changes, but it does require a realistic recognition of political context and possibilities. Some would argue that this cannot be considered solely in a UK context. It is certainly true, as commentators (Ashford, 1992) continue to remind us, that Labour's crisis of ideas is part of the wider decline of traditional social democracy and the journal will aim to carry full coverage of such international issues. But that broader crisis is in itself a problem in that no international model or 'best practice’ is going to rescue Labour. In the short term we are on our own, so what then are the core areas and potential agendas for Labour?


Economic and industrial policy

The 1992 general election was fought overwhelmingly on an economic agenda and there is no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. Labour's policies focused largely on the micro-economy and the emphasis on investment and training was undoubtedly right. They contained an implicit model of competitive advantage for the UK economy, but in future it needs to be made explicit, extended, linked to other aspects of policy and most of all, counterposed to the Tory strategy. If we examine then policies of de-regulation of labour markets, under-funded training, anti-union legislation and opposition to the Social Chapter, we find a view of competitive advantage based primarily on a low-skill, low-wage, low value added workforce. This was confirmed more recently by Gillian Shepherd's signal to speed up the abolition of Wages Councils.

At the same time the overriding goal of control of inflation and monetary policy has meant an acceptance of a shrinking manufacturing base and the primacy of finance over industrial capital. There is thus a tie-in between a model of lean production driven by intensified labour and a lean economy that celebrates services and foreign direct investment, particularly by the Japanese. But given global production, increased emphasis on manufacturing-led growth and a raft of industrialising nations that can always undercut our costs, this is not the most effective way to compete (Thompson and Craven, 1992). Nor is it a strategy that a party of the labour movement could accept.

Labour must spell out the nature and consequences of Conservative strategy. It must situate its training, health and safety, industrial democracy, equal opportunity and other measures inside the alternative framework of competitive advantage through a core of high-skill, high-wage, high value-added industries. This will require greater ideological clarity and courage. For example, such a way forward is impossible without re-building legitimacy for the role of the state; if not in ownership, then at least in labour markets and broader economic management. In typically cautious manner, John Smith began this task at conference by talking of 'active government'. But this process of reclaiming a public power can be accelerated in the wake of Clinton's victory, which was based largely on a differentiation from Bush's minimalist state.

In this task Labour can also utilise the rich range of positive experiences of state intervention in Europe (G. Thompson, 1992) and East Asia (Henderson, 1992). The conjunctural conditions for such a shift are certainly the best for a considerable time. Employers' federations in construction and engineering have mounted a powerful critique of the role of the DTI and there is widespread support for a more interventionist energy policy in the wake of the mining crisis.

Labour also needs to change its attitudes to the City. The prawn cocktail offensive resulted in little more than a muting of traditional hostility. Moreover that hostility is rational. City practices and interests in maintaining a 'rentier state' are a major obstacle to transforming the real economy. Of course none of this can be done in isolation. There are no longer any purely national economic strategies, alternative or otherwise. As Gordon Brown has recently emphasised, the new and more interdependent global economy creates problems that unfettered markets and deregulation cannot address. New mechanisms and institutions for co-ordination and co-operation in financial, environmental and employment policies are urgently needed in the EC and beyond.

If a revitalised industrial strategy can become the centre-piece of economic policy, we may be able to avoid taxation and issues of distribution becoming the only thing people associate with Labour. Wealth creation – a politics of production – must come before a politics of distribution. The latter is anyway not a priority at this stage of a five-year parliament. A vital lesson of the last cycle is not to burden policy with detailed and static spending commitments. Assessment of the balance and nature of tax and benefits must be carried out in close proximity to the election. The proposed Social Justice Commission provides a useful way of examining principles and options, while delaying the detail.


Public services

At the heart of a social agenda lies the question of public services. Whereas Tory policy on the economy is characterised by too little intervention; in education, welfare, local government and other spheres it frequently intervenes where and when it shouldn't. For all the talk of citizen's charters, Government policy is still driven by a dual and destructive combination of attempts to govern services by market forces and, particularly in education, to effect a return to 'traditional values'. Both feed off and reinforce a hostility to the very idea of public service, as we are currently being reminded with the salami-like privatisation of civilservice functions. In addition, the current economic circumstance cannot but produce a round of deep and damaging public spending cuts. Once again Labour cannot advance on the policy terrain without a stronger and far more explicit ideological offensive in defence of a public interest.

That is not the same as saying that Labour should defend public services that no longer exist or that remain inefficient and inaccessible. After 1987 the policy review learned from both the positive and negative features of Labour's local government experience and moved away from a producer-orientated approach. But limitations remained, notably the appearance of a lack of concern for the management process. Too often our way of dealing with issues of quality and accountability was 'invent a quango'. The Party needs to make clear that it favours a mix of types of provision that facilitate choice within the public sector. Whatever the destructive intent of existing Tory measures, by 1997 we will not be able to proceed on the basis of a policy led by simple reversals of opt-outs in education or health, or return to the status quo in local government. This will involve devising new forms of public accountability and modified versions of competition with built-in social safeguards, quality assurance, employee involvement and consumer access.


The democratic agenda

By common consent the handling of constitutional reform during the general election was abysmal. This has tended to confirm the prejudices of those who see such issues as irrelevant to the mainstream concerns of voters and damaging to Labour's need to win under the existing system of 'first past the post’. These views may be short-sighted; after all for Labour to raise the only issue they didn't have a policy on in the last week of a campaign wasn't exactly smart thinking. But thev are reinforced by the equally mistaken tendency of some proponents of reform to promote the democratic agenda as if it is the only important politics.

The real case for raising the profile of constitutional change is that such measures are inseparable from economic and social policy. As Will Hutton memorably put it,

Britain is a 17th century state running a system of largely 19th century capitalism – and 30,000 miners and many tens of thousands more who depended on the coal industry indirectly for work can bear witness to the results. (Guardian, 22 October, 1992)

Parliamentary sovereignty is the empty shell within which the Tory centralisers have squeezed out many of the last vestiges of countervailing powers within the British state. Labour has made great progress in recent years, against the dogged resistance of its own centralisers, to assemble most of the pieces of the democratic ‘jigsaw’. Proportional representation remains the missing piece. Aside from any pragmatic case, it is unconvincing and inconsistent to advocate other constitutional reforms whilst leaving the grotesquely unfair voting system intact. Furthermore, without speeding up the Plant Report and endorsing the likely recommendations for change, it will be impossible for Labour to marshal new and much-needed broader forces in a Constitutional Convention. But shared agendas need not prevent a distinctive voice for Labour. Among the limitations of existing democratic agendas is an over-emphasis on constitutionalism. Labour can extend the reach of the democratic agenda by integrating a politics of economic and social citizenship.


Conclusion: towards a new dialogue

Clearly these agendas are not exhaustive of the strategy and policy spheres that need discussion. International and environmental questions are just some of those we want to take up in future issues of the journal. Additionally, political renewal requires an organisational equivalent and we will need to focus on what kind of party Labour is or needs to be. But the agendas discussed above are, we believe, central to current UK politics. In this conclusion we want to move to the ‘how' of debate.

Crucial aspects of challenging Tory dominance and changing British society are not the property of one party. Unfortunately the whole issue of dialogue and co-operation has become overlaid by that of electoral pacts. The fact is that outside of a few commentators and political mavericks, this is dead in the water. What is more, the issue is getting in the way of developing a dialogue on the things that do matter. For example, the key to changing the culture of party isolationism is what happens after an election, not before, particularly in a situation of proportional representation.

Nor is it a question solely of party politics. The combination of Conservative hegemony and ineffectual opposition has led to a progressive de-politicisation and passivity in public life, with the notable exception of the poll tax and some of the alliances built in Scotland. Public reaction to the pit closures is hopefully re-kindling those fires. But there are a number of other issues, including the education 'reforms', on which there is an urgent need for popular, broad-based campaigns, This will require a recognition, particularly from Labour, that such forms of political activity are both possible and desirable. Even if Labour can break the habit of regarding anything outside its own ranks or parliament with suspicion, the decline of local Party activity means that it is often ill-prepared to work in new ways.

We want these ways of thinking about politics and dialogue to be reflected in the nature of Renewal. The journal will be critical in its outlook and pluralist in its content. With respect to the former, the democratic left kept its head down for far too long during the last parliament. While we will be supportive of the new leadership of the Party, Renewal must raise and deal with issues without worrying too much about 'treading on toes'. As for the latter, the journal must promote dialogue within and between different political forces. Though we do want to help provide answers, as well as pose new questions.

Why then a journal of Labour politics? Obviously, this is partly a question of our own commitments and hopes as individuals. But there is also a need in any project for a central focus which can give it coherence and meaning. Furthermore we do not share the view that the main thrust of contemporary politics is outside parties. Renewal must become a significant means for making the changes that are needed in Labour. No-one can know whether Labour and its political fortunes can be transformed. What we do know is that if that is impossible, many of the other hopes and projects on the centre-left of British politics will also fail. That is ultimately why Labour politics is at the centre of our focus.



Ashford, D. (1992) 'Democratic Dilemmas: What Future for the Left?', Political Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, October-December.

Bogdanor, V. (1992) 'The 1992 General Election and the British Party System', Government and Opposition, Summer.

Henderson, J. (1992) 'The Role of the State in the Economic Transformation of East Asia', Manchester Business School Working Paper, No. 223.

Thompson, G. (1992) 'The Evolution of the Managed Economy in Europe', Economy and Society, Vol. 21, No. 2.

Thompson, P. and Craven, M. (1992) 'Beyond Defeat: Labour's Road to Renewal', Labour Co-ordinating Committee Pamphlet.

Tindale, S. (1992) 'Learning to Love the Market: Labour and the European Community', Political Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, July-September.

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