It takes more than a riot to put the class war back into Labour
In August 1981, six weeks after the outbreak of arson and looting in Toxteth, Mr Michael Heseltine circulated a famous cabinet paper among his colleagues. To call a cabinet paper 'famous' is not to expose it to very stiff competition; after all, how many cabinet papers can the average voter think of off hand? But this one became famous not so much for its con- tents, which few can now remember, but because of its title: 'It Took a Riot'.
What took a riot? The producing of a cabinet paper? The proposals it contained, few of which have been implemented? Little is clear here, beyond the central fact that riots matter in the political world more than they matter in, so to speak, real life. In the theatre of politics, riots are the noises and alarums off, which add to the tension on stage. Much of the violence in the West End of London last Saturday may have been 'mindless', as the ritual phrase has it. But if any of the brick-throwers and Jaguar-igniters were aiming simply to heighten the atmosphere of political alarm over the poll tax, then their actions were rationally calculated to achieve their ends. A riot, however spuriously attached to a political protest, contributes an aura of anger and desperation in the same way that mud-slinging contributes mud to a wall: some of it will always stick.
The immediate rewards of the riot are obvious: a spate of articles in the national newspapers (and, yes, the weekly maga- zines too) discussing protest movements, the principles of passive non-payment and active resistance, and above all the poll tax itself. All this helps create an atmosphere of pressure and crisis. In the long term, it may actually benefit the Tory Party's chances at the next election, if it streng- thens Mr Chris Patten's hand in his battle (against the Treasury) to soften the blow of the poll tax for 1991. In the medium term, it will no doubt benefit the Labour Party, by reinforcing subliminally the feeling that the whole population has now turned in revulsion against Mrs Thatcher and all her ways — that shift of allegiance which the media like to call a 'sea change' (in other words, a change).
But it was the short term that dominated the bad-tempered question-and-answer session which followed the Home Secret- ary's statement to the Commons on Mon- day. The real contest here was not, as you might expect, between Tory MPs trying to blame the riot indirectly on Labour, and Labour MPs trying to blame it indirectly on the Tories. Instead, it was between Tories (notably Mr Waddington himself) trying to blame it indirectly on Labour, and Labour spokesmen trying to outbid the Govern- ment in their condemnation of violence. This produced an unsatisfactorily lop-sided squabble, with the Labour speeches being generally more dignified, and less depen- dent on special pleading, than the Govern- ment might reasonably have expected.
Mr Waddington's style of abuse is re- freshing, if only because it is unusual for a senior government minister to punch so consistently at the solar plexus. He has neither the genial malice of Mr Tebbit, nor the Olympian disdain of Mr Lawson; when he tells Mr Kinnock to 'grow up', or employs his favourite epithet for Labour MPs ('stupid'), he does so because these are the terms in which he thinks, and he cannot see why he should rephrase them.
The Home Secretary may have a re- freshing style, but in most other respects this was a stale discussion. The attempt to revive the whole issue of Militant's influ- ence on the Labour Party, however well founded it may be, is just a little too predictable. There are certain topics in politics — and this is now one of them where the slightest attempt to force the issue will push the public into Mandy Rice Davies-ism: 'They would say that, wouldn't they?' It matters little that the Militant movement now has three times as many members, and three or four more Labour MPs, than it did during the great Labour- Militant crisis of 1981-2. The public has just lost interest in this topic, in much the same way as it has lost interest in the KGB. In the days when Mr Benn missed becom- ing Labour's deputy leader by a whisker, the leftward drift of the Labour Party was a matter of public concern; now the machinations of the Trotskyists just look like a small thread in Labour's not very rich tapestry.
Equally stale and uninviting is the attempt to link those Labour MPs who advocate non-payment of the tax with the
'She throws a terrific cocktail party.'
smashers of shop windows on Saturday. Here the Tories have over-played their hand, shifting from a convincing case (about a serious split in the Labour ranks) to an unconvincing one. If advocating a breach of one law is to be regarded as the equivalent of breaking any other law you care to mention (the law against affray, for example, or assault, or malicious damage), then why not go the whole hog and say that advocating non-payment of a tax is the equivalent of piracy, rape, or lighting fires in Her Majesty's dockyards?
Even those few Labour MPs who are recommending the non-payment of the poll tax must be keenly aware of the distance which separates their own tactics from those of the deliberate rioters. Mr Waddington's hatred of the Labour Party, both Left and Right, is pure milk and water compared with the loathing of Labour which you find in the publications of 'Class War' and the various anarchist move- ments. As an article in the current issue of The Heavy Stuff Klass War's Theoretical Magazine') puts it, 'the so-called radical politicians don't care. As politicians they never have and never will, they're far away earning their thousands having a good time getting pissed, getting their ugly, sneering mugs plastered all.over the newspapers and the TV. No spark of hope there.' Iri the words of Socialism from Below ('Discus- sion Forum of the Anarchist Workers' Group'), the strategies of non-payment and non-collection are fundamentally in- adequate: 'they need to be supplemented with a force that can deliver the knockout blow'. Labour MPs need not be told that such a knockout blow would knock out the Labour Party too.
The irony of all this is that the extremists have almost certainly underestimated the power of moderate illegality — the tactic of purely passive non-payment — on a large scale. The Socialist Workers' Party (a staid and conventional lot in the eyes of the anarchist fringe) have argued in one of their pamphlets that Mr Kinnock should 'call a massive law-defying campaign against the poll tax'. This is not an irration- al plan. If half the population refused to pay, the system could not possibly cope. Mr Kinnock may have adequate electoral reasons for refusing to take this course; but somewhere among all his reasons there may be more than an ounce of basic political integrity too.