6 JULY 1985, Page 6


How the Tories can question Labour's new decency


His stealthy achievements are real, though one cannot yet say whether they are lasting. There is no one in the Labour Party who attacks Mr Kinnock except that smallish group who could confidently be expected to attack any leader at all. He has succeeded in attracting several, most not- ably Mr Ken Livingstone, who were pre- viously thought to belong to that group. No one to the Right of him has protested. No one to the Left has challenged. All of them believe, or choose to say, with Mr Living- stone, that 'Neil is infinitely persuadable'. Neil has cleverly persuaded them of this.

He has also persuaded you and me — hasn't he? — that he is not someone to be frightened of. He does not say that he is in favour of privatisation or council house sales or Mrs Thatcher's trade union laws, as indeed he is not, but he can make one feel that his government could get along with the results of all these things without turning them upside down. Mr Kinnock says nothing which could bewilder or de- press the voter. He is in favour of all that 'decency' which Orwell tried to appropri- ate for socialism. Mrs Thatcher, you see, is not decent. She is in favour of 'the cuts', things which the electorate of Brecon and Radnor said it was very much against. The firebrand of socialism no longer sets light to our established customs; instead he warms the British hearth.

Mr Kinnock's method of achieving these effects is deletion rather than statement. It is not that the Labour Party is now against a siege economy of import controls and political isolation from Europe and Amer- ica, only that that part of the picture has been skilfully removed in the dark room.

The TUC/Labour Party document, A New Partnership, A New Britain, published soon, removed an earlier reference to a £30 billion programme of public investment, and says instead: 'It is clear that an immediate and substantial programme of public investment would be an effective way to get the economy moving and create jobs initially'. This must be one of the greatest money-saving substitutions in his- tory: the difference between £30 billion and the document's 'immediate substantial programme' being, I guess, more than £20 billion. In The Lady Vanishes everyone tells the heroine that the woman she had been talking to is not on the train. She is all but persuaded, until she sees where Miss Froy wrote her name on the window. The voter is in the same plight; Mr Kinnock reassures him that 'nationalisation', 'in- flation', 'union power' were never there, and he wonders whether it was all a dream.

Harold Wilson must be proud of Mr Kinnock, and even Aneurin Bevan would not necessarily be scornful. The experience of 1983, after all, leaves Mr Kinnock with very little choice and perhaps has con- vinced Livingstones, David Blunketts and the like who in happier times would have been more arrogant and doctrinaire. In Mr Michael Foot, Labour found someone who could never, by any stretch of the imagina- tion, have been prime minister. Mr Kin- nock has to get inside that rather narrow stretch within which the British electorate is prepared to imagine their politicians.

But one has to report that Mr Kinnock's growing success does not upset his Tory opponents. In fact, they emit little mur- murs of satisfaction. It is now 20 years since Labour went to the polls saying something which seemed unanswerable. The Tories believe that they can answer Mr Kinnock.

Their answer is to make Labour answer back. Where will the money come from? is Mrs Thatcher's favourite question, worth tediously repeating because it cannot be satisfactorily answered. Taxes? Borrow- ing? These questions can never lose their force in a nation in which most earners pay income tax. Then there is the union prob- lem. This week, Mr Kinnock has 'slapped down' Mr Scargill, and has daringly told the Electricians' conference that 'co- operation, partnership and negotiation are the basic tools of recovery.' But the Tories will still ask: What guarantee do you have from the unions? Either the unions won't give it or they give a meaningless one. Nowadays, there is a new possibility — they will give it and they will mean it and it will still be meaningless. Union members, the last deferential voters, doff their caps no more. And there is the nuclear question. It is part of Mr Kinnock's current success to have made even this one bland. Yes, as a matter of fact, he is an unilateralist, feels passionately about it, actually, in a purely personal sort of way; but by 1987-8, it will all be irrelevant, you know, Polaris obsolescent, Trident cripplingly expensive, closure of American bases can be gradually arranged `by mutual agreement'. But in an election it will not be difficult for Mrs Thatcher to frame the question more simp- ly: should Britain have a bomb or not? If 1983 is a guide, the electorate is clear on this point.

I am not merely saying that Labour is vulnerable; so, after all, will the Conserva- tives be. There will be cuts and unemploy- ment and stagnation and poverty, then as now; and the party which has presided over them for eight or nine years will get much of the blame. The difference is that Labour's whole policy has to be one of self-concealment, while the Conservatives' can be one of self-expression. Scratch a Conservative and you generally find an ordinary citizen, keen on lower taxes and punishment and property, less keen on union leaders, immigrants, bureaucrats. Only Conservatives who betray these ideals (if that is the right word) get into trouble. Scratch a socialist and you either find a secret conservative, or someone with a set of beliefs about unions, government power, defence, punishment, immigrants which are electorally unattractive.

This is not inevitable. In a sort of amiable duel in the latest issue of Marxism Today Gareth Stedman Jones (Them) and Ferdinand Mount (Us) agree that socialism could quite easily, and socialistically, align itself with the freeing of markets in all the smaller matters of life, with giving workers a say and stake in companies, with hostility to large, central interference in small, local communities. Sporadically, Mr Living- stone and his friends in local government have laid claim to this cause. To the extent that they have, they have been popular. But there is nothing of this in what Mr Kinnock is doing. He knows that he does not lead a party of left-wing democrats, but a thing called the Labour Party, and the Labour Party, paid for by union leaders, organised by ideological activists, has so constituted itself that it is literally the last institution capable of responding to the changes in British society. All that Mr Kinnock can hope is that the voter will not notice this painful fact.