1990s >> 1992 >> no-1053-may-1992

Editorial: End of a Dream

When Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley were elected leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1983, they were hailed as a “dream ticket” – as a pair who between them were likely to pander to just about every prejudice and delusion and so were expected to bring in the maximum votes for their party. At the time Labour had suffered so crushing a defeat that there was serious speculation about their ability to survive as an electoral force. How should they recover? Make an alliance with the SDP and Liberals? Fight the next election on the kind of programme which Derek Hatton might consider too extreme? Or ditch practically everything they ever called their principles and campaign as an open and unashamed party of capitalism, market forces and all?

In fact there was never any real doubt about which course they would take. Kinnock lost no time in settling to the task of jettisoning what has been called Labour’s intellectual baggage – a journalist’s title for politically embarrassing policies. He did not flinch, when this entailed disposing of some of his personal baggage for, as a former left-wing firebrand who ostentatiously sat in the Commons chamber with Dennis Skinner while the rest of the Members went to the Lords to listen to the Queen’s speech, he had some adjustments to make if he was to change from a friend of the left wing into its scourge. Kinnock’s priority was to win power over British capitalism and anything he saw as an obstacle to this – and Militant threatened to be an especially large and deeply rooted obstacle – had to be ruthlessly cleared away.

At the same time, with a little help from some slick, manipulative friends, he refurbished Labour’s campaigning style. Out went Michael Foot and his walking stick, speaking passionately but emptily to a genuine audience – genuine in the sense that they could ask questions and put opposing arguments. Out went spontaneous walk-abouts. Out went the red flag, both symbol and song. In came the red rose and an anthem by Brahms. In came the monster rally with an audience hand-picked for their eagerness to give mindless applause to anything their leaders said, rallies where Kinnock strode to the platform picked out by a spotlight in a darkened stadium. Labour’s rally at Sheffield was the height – or should it be the depths – of this style of presentation, all aimed at maximum coverage on TV, at putting over the party as fit to govern British capitalism and not allowing any doubt or discussion about it. It is not stretching the point, to say that the Nazis used the same technique in their rallies; it did not sit easily with Kinnock’s talk about “government readiness to listen to the people” being “evidence of strength and confidence, not of weakness”.

One Labour MP now expresses his doubts about that rally, talking of his “churning embarrassment”, but at the time no such criticism was heard because it was represented as a triumph of one way, unavoidable communication in the age of the TV election. Kinnock allowed himself to be managed so that he had no real and direct contact with the voters, gave no chance to anyone to question him and certainly no chance for anyone to harass him as the Tory leaders were publicly harassed. But while this was seen as essential to Labour’s march to victory it was all accepted and admired. It was only after their defeat, when Labour’s election tactics were exposed as futile, that the criticism began to be heard.

When he conceded the election, Kinnock spoke about the security and satisfaction of his own life and contrasted it with that of so many other people, regretting that without power he could do nothing to improve things for them. The implication of this is that the Conservative government is responsible for poverty in Britain, that it is their own creation, almost as if it did not exist before 1979 when Labour was the government. This absurd and feeble deceit is self-exposing; indeed Labour’s 1979 manifesto was one long promise to cure the many problems which were still in existence after their five years in power.

The bitterness and bewilderment in the Labour Party now is there because they thought they had mastered the art of persuading the voters to opt for their style of running British capitalism rather than the Tories’ way. It was hardly a choice. If the result had gone the other way it would have made very little difference. Poverty, homelessness, unnecessary disease, crime, squalor, war and fear – all these would still have blighted our lives, under a Labour government as they have done in the past. Labour’s dream turned into a nightmare but for the working class that is how it is all the time – except that they have yet to realise that an election is their chance to wake up.

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