Will Labour Survive?

Article excerpt

In these early months of the Labour Government, it is generally, accepted that its huge majority makes it unassailable; that Tony Blair can look forward to an easy ride followed by a full second term. Yet political forecasts are always difficult and unreliable. The unexpected often happens. Can he be so confident of the future?

No one suggests the government will fail to survive the next year or so. At present, it can afford the luxury of rebels like Tam Dayell on devolution, Barbara Castle on pensions, Austin Mitchell on Europe and others on privatisation. The cries from Tony Benn and Roy Hattersley about the Party organisation need not be an immediate worry. Real trouble is more likely to arise when the promise to retain Tory fiscal policies runs out two years hence. Maybe Treasury Ministers will understand that there are limits to public funds; perhaps other cabinet ministers will accept that departments other than their own must economise, but, as R. A. Butler once said, `Everyone is in favour of general economy and particular expenditure'. Each minister will have demands while supporting savings in other departments.

So far, the signs of cracks in unity are from elder statesmen or lightweights. Tony Benn, of course, has a following among `Old' Labour, but, to the new intake of MPs, he is not a leader of opinion and, at least in public, can be ignored whatever they may think in private.

It is worth reflecting that the Labour Government of 1929-31 led by Ramsay Macdonald did not fall because it lacked a majority in the Commons. It came apart because of a split in the Cabinet itself. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, faced awkward decisions. They saw no alternative to drastic cuts in expenditure which were completely unacceptable to their colleagues. History, of course, never repeats itself completely. Tony Blair finds himself today in a vastly different situation. But can he be sure his cabinet will survive some of the decisions which lie ahead?

In these columns in March 1996, it was suggested that a complete and radical re-alignment of British polities could be in prospect. At that time, no one expected the Labour Government to win such a huge majority, but, in spite of what has happened, one can see the forecasts on their way to fulfilment. When the next election comes, can the party line-up continue unchanged or is the Labour Party as we have known it coming to an end? Tony Blair has invited Paddy Ashdown to join a Cabinet Committee. Surely, this indicates that he is anticipating the flow of a tide, and the Liberal Democratic conference in September was dominated by debates and rumours about an alliance. At its extreme, is he planning for a kind of coalition with the Liberal Democrats to help him continue in Government for at least ten years? Nor may this be the only move towards the founding of a new political party.

Let us look at some of the issues which may provide problems and cause the changes. FIRST: The Labour Party has presented itself as the champion, if not the saviour, of the National Health Service. It proclaimed its ability to reduce hospital waiting lists. So far, all that has happened is that they have grown longer. It is easy, at this stage, to blame the Conservative Government adding that Labour has not had time to put things right. This, however, has not silenced immediate demands for more cash. Before long, these calls could become louder and, if there is no improvement in, say, a year, they may be irresistible to `old' Labour. Then the Cabinet must decide where the money is to be found. Will it come from taxation or from increased charges on prescriptions? What then will happen to the cost of dental and eye examinations? SECOND: During the election, the Conservatives drew attention to the impossibility of continuing the present system of earnings-related pensions and made it clear that urgent action was needed. …