1990s >> 1992 >> no-1050-february-1992

If Labour Wins . . .

When the Labour Party won the general election of June 1992 Neil Kinnock, who had something of a name as a crooner, might have burst out with the Frank Sinatra song High Hopes. A couple of years later, when he was locked in secret, desperate negotiations over an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, he might have tried Stanley Holloway’s Get Me To The Church On Time. And when the Labour Party, exasperated by Kinnock’s compulsive alliterations and wisecracks in face of yet another disastrous experience of power, got rid of him a fitting accompaniment might have been There Go My Dreams.

In fact Labour only just managed to scrape home in the election—an overall majority of seven seats was hardly a rich harvest from all those years of trimming and twisting, searching for the polices most likely to bring in the votes. Nevertheless there was a spring in Kinnock’s step as he set out for Buckingham Palace, to kiss hands, bow and scrape, walk backwards, vow allegiance to the Crown and do anything provided it helped him to take up residence in Number Ten.

The new Prime Minister’s first job was to appear on television, making a speech which had been written some time before. There would, he guaranteed, be no truck with the past. He knew that previous Labour governments had not been without their faults (he had spent a lot of time, as an intensely ambitious politician in opposition, studying them) but he could give his personal assurance that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Without actually mentioning Harold Wilson, he declared that his would not be a government dominated by one person; to the accompaniment of grim smiles from his rivals he said that we would henceforward be governed by a team. It would be a caring government, cherishing the like of the National Health Service (which it had cut back during its last spell in power) and working tirelessly for a nuclear-free world (although in the past it had started up the British nuclear armoury and had supported every one of British capitalism’s wars). It would work in harmony with the trade unions to ensure a growth in prosperity so rational and controlled that it would benefit both sides of the negotiating table (he put from his mind Labour’s history of attempting to impose statutory wage restraint and the consequent warring with the unions). He almost repeated one of the sillier assertions of his deputy. Roy Hattersley. who once babbled that “a socialist incomes policy can protect, rather than diminish, real earnings . . . ” Why should he give Hattersley some free publicity?


Labour made its case plain, in its 1989 Policy Review, when it announced its intention. not to dismantle capitalism and its production of wealth for sale and profit, but to “make the market work” to maintain and strengthen the profitability of British industry. They were concerned not just with using their association with unions to keep wages in check; they had worked hard to cement a partnership with the employers as well to help them compete against foreign competition. This yearning for financial orthodoxy and economic competence was welcomed by the Investors Chronicle, which thought that “Labour’s economic policy . . . contains nothing to which the City objects violently on principle”.

It was as well that Labour took these precautions because, far from introducing the revolution, they had merely taken on the running of British capitalism. As a Tory ex-minister put it: “The Labour Government have inherited our problems. They seem also to have inherited our solutions”. While this was perfectly true Labour’s long spell in opposition had placed it under an obligation to produce “solutions” which seemed fresh and radically different from the Tories. The traditional way of doing this—which Labour followed—was to give the old “solutions” dazzlingly new names. Wage restraint became The Culture of Co-operation and measures to increase the capitalists’ profits were called Positive in Partnership. Apart from that they could only hope for luck to run their way, for something to turn up so that they could claim the credit for a period of boom. If that didn’t happen—well there was always the chance of the voters again being gullible enough to blame an economic crisis on to “unfair” foreign competition or sinister currency manipulators in distant capitals or Britain’s notoriously greedy and lazy workers.


But luck did not run their way. During their first six months in office a yawning deficit in the balance of trade opened up. Ministers, still mindful of that alliance with the unions, began to make coded threats about the reluctance of workers in the British car and electronics industries to be exploited as intensely as their counterparts in Germany and Japan. In the money markets, where a lot can be made and lost simultaneously—but not by production-line workers—sterling came under pressure, which was worrying for anyone who was concerned about any threat to “our” currency and even more so for the ministers who were supposed to protect it.

The world economy slid deeper into the recession which did so much to undermine the support for John Major’s government, the effects of which Labour had promised to control. Investment and production declined while unemployment and bankruptcies zoomed upwards. Although it was not the best of times to press for higher wages, the unions were under pressure from their membership to try to catch up the ground lost under the Tories. Strikes, both official and unofficial, became headline news again and the gutter press could each choose a union leader as their current bogey.

Neil Kinnock had promised to be a prime minister of action, so he quickly sent John Smith to the TV studios to lecture the workers on why they should work harder, hold back their pay claims and stop buying imported goods. “We all agree,” said Smith (as if “we all” had agreed), “that we cannot spend what we have not earned. There are no quick fixes. The government must be aware of the economic realities. If that means we have to postpone some of our social ambitions, then we have to do so”. This speech was a great disappointment to the people who were encouraged to believe that the Labour Party did have quick fixes which they could apply to control problems like recessions.


As the Labour government floundered about like a drunken soldier they began to lose crucial by-elections, even in places like South Wales where Tories had once been as rare as an endangered species. Kinnock’s last desperate bid to stem this tide was to try for an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. When this was frustrated by the Lib/Dems’ insistence that Labour was more right-wing than the Tories it was clear that Kinnock’s time was up. But who to replace him? John Smith’s stamina was suspect, especially after his banqueting forays into the City to win the confidence of the bankers and the merchants there. Roy Hattersley’s day was past and in any case he resembled himself on Spitting Image too closely. Tony Blair, having pushed his case as Labour’s youthful future, thereby damned himself as a perpetual Peter Pan. Margaret Beckett was ambitious enough but she roused chilling memories of Thatcher. Gordon Brown was a poor TV performer, with his sepulchral denunciations of working class extravagances.

Labour felt they needed cheering up and that, as it turned out, was the crucial factor when the Men In Red Ties called on Kinnock to give him notice to quit Number Ten. In the election for the new leader, one of the candidates was Des Topper, a hardened left-winger from a Midlands mining constituency who was famous for his tireless harrying of ministers, employers and Tories and anyone else who he saw as obstructing his version of the workers’ paradise—which was actually little more than regular, reliable wage-slavery and cheap beer at the colliery club. Topper stood for the leadership as a gesture towards what he saw as Labour’s forgotten principles. But to cheer themselves up the Labour Party elected him and when they had recovered from their surprise the PR and media experts closed in about him.

Changed man

True to his promise to give the workers the chance to vote for Labour’s allegedly lost alleged principles Topper quickly called a general election (in fact he had little choice since their majority had disappeared in those by-elections). He then appeared on TV. to rally the nation to Labour’s banner. He was a changed man. On the advice of an expensive tailor his sports jacket and loud shirt—once his trade marks in the Commons—were replaced by a sober grey suit and discreetly striped shirt. His hair, which had once been long and aggressively floppy, was trimmed enough to satisfy a City banker. He put on some weight so that he no longer looked so agonisingly principled. His Midlands accent was tamed into a Home Counties drawl. And he learned to tell us that Labour’s anti-working class policies were socialism and to accuse anyone with any doubts about it of making it easy for the Tories to win back power.

His speech to the nation was most moving, even if it had been written by somebody else. “We recognise”, he said, staring earnestly into the homes of his audience, “that this great party of ours had made some mistakes in the past. We shall not repeat those mistakes in the future. I give you my personal guarantee that we shall . . .”


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