13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 5

Political Commentary

The State of the Labour Party

By DAVID WATT THE psychiatrist in atten- dance on the Labour Party (and if there isn't one there certainly ought to be) must be a little worried about the present condition of his charge. Being accustomed by now to the alternation of gran- diose euphoria and suicidal fits in this acutely manic- ' depressive patient, he knows of old the signs which herald the change of mood—the morbid conscience awakes, dis- piritedness sets in, trifling worries take on fear- some proportions. The fracas over Mr. Brown's television appearance, the widespread dissatis- faction with the performance of the Shadow Cabinet in recent debates and some underlying alarm and despondency over the Sudbury and Woodbridge by-election result constitute little in themselves, but Mr. Wilson must be aware that after the long manic phase of the summer and autumn this. kind of thing must be watched carefully if it is not to get out of hand.

The appalling dangers of a slump in morale can be conveniently seen by a side glance at the present activities of the left. The old irrecon- cilables, perhaps sensing the slight malaise, are beginning to stir in their sleep. Tribune has obligingly given warning that something is on Foot by publishing an editorial last week in the grand old style. It complains about the prevalent 'flannelling around' on the Bomb with 'one shadow minister saying one thing and the other something quite different' and draws a macabre moral from the fate of the Australian Labour Party. At the moment this can be laughed off. But let it once become apparent that the Promised Land is receding and that good behaviour now can't guarantee an allotment of it. dormant criti- cal faculties will awaken and, a great many old familiar faces now buried virtuously in harmless good works will he out in the streets again yell- ing for blood.

If recent doubts and difficulties arose merely from a dark imagination, it would all be relatively simple. The trouble, and the test of Mr. Wil- son's leadership, is that they are nearly all real. Take for example the question of Mr. George Brown. The incident of his eccentric television threnody on President Kennedy, his apology to the party for it and the subsequent hullabaloo in the papers showed that Mr. Brown is still capable of behaving like an ass under strain and is pas- sesSed of a lot of enemies; likewise that Mr. Wilson and the Chief Whip who allowed him to apologise and tipped off the press about it are shown to be capable of surprising ineptitude, to say nothing worse. But the affair showed above all .(and this no doubt accounts for the recent swing of support to Mr. Brown) how valuable the Deputy Leader is. if there were a wealth of talent and experience on the Opposition front bench Mr. Brown's peccadilloes would either pass uhnoticed or if they positively cried aloud he could easily be ditched. As it is, he has suc- ceeded in making the Deputy Leader's position, hitherto fairly much a sinecure, into an enormous bailiwick which apparently includes the right to make major policy 'speeches on defence, European affairs, land use, agriculture and pen-

sions, often at a considerably higher power of lucidity and imagination than that of the nominal holder of the shadow portfolio. Mr. Brown has achieved pre-eminence partly by ability and partly by the mediocrity of his colleagues—which brings us back to Mr. Wil- son's troubles.

The course of the battle in Parliament since the Queen's Speech has shown that with the ex- ception of Messrs. Wilson, Brown, Stewart (housing) and possibly Healey (the TSR 2), the Opposition has been outgunned and some of the cannon fodder on the back benches is becoming understandably restless. It is, they say, bad enough to see one's trousers being stolen with brazen regularity by the Government, but to have one's nakedness displayed an hour at a time by Mr. Willey (education) or Mr. Mitchison (pensions) is positively obscene. Why has Mr. Douglas Jay not got something more .positive and 'dramatic to say about Mr. Heath's regional plans? Has Sir Frank Soskice really got to be so frightfully nice 'about the Police Bill? Why has Mr. Amery been allowed to get away with mur- der in BOAC? The answers are not particularly reassuring. There is the regrettable basic shortage of talent; there is the fact that under the doc- trinaire system observed by 'the party the offend- ing statesmen .were nearly all elected to the front bench by the rank and file; and there is the fact that the Government Bills are a good bunch.

More serious than the rumblings of criticism at this state of affairs are some more precise doubts about Labour's election prospects. Too much, of course, has been made on the Con- servative side of the Sudbury and Woodbridge result. All the same, a number of Labour back- benchers are fairly acutely aware that a swing of under 3+ per cent at a by-election is hardly enough to justify extravagant hopes—indeed, not much under 6 per cent now is likely to be safe at a general election. What is particularly worry- ing is the report that it was the super-efficiency of the Conservative machine in getting out tradi- tional votes in a difficult situation that produced the victory. For it focuses attention on a prob- lem which a number of people have a sinking

feeling has been neglected—the basic organisa- tion of the party for election-winning.

There is the little matter of constituency agents, for instance. The number of full-time Labour agents has fallen in recent years from just under 300 to 208 at the beginning of 1963. In March inquirers were told that there was to be a big drive to restore the lost agents in marginal constituencies, if necessary by increas- ing subsidies from Transport House to im- poverished constituency parties. Eight months of effort have produced their effect. There are now officially 209 agents.

Then again there is the number and payment of the staff of Labour headquarters itself, which is responsible not only for national organisation but for election propaganda and research, for much of the formation of policy, for the briefing of the Opposition front bench and theoretically of the back-benchers as well. Much of this bur- den falls on the research department and the international department which now number a mere twenty-odd men between them, a figure which is universally agreed to be inadequate and which is at least a third smaller than the equivalent Conservative group. Salary scales are such as positively to repel first-class entrants. For top-stream employees they are:

Grade 3 (on entry): £.745-£880 per annum; Grade 2 (after two years): f900-£1,100 per annum;

Grade I (those with special responsibility): £1,100-.0.300 per annum.

These are figures which are, in the higher reaches, almost doubled at Conservative Central Office and-yet only the top eight or nine jobs at Trans- port House (the General Secretary, Heads of De- partments and so on) get more than this—and not much more at that. The excuse for this niggardly behaviour as well as much other cheeseparing in the matter of the expenses, sec- retaries for front-benchers and so on, is short- age of cash. Yet there is not much doubt that individual subscriptions and trade union affiliation fees could almost certainly be raised sharply without loss of membership especially if the party started deliberately running efficiently above its income.

Another criticism now heard brings up the delicate question of relations with the trade unions. Serious efforts to get the unions out to vote at election time (as opposed simply to get- ting them to dig into their socks for the lolly) have in the past run up against theoretical objec- tions to the party's being too closely linked with the juggernaut. Now that the tremendous cam- paign on the shop floor at Vauxhall's has obviously helped to bring a rich dividend at Luton, can't the Labour leadership, it is asked, start being a bit more matey with the top union brass? As it is, consultation is haphazard or low- powered. The union representation on the National Executive of the party is not of top men, the National Labour Council meets rarely. It is argued that if the two sides were in closer touch not only might the vote be better but in- cidents like those of Mr. Ron Smith, the Post Office Workers' Secretary who caused annoyance and raised eyebrows at Westminster by accepting his part-time directorship of BOAC without con- sulting Mr. Wilson, could be avoided.

Doubts like these are still faint and subter- ranean, but they would not have been heard a few months ago at all. Mr. Wilson may welcome rather more realism among his followers than they have generally affected but he cannot afford simply to sit back and let criticism erode morale. He must either meet it or divert attention by a more flamboyant attack upon the Government.