20 JUNE 1987, Page 12


Richard Rose argues that

Neil Kinnock has replaced party structure with himself

THE proof of a leader's charisma is that he can destroy established institutions; for example, de Gaulle destroyed the Fourth Republic and Hitler destroyed Weimar. Neil Kinnock is proving his charisma by destroying the Labour Party's organisa- tion. In place of its aging and awkward institutions, he offers something radically different: himself. Kinnock wants to re- place the politics of organised parties with the politics of personality.

In disposing of the incubus of Labour's party machine, Kinnock is acting in the spirit of his predecessors. The Attlee gov- ernment exhausted Labour's historic agen- da by successfully extending the welfare state. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan destroyed the idea of socialist government by depending upon loans from the Interna- tional Monetary Fund. Labour prime ministers have governed in accord with the dictum: socialists in office, yes; but social- ism, never.

Unfortunately for Neil Kinnock, he did not step into a political vacuum when elected party leader. He inherited a ram- shackle set of traditional institutions claim- ing to exercise authority over the party. Worse than that, the 1981 reforms of the Labour Party Constitution were intended

to tie the leader's hands, by making him and his parliamentary lieutenants depend upon votes of trade unions and constituten- cy activists as well as MPs. The New Model Labour Party was prepared to see a Labour leader entering Downing Street but as their servant.

Identifying the Labour Party with his own thoughts and feelings, the Labour leader has proclaimed: What's good for Neil Kinnock is good for the Labour Party- By making his persona the source of authority, Kinnock has turned issues about the future of the Labour Party into votes of personal confidence. His appeal for unity is a call to follow where he leads, the road to electoral success, sooner or later. His blunt message to the union leaders whose votes control the party organisation is: Back me or sack me.

Trade unions have plenty of troubles of their own. Rising unemployment means fewer members, falling union income and lower negotiated wage increases. Worse than that, the Thatcher government has extended the principle of franchise reform to the unions themselves. Last week 57 per cent of union members voted Conservative or Alliance. Trade union leaders have no wish to look for a new leader of the Labour Party, since they share Kinnock's political values and believe that he could market their old Co-op policies in a way that might appeal to Marks & Spencers shoppers.

The expulsion of select Militant suppor- ters from the Liverpool Labour Party is the most prominent example of Kinnock using union votes to bludgeon the hard Left. Another is the absence of debate about a Labour manifesto notable for omitting a host of hard-Left policies. Black par- liamentary candidates, offered the choice between backing black sections and losing the Party endorsement essential for elec- tion, have opted for joining their white comrades in Parliament.

The election campaign has completed Neil Kinnock's substitution of his personal authority for that of the party organisation. The campaign was run by a new breed of Labour politicians. In American campaign terminology, they are 'spear-carriers', ow- ing personal fealty to their leader and to no one else. The publicity chief Peter Mandel- son had no trouble convincing the leader that the central theme of the campaign should be the personality of Neil Kinnock. The strategy of selling the persona rather than the policies of the leader would have been rejected as irrational by Hugh Gaits- kell, and as bad form by Clement Attlee. In the case of Michael Foot, it would have been counter-productive. Improving Herbert Morrison's dictum that socialism is what the Labour govern- ment does, the current Labour leader asserts: socialism is what Neil Kinnock believes in. Kinnock claims that socialism means that elderly people should not die of hypothermia, that the ill should receive health care, and that children should be Properly educated. These are the goals of other parties too, Conservative, Liberal, Social Democratic and Flat Earth. The primary colour on the cover of the party manifesto was brown, not red, because designer socialists know that brown tones best with colour photographs of their ginger-haired leader. While Labour ran a polished campaign, the election result was a failure. More than two-thirds of the British electorate cast their votes against Labour. Whereas Kin- nockites were determined that never again would Labour face a disaster like 1983, Labour's vote in 1987 was only 0.3 per cent more than in its 1983 debacle. Neil Kin- flock may have won a reprieve for the Labour Party but a fog of rhetoric can obscure yet not prevent the execution of the death sentence. How long can Neil Kinnock keep it up? Watching other people govern the country is not to the taste of everyone on Labour's front bench. For example, Roy Hattersley could act upon the title of his pre-election book, Choose Freedom, and end his incar- ceration in the Palace of Westminster. Neil Kinnock is not about to leave the lead- ership of the Labour Party; for better and for worse, Labour politics is his life work. All he can do, as he proclaimed in the aftermath of defeat, is to 'go on and on', offering his persona in place of the organi- cally flawed Labour Party. At the rate at which Labour gained seats in this election, Kinnock would not attain a parliamentary majority until the 21st century.

Does Neil Kinnock know how far he must travel or where he is going? Because his artfully crafted campaign gratified tra- ditional Labour supporters, he is secure as party leader. The old Labour Party machine is less secure. The introduction of one person, one vote at the constituency level would undercut the power of hard- Left caucuses. It would also raise doubts about the block vote of trade unions upon which Kinnock relies. Given the party's setback in London, attacks from the hard Left will be met by a shift to the centre. Neil Kinnock will offer his opponents a choice between being treated like Derek Hatton, expelled from the party, or Sharon Atkin, inside the party but deprived of a parliamentary nomination.

In trying to develop distinctive policies that appeal to the bulk of the British electorate, Neil Kinnock is undermined by the Pogo principle: we have met the enemy and they are us. His campaign statements about policy showed a lack of skill in dealing with inconsistencies in policy, most notably about defence and about taxation. Labour's own private opinion polls show that the positions that make the party distinctive are often unpopular. Labour's most distinctive and least popular position, unilateral nuclear disarmament, is unique- ly identified with Kinnock's persona.

Labour proposals that are often popular, such as giving a higher priority to unem- ployment measures, are shared with the Alliance. And improving education in the schools is a goal that Tories proclaim too.

Partisan opponents do not disagree with Labour's endorsement of peace and prosperity; they challenge the Party's capacity to deliver these goods. If Neil Kinnock is ever to attain office, he will have to change himself, if he can, as well as his party.

Richard Rose is professor of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

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