1 MAY 1992, Page 19

AND ANOTHER THING

It's dogged as does it

PAUL JOHNSON

No politician worth his salt should be discouraged by electoral failure. Consider the case of Menachem Begin, who died last month. For most of his life in Israeli poli- tics, he was the natural underdog, leading his party to seven successive electoral defeats. He survived and, being one of the most obstinate men I have ever come across, never changed his views on any- thing. He eventually triumphed in 1977 and his party has been the dominant force in his country's political life ever since. Or take the case of Earl Grey. Perhaps the greatest of the 'pure' Whigs, he went into parlia- ment when he was 22 but it was two decades before he got his first, brief taste of office, 1806-7. Thereafter, he was in oppo- sition for another 23 years, seeing the party he (more or less) led regularly trounced in general elections. But he too stuck to his guns and, at long last in 1830, became Prime Minister and put through the Great Reform Bill.

All the same, the history of a party which goes down to successive electoral defeats is pretty gruesome, as Labour is now discov- ering. The Liberals have been through it all before and the story of their party between the wars is a melancholy tale. They had their greatest triumph in 1906 and did well to hold most of their ground in the two bit- terly fought campaigns of 1910. But in December 1916, they split into Lloyd George Liberals and official ones, and the Welsh Wizard put them to the sword in 1918: with two exceptions all their front benchers, including Asquith himself, lost their seats and they were reduced to 16 MPs.

The Liberals never really recovered from this disaster. In endless anguished confer- ences they discussed all possible alterna- tives, including Lib-Lab pacts and unoffi- cial local pacts with the Tories. In 1922 they got a fifth of the popular vote but only a tenth of the seats. In 1923, when their old Ark of the Covenant, free trade, once more became an issue, they raised their popular vote to 30 per cent and this brought them a harvest of 158 seats. But they were still the smallest of the three parties, liable to be squeezed by both the bigger ones and unable to make headway in regaining their traditional heartland seats which Labour had taken from them. So when they helped to put out the Labour minority government in 1924, and the election which followed produced a Left-Right polarisation, they

were badly beaten, being reduced to just over 40 seats. Over the next five years they made a tremendous effort to modernise their policies. Their famous 'Yellow Book', Britain's Industrial Future, is the finest elec- toral document ever produced in Britain and still worth a glance today. The Liberals entered the 1929 election more thoroughly equipped with up-to-date policies, and more carefully schooled to present them, than any party in our history. But it was all to no avail. They got 23 per cent of the votes but only 59 seats, and thereafter no one, including themselves, could seriously regard them as a party likely to win an elec- tion outright and form a government.

The history of the Liberals in the second half of the 1920s suggests that if Labour sees its salvation in new policies it is very likely mistaken. It is fashionable on all sides to say that elections are about policies not personalities, but the voters know better. Most of the major events which shake the nation over a five-year period are unfore- seen at election time and unprovided for in the party programmes. Britain is a democ- racy, or supposed to be, and it is the duty of politicians to try to ascertain what the peo- ple want, and give it to them, in so far as it is practicable. The Tories have been much better at this than Labour, which tends to put forward what its activists think is good for 'our people'. But of course what the voters want is to put a sensible man or woman in charge of their destinies for the next few years, who will pick efficient col- leagues and run the Cabinet in such a way that it responds realistically to the unknown 'So if you don't do your Big Bang homework, you'll probably go to hell.' challenges which await the nation.

So personalities do in fact matter more than policies (though the two are connect- ed) and by allowing their view of the party leaders to influence their votes, electors act reasonably. The main explanation for the Tory victory last month was that floating voters felt safer with John Major than with Neil Kinnock. We shall never know whether, granted all the favourable circum- stances of April 1992, a Labour Party led by John Smith could have pulled off a narrow victory, but it is certainly arguable. Had that happened we would not now be talking about Labour as a terminal case with a death-wish. What Labour needs, above all, is a leader with a safe pair of hands. It is not clear whether John Smith possesses them — he did not, after all, emerge from the election with much credit — but if he does, Labour could well have a future.

Much depends on the kind of people a leader habitually meets and listens to. One factor in the death of Liberal England was the entourages of both Asquith and Lloyd George, each for quite different reasons unacceptable to their potential followers. Rightly or wrongly, Kinnock was associated with the chattering classes, whose views are not only unacceptable but positively repel- lent to working people who might be expected to vote Labour. I hope that John Smith will make a sustained effort to move around British industry — it is not enough to lunch in the City — and meet its man- agers and workers who, with the decline of the unions, are discovering they have much in common. Labour under Smith could play a historic role in destroying the two-sides- of-industry image, which does us all so much harm. And it would help in this respect if Smith listened hard to the self- employed, who are increasingly important, and those running small businesses. I put this forward not as a panacea — there is

none — but as a useful suggestion. Labour is lucky in that it has no real competitor in

opposition, and will therefore benefit from all the accidents which, thanks to time and chance, and sheer bad luck, wear down governments. What it most needs to do is to keep its head, avoid quarrels and splits and offensive language, and wait for better

days. It should follow the advice given, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, to that unfor- tunate man, the Revd Josiah Crawley, by the old carter who gives him a lift: 'It's dogged as does it.'