3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 6


Mr Smith thinks he has four years to come up with some policies. Events may beg to differ


ormality has not prevailed at Black- pool this week. From the moment Labour's conference started until, ironically, about the time Mr Smith made his first speech as leader, the sun broke with tradition and shone hotly, and the calm sea twinkled beneath it. As in the old days, sharp suits were left at home and brothers and sisters again addressed each other as 'comrade', even though Labour has never been less socialist. Mr Dennis Skinner, long a fixture on the National Executive Committee, had been thrown off it. Orthodox socialism, a compulsion to tell the truth, and tactless political jesting have no place in the mod- ernised Labour Party. Strangest of all, despite having just lost the fourth election in a row, everyone — with the exception of a few dogmaticians of the Skinner school — is remarkably cheerful. The high spirits are mainly due to the Government's diffi- culties; the same troubles that have led to so few people being interested in what is happening at Blackpool. The journalists decided early on that this was not an excit- ing event. On Sunday, even after the minor tremor of the resignation of Mr Bryan Gould, Britain's political correspondents were already busily scheduling early returns to London. Most planned to go on Tuesday evening, once Mr Smith had made his speech, three days before the end of the conference. Nothing happened subsequent- ly to cause them to reconsider. The only story that mattered was happening else- where.

Against the humiliations of Messrs Major and Lamont, Labour's rhetoric held little interest. It was just as well the party had nothing important to tell us. The general calm is a product, too, of the relief the party feels at having united — superficially — behind a new leader. Labour is lucky to have escaped closer scrutiny here, because its unity owes more to the ruthless wielding of the block vote than to any unanimity of feeling among activists. Many of them are depressed at what they feel are the party's deflationary economic policies, and by the easy ride they feel Mr Smith is giving Mr Major on Maastricht. At Westminster, where there is no such union block vote, dissent on both questions promises to erase Mr Smith's honeymoon glow. 'Ultimately,' one old parliamentary hand told me, 'it's our job as a party to pittect the poor, our job as an opposition to stop the Govern- ment getting its business through. If we don't start doing both those things soon, especially since the Government has such a small majority, my management committee for one is going to be asking why the hell not.'

Only a few troublemakers admit that sterling's recent debacle was the result of an economic policy that Labour supported as slavishly as Mr Lamont used to. No one here doubts that the party would have had to devalue had it won on 9 April. Indeed, most agree the devaluation would have happened even sooner. However, cush- ioned by their electoral defeat, Mr Smith and his friends have been busy instead with the re-writing of history. The new shadow Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown, has been the principal culprit: Mr Smith's own speech was bland and unoriginal, unequal to the strenuous feat of revisionism. Almost everything Mr Brown demanded in his speech on Monday, like the 'National Recovery Programme' and 'a national cam- paign to save our public services' would have been unaffordable under the Labour economic programme, just as they would have been had the Tories promised such things. It is a pity the Tory party has been so busy flagellating itself this week, and has had neither the heart nor the energy to turn on its opponents.

To be fair to the Opposition, there is no doubting what they stand for. Every shad- ow minister, from the leader downwards, has outlined the party's belief in recon- struction, investment, re-employment and regeneration, familiarly but vigorously. Only Mr Robin Cook, the Trade and Industry spokesman, admitted that further thought would have to be given to the next step forward before it was taken. Most shadow ministers exercised caution, realis- ing the precious nature of the gift the dis- united Tory party is offering them. Only occasionally, such as in. Mr John Prescott's brilliant demonstration of the pointlessness of Mr John MacGregor, the Transport Sec- retary, did fire-in-the-belly socialist sinceri- ty shine through. Such sentiments are not, the image men have decided, commensu- rate with winning power, as they frighten the middle class voters of the south of Eng- land. They do, however, cheer up a boring conference enormously.

No one chose to show how all the good

works Labour wants would be undertaken or financed. The practicalities need not, the leadership thinks, be considered for anoth- er three or four years, until the party is on the threshold of an election. There is some sense in this. The revelation of a mecha- nism to deliver the post-socialist utopia would only hand a weapon to the Tory party. It is safer, therefore, to build up morale by ridiculing the Government, a pastime for which there is ever-increasing scope. The explanation of how Labour will move from its leader's own disastrous `shadow budget' of last April to an econom- ic plan that will carry conviction among the voters must wait awhile yet. But this safety-first attitude represented a wasted opportunity for Labour. The hard left believe the Tories are so vulnerable that Mr Smith, by, for example, backing a Maastricht referendum, could bring them down. They despise their leader for not doing so. He has been protected from dis- sent by a union block vote that carries 9' per cent of the conference's power. This ensured, on Monday, that there would be no conference call for a referendum. With Mr Gould as well as Mr Skinner losing his seat on the NEC, Mr Smith is freed from a further check on his (unspeci- fied) plans for the party. The shadow Cabi- net is already under control. Rather like Mr Major before his recent troubles, Mr Smith's authority is unchallenged. It should not escape him, however, that many of Mr Major's problems have been exacerbated by the fact that there was no one close t0 him who was prepared to challenge his judgments. All the doctrinal uniformity of the Labour party means is that there will be no one around to tell Mr Smith that he is going wrong. He may well be able to win an election without such advice, or indeed without any practical policies at all. That appears to be his secret hope, for he told us nothing him- self in his leader's speech of how he intends to proceed. A new 'policy forum' has been established to help him, but that too will be loaded with those whose views do not


threaten the new orthodoxy. Perhaps, In

four years' time, the old shadow budgeter will have won popular credibility. Yet he cannot be complacent. A glance to the other side of the fence might persuade hull_ there is no guarantee the Government will survive for the four years he needs.