What Future for the Labour Party?

Article excerpt

MY new satellite television brought me instant live access to a huge jamboree that was both spontaneous and carefully stage-managed at one and the same time. It could have been a pop concert or the celebration at the |World Series' in baseball (which involves solely the USA). One sees an apparently wide spectrum of American society all holding placards, while waving, jumping, shouting or shimmying in support of the new Democratic Party's nominee for the Presidential candidacy. For those who have attended endless boring sequences of speeches at Labour Party Conferences it is hard to recognise this as a political event. It is also difficult to believe that this is the convention of a party that has lost five out of six of the last Presidential Elections.

There is however one significant difference from the Labour Party in Britain. This broad coalition can still dominate Congress. It still holds numerous levers of real power. Above all, even if it is not, it appears to be credible and electable. It unites a remarkably wide variety of interest groups and makes its appeal to curiously different geographical and sociological targets. The main appeal is to the middle class but the |minorities' and the poor are not forgotten. Its main target is middle America but it points strikingly -- particularly in the choice of Al Gore -- to the South, as well as to the cities that traditionally house the Democratic faithful.

If it seems infantile, one must remember that America is still a young country. It arouses at one and the same time a European contempt and a sort of envy. While one delegate pledges his support on the basis of the ability to spell potato -- lacking in the current Vice President of the greatest power on earth -- a more sophisticated and serious note is conjured by the spellbinding oratory of Mario Cuomo. This very odd mixture of sophistication and total lack of inhibition is peculiarly American. It is a mystery until one begins to understand that Democracy itself is being celebrated. There is still an almost disarmingly naive patriotism and belief in a unique way of life. One may sneer but it proved to be the main bulwark in the war against European fascism two generations ago. Nor should it be forgotten that both before, during and after that war the Democrats were the natural party of government.

The following day, or was it two days later, since it is difficult to synchronise hours across the Atlantic, the news of John Smith's and Margaret Becket's election as leader and deputy leader of the British Labour Party was wedged somewhere between the news of Nick Faldo on the golf course and the horrors suffered by Bosnian refugees. This must have been the most boring, pre-determined and uninspiring leadership contest ever held by a political party in the United Kingdom. This was the election of a leader who has to take Labour from four successive defeats to the promised land of victory. In its timing, presentation and content it was almost as if the Party had conspired with itself to produce such a low profile that this was more Mr. Kinnock's funeral than the emergence of a new leader who was going to change the face both of the Labour Party and Britain. The two events were not just an essay in contrasts. In the case of the Labour Party it seems that in looking to the future, it was taking further steps into the past. The very fact that the deputy leadership contest placed John Prescott in a not unrespectable second place demonstrated that Labour had learned nothing from the past and was intent upon returning there. At the very least, Bryan Gould was asking for ideas to be considered.

This poverty of ideas was demonstrated in a petty and petulant letter from Gerald Kaufman to a national newspaper rubbing in (as he thought) the fact that the Labour Party had polled twice as many votes as the Liberal Democrats and had made advances beyond their catastrophic defeat in the previous election. …