1980s >> 1988 >> no-963-november-1988

Editorial: Votes from anybody

When the Tories recovered from the shock of losing the 1945 general election they decided that their survival depended on being prepared to change themselves in ways which, while they might upset some of the more traditionalist members, would make them more popular with the voters It was a time for painful decisions, after all, the party of charismatic, overwhelming Churchill had been beaten by the party of mousy, insignificant Attlee They began by gradually weeding out from their candidates list the more outrageous of the moneyed incompetents who had bought their way into parliamentary seats and then subsided into a comatose membership of the world’s most exclusive club. They suddenly sent trained open-air speakers out onto the street comers, to trade verbal punches with passing drunks and more durable hecklers They began to be unrecognisable from the party which had gone so confidently into that election.

Behind all this effort at going out and meeting the people could be detected the skilful hand of Lord Woolton. who had grown rich from what was archly known as the retail trade and who had then be come famous as the wartime Minister of Food with a developed ability to persuade British workers to be grateful about the meagre rations on which they had to subsist He was immortalised in the name of a repulsive but, he assured us, boundlessly nutritious hash of left-overs called Woolton’s Pie. Clearly, this was a man who would go on to make history, even if it was only as someone who instructed the Tories in the lost arts of deceiving enough workers into putting them back in what they saw as their rightful place in power.

And behind Woolton was the subtler personality of R.A. Butler, the man who went on to set a record for almost becoming prime minister but whose job in those days was to recast and re-present Conservative policy to a more palatable political recipe. Butler worked on some pretty simple guidelines. Because of an imperfect grasp of recent history and some injudicious ruling class propaganda about the rewards awaiting a working class who uncomplainingly shouldered the wartime burden of sacrifices, millions of voters had opted for the Labour Party as the more likely to build the brave new post war world. The Tories had nothing to gain by offering any serious opposition to the Labour government, although they had to make the ritual attacks on it; a more productive way would be to change themselves so that they resembled Labour as closely as possible. A series of policy documents on those lines emerged from Conservative headquarters

With the passage of time, and of several general elections, the two parties grew ever more alike until one particularly astute — or perhaps it was especially imitated — observer created the policy of Butskellism, a compound of the names of the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Labour Shadow.

The Labour Party’s defeat last year left them in far worse shape than the Tories were in 1945 but their response has been roughly the same — to change their programmes and their image so that they resemble, and therefore appeal to the people who voted for, the Thatcherite Conservative Party. The arguments in favour of this are a mirror image of those confronting Butler and Woolton in 1945: millions of voters supported the Labour Party, therefore to appear too dissimilar to them was to invite defeat. Another way of putting it now is that, no matter how mistaken they may believe the voters’ preference for the Tories to be, the Labour Party will pander to them in order to get their support.

Predictably, there have been many voices raised in protest, from the emotional and intellectual tangles of the grass roots. The Labour Party was formed to transform society, not to act as a feeble imitation of the party which openly stands for conserving it; Labour stands for equality and compassion, not for joining in the yuppy rat race of grabbing what you can for yourself and letting everyone else go to the wall. Labour gatherings being what they are, speeches on that theme are much to the audience’s taste There is, however, an obvious problem of digestion because however tempting the rhetoric in favour of the traditional recipes for electoral disaster the Labour leadership have been able to push through their proposals for the new, voter-seductive menu.

What will happen if Kinnock’s Labour Party succeeds in the efforts to shade itself into the Tories, so that even their supporters have difficulty in distinguishing one from the other? It has happened before, provoking not only uneasiness among the membership of both parties but so much confusion that some of the leaders have had to cross from one side to the other (remember Humphrey Berkeley? Reg Prentice?) A formal and clearer acknowledgement that there is no basic difference between the parties which stand for capitalism may bring some disillusionment but it should also stimulate some healthy questioning. Labour supporters who are discomforted by the abrupt filling in of what they always assumed to be an unbridgeable ideological gap between them and the Tories should ask why, after nearly ten years of Thatcher government, their party is so devoid of ideas apart from an anxiety to blur, rather than to accentuate, the differences between them

No party which stands for, or is prepared to compromise about, capitalism can escape the reality that it accepts a system based on class ownership of the means of life and the consequent social wreckage of conflict and impoverishment. Labour supporters who are aggrieved at what is happening to their party must consider what responsibility they themselves bear for it.