13 MAY 1989, Page 6


And now for something not completely different


It would be churlish not to salute the extraordinary nature of Labour's by- election victory at the Vale of Glamorgan. Here was a party achieving a spectacular success, apparently by the simple but revolutionary expedient of not having any policies.

That the Labour Party enjoyed its best by-election swing since 1935 at a time when its policies were still under wraps is a fact which might have given cautious souls at Walworth Road pause for thought. But they have bravely pressed on with the unwrapping; and so far their gamble has paid off, with commentators and headline- writers queuing up to pay tribute to the most far-reaching realignment of Labour policy since the war.

I have a complete copy of Labour's policy document on my desk, and it cer- tainly repays careful reading. There are striking policy proposals in almost every area. The retreat from 'old-fashioned nationalisation' is one of the points which have been most commented upon. Indeed, the policy document does not even use the term 'nationalisation' to describe its plans, preferring 'social ownership', which covers a wider range of co-operative and em- ployee ownership schemes. No wholesale re-imposition of public control on priva- tised industries is planned, but government control will be re-imposed on the major utilities (gas, water, etc), not by buying back all the shares, but most probably by legislating to change the voting rights of the ordinary shareholders.

The Department of Trade and Industry will be strengthened; a 'British Investment Bank' will ensure finance for industry on favourable terms; and a body called 'Brit- ish Enterprise' will channel public invest- ment into high-tech industries. In the workplace, Labour will 'replace Tory leg- islation that gives employers the means to frustrate legitimate union activity'; but they will also confirm the right of union members to vote in secret ballots both for strikes and for the election of union execu- tives.

Among other policies which have caught the headlines this week must be mentioned promises to give pensioners an extra £5 per week; to provide universal nursery school- ing, to encourage further education for adults and to reduce the National Curricu- lum to a smaller core, giving schools much greater flexibility; to maintain the 'right to buy' for council tenants, but to reduce all mortgage relief to the basic rate of income tax; to cancel the new nuclear power station at Sizewell; to set up a 'Ministry of Environmental Protection' and (signs of the times, these) to introduce a new 'Charter for Consumers' to protect the ordinary purchaser against unsafe goods. The document also expresses a newly positive attitude to Europe: Labour's aim, it says, is 'to work constructively with our European partners to promote economic expansion and combat unemployment'.

All this adds up to a pretty impressive package of policies. So the last paragraph of the document is understandably optimis- tic. 'On June 11', it proclaims, 'the people of Britain have the opportunity to put behind them the bleak years of Thatcher- ism. Britain will win with Labour.'

Forgive me, dear reader, but it had to be done. The policy document from which I have been faithfully quoting is the 1987 Labour manifesto. Each one of these pledges reappears in this week's 'policy review' papers, with a few tiny changes of emphasis. The point I am making is not that there is something shameful about a political party retaining some of its policies over a period of more than one year. Nor am I suggesting that these policies are particularly risible, nor even that having failed to win Labour one election they are bound to lose it the next. The point is simply this: that Labour's real achievement over the last few days is to have filled the media with headlines proclaiming the birth of the 'new socialism', and treating every detail of the policy review documents with new-found respect and bright-eyed won- der, when in fact the great majority of these proposals are essentially unchanged.

This is a genuine achievement, and if it proves more than a nine-day wonder it will mean more for the revival of Labour's fortunes than a whole basket of specific policy changes. Pollsters have long known that when you try to correlate surveys of people's attitudes to individual policies with general polls of their voting inten- tions, the sums never quite add up. People

vote partly because of the aura which a party has for them: the Conservatives, for example, retain an aura of law and order' regardless of their particular policy propos- als in that field.

Labour has suffered from several bad auras until recently. The 'loony Left' one has mainly worn off now, thanks to Mrs Thatcher helpfully starving the militants of publicity by abolishing the metropolitan councils. But the aura of old-fashioned, doctrinaire 'state control' socialism has lingered on. Never mind the fact that the post-war Labour leadership, whether in power or out of it, has never adopted the sort of coherent, all-encompassing social- ism which you find in socialist doctrines. Such schemes existed, at most, in a scatter of papers on Mr Benn's desk. But there is nothing better now for Mr Kinnock (and for Mr Mandelson, his publicity director) than to have Mr Benn popping up again and again in front of the cameras and announcing that Labour is in the process of betraying ancient doctrines of socialism. Of course the policy review does include some interesting changes; but these are much less unequivocal, and are likely to be much less trouble-free, than they seem at first sight. On the defence issue, we may yet find that the electorate is concerned less with multilateralism than with having a government which believes in deterrence. Labour may find, therefore, that it has jumped out of the fire into an extremely hot frying-pan. The new-look tax policies are an improvement on the last manifesto; but by the time the Tories have done their costings of Labour's proposals (which pledge higher spending in many areas), Labour's reluctance to give precise figures for its tax bands may look positively shifty. Mr Smith's whole bundle of policies, which includes a guaranteed minimum wage and no recourse to exchange controls, seems like a recipe for inflation. We may yet find that Labour's economic policies are as much of an electoral bugaboo next time round as they have been in the past. But in any case, the results of the next election will also greatly depend on what happens to the centre parties, and on how unpopular the Govenment manages to make itself. While Labour still has most of the policies it had in June 1987, the Tories still have all the policies they had last week, when they persuaded so many of the electors of Glamorgan to vote for Labour.