9 APRIL 1977, Page 4

Political Commentary

After Stechford

John Grigg

Stechford was indeed a blockbuster— psychologically even more than psephologically. It came at a time when Labour badly needed an electoral fillip, and when the Tories needed reassurance following their parliamentary reverse the previous week. It was timed to occur immediately after the Budget which, despite its inevitable unpopularity with motorists and cigarettesmokers, was intended to show that the Government's economic policy was at last beginning to work. It was preceded by a major television effort by the Prime Minister, in which he deployed all his very considerable electioneering arts. In addition, it was the first test of public reaction to the Lib-Lab deal.

The circumstances, therefore, were such that its psychological impact could hardly have been greater. And psychology is immensely important in politics. But what of the cold arithmetic? In that way, too, it was a glorious result for the Tories, dismal for Labour and catastrophic for the Liberals. But on the figures alone it cannot be regarded as quite the most sensational by-election of this Parliament or, for the Tories, quite the most encouraging.

The largest swing was at Walsall North last November—a swing roughly the same as that which in 1968, at Dudley, converted a Labour majority of 10,000 into a Tory majority of 11,600. But at Walsall the poll was down 15 per cent compared with the general election, the anti-Labour swing was perhaps aggravated by the Stonehouse affair, and in any case the Labour vote was split by the intervention of a local candidate. More significant, therefore, was the simultaneous result at Workington, where the Tory won with a swing of about thirteen per cent on a poll of general election proportions.

At Stechfca d, as at Walsall, the poll was lower than in October 1974 (though the drop was less marked), and there were also the special factors of two extreme Left-wing candidates and powerful intervention by the National Front. Moreover Stechford, like Walsall and Dudley, is in the West Midlands area which, in recent years, has shown more political volatility than any other part of England. One suggested explanation of this is that the West Midlands, as Enoch Powell country, has been unsettled by Mr Powell's bewildering and erratic course during the past decade. Whatever the true cause, or causes, it is reasonable to infer that Workington still offers the Tories more solid encouragement than Stechford.

It must also be said, however, that the whole electorate is more volatile than it used to be. Between last November and February of this year the Tory lead over Labour, as recorded in the Gallup poll published in the Daily Telegraph, fell from 25 to 12-1 per cent. In March it rose again by four points, but who is to say that there will not be further downs as well as ups? If the Stechford by-election had been held in early or mid-February (as Mr Callaghan must now realise it should have been) the Labour candidate would probably have won.

It is not only at Stechford that the total Conservative vote has gone up compared with 1974, proving that Labour voters have been changing allegiance as well as abstaining. This has been the general pattern in byelections during the present parliament, and it is, for the Tories, a most heartening symptom. Another point to be borne in mind is that, whereas in 1970 the Tories had to overtake a large Labour majority, at the next election they will start from a position of near-parity. In other words, the 1970 swing could give Mrs Thatchet a far bigger majority over Labour than Mr Heath had in 1970.

Against that must be set the likely strength of minority parties, more especially the SNP. And it is worth noting that an early election, which would give Mrs Thatcher the best chance of a landslide, would also give the SNP the best chance of increasing its representation to thirty or forty, because the only effective antidote to Scottish nationalism is a measure of devolution, which cannot presumably now be passed until next year.

If there is an election in the autumn, the Conservatives may be expected to win it handsomely, even if their lead is cut by ten or more percentage points. And Mr Callaghan may be forced by events to hold an election this year, despite his obvious desire for postponement until 1978 or even 1979. The Government is so vulnerable that it will need a great deal of luck to survive until (as it hopes) times are more propitious.

If it somehow manages to hang on, Mrs Thatcher and her colleagues may be tempted to ask themselves if the present statutory life of parliaments, established in 1911, is after all quite right for the British people today. Perhaps the case for Triennial Parliaments (which 1 for one have been pressing for years) will at last acquire some respectability in Conservative eyes. Granted the vastly expanded scope of modern governments, the quickened tempo of politics, and the citizens' growing demand for more direct control, it is surely not too much to ask that elections should have to be held within three years rather than five. The alternative—increased use of the referendum—is far worse than more frequent elections, from the point of view of parliamentary democracy.

Unless Mrs Thatcher subscribes to the doctrine, now invoked by Mr Callaghan, that a government must serve out its time, regardless of mid-term unpopularity, she should now be amenable to the triennialist case. If convinced by it, she may be able to persuade some members of her shadow cabinet—those whose thinking is rooted in nineteenth-century Liberalism—to go along with it by reminding them that Triennial Parliaments formed part of the programme on which Gladstone won the 1892 election.

Another, and more truly Gladstonian. ideal which deserves her wholehearted suPport is Home Rule. The arguments in favour of Home Rule for Ireland ninety years ago now apply even more forcibly to Scotland, because in Scotland's case there is no eclniv; alent of the Ulster complication. If a genera' election were now about to take place the Tory Party would be entering it with no firm commitment on devolution, but merely an evasive pledge to hold a constitutional eon" ference.

Apart from devolution and parliamentarY reform, Mrs Thatcher needs to detach herself from the Gladstonian tradition. So far as the economy is concerned, the Manchester school is surely even more out of date than the Keynesian school. There are no milli°ris of potential entrepreneurs waiting to be 'set free,' but there are millions of Labour trade unionists whose hearts and minds have to be won. It would be quite possible for the TorY Party to secure an overwhelming majoritY and yet to be unable to govern. Just as, in some kinds of war, a purely military victory is fruitless, so in some kinds of political.' situation a purely electoral victory may be° little or no avail. If Mrs Thatcher is to be a successful prime minister in very difficult times, she needs to come into office as nlor..ie than the leader of a triumphant, opinionate", faction. She needs, above all, to be accepten as an authentic national leader. Her problem now is to appeal to 'neutrals', and even to a large section of the 'ellenlY. without impairing the morale of her04,1_ troops. But the risks involved in making Oct; an appeal are far less than the risks of n° making it. Many Tories are only too willing to support her in a policy of magnanimity and conciliation. They are as keen as she IS to defeat the ideological left, but wish to win a Pyrrhic victory on behalf of th' ideological 'new right.' It is vital that Tory leaders in their Public statements, and even in their Privatec thoughts, should avoid being contempto' of their democratic opponents. Mr Calla!' han and Mr Steel should be treated as [Ths' guided patriots rather than as squalid conspirators, and the TUC should be given rl° excuse for its prejudice against the ToroY Party, but should be forced either to respond in kind to friendly overtures or t show once and for all that it is not in' dependent. Specifically, the Tory pal should ask to be allowed to send a fraterna delegate to this year's TUC conference.