’m very happy to be on this platform
organised by Save the Labour Party. I am also a member of
Labour Reform, indeed I will join anything that will stop
the drift towards Presidential government. I congratulate
Peter Hain on being bold enough to see the problem both in
relation to the organisation of the Labour Party and parliamentary
procedure. His proposals will go some way to resolving some
problems, but not far enough.
The dramatic decline in membership of the party argues that
many Labour supporters, both long-term and new, feel that
we have been misled rather than well led. That is a pun.
We have to admit that the old system of constituency resolutions
to party conference was a shambles, but the new system of
consultation, the glibly named ‘Partnership in Power’ and
the National Policy Forum have not worked – as Peter
Hain has said forthrightly. We need more real debate, and
not just in the grassroots of the party, but in the Parliamentary
Labour Party and, which may be the key to the discontents
of the present time, in the Cabinet. The revelations about
the lack of real debate in the Cabinet on the Iraq war, especially,
have not discomforted us all, but have not encouraged many
in the PLP to exercise the power that they have and should
be willing to wield.
Fundamentally, I fear the growth of a Presidential style.
This is not as new as some believe. There were some signs
of this in Wilson’s day. Cabinets still debated major
issues vigorously and often, but he had his ways of stacking
decisions and working through an informal kitchen cabinet.
The late John Mackintosh, MP, in later editions of his once-famous
book of the 1960s, The British Cabinet, made what was no
more than a hint that the British system of cabinet government
might be moving towards some aspects of Presidential government.
An academic possibility has now become a political probability.
Heaven knows that we had an excess of policy debates regardless
of public opinion; but now we have an excess of PR initiatives
with no clear policies behind them – yes, ‘taxation
by stealth’ indeed, but why by stealth? Has it ever
been debated why the Labour Party must tie its hands behind
its back by announcing that it will not vary the standard
rates of income tax? In face of far greater hostility to
the notion of income tax at all, did Lloyd George in 1911
and 1912 labour in vain to argue that graduated taxation
was the elementary principle of social justice in public
There has been no debate allowed in the party on this fundamental
issue, nor in the Parliamentary Labour Party or in the Cabinet.
Wilson in 1970 had passed the word around that there was
only one issue for the election campaign, “Harold or
Heath”. Thatcher began to personify the state and at
times went one better than the Presidential style by adopting
the royal “we” and speaking often of “my
Ministers”. I have a personal theory about how this
Presidential mode has now emerged so nakedly and unashamed:
the extraordinary impact that Clinton’s first election
campaign had on so many of the young image-makers and PR
men in Blair’s entourage, when they went to Washington
and saw how it was done. Clinton’s campaign created
a lasting sense of what image-making for one person can do
in the short term.
Peter Hain is aware enough of the problem to mention the
dark speculation that the leadership may not need the party.
American parties, are, after all, Presidential parties, only
coming to life for the campaign. Perhaps there are some around
our leader who believe that a participative party of activists
is an encumbrance on the leader wooing the middle ground.
Peter Hain rejects, of course, this speculation. He may hold
a different view of labour reform from many in this room
tonight, but all of us here believe that links between party
and government need strengthening.
Many around the Prime Minister, particularly Peter Mandelson
and his acolytes, believe that they won the 1997 election.
I believe that the Tories lost it in spades. The turnout
in 1997 was less than in the previous election, and began
the drastic fall in voting by the under-25s. Perhaps we won
in ‘97 by too much. Many respectable candidates had
not expected to win. We even won Wimbledon! I grew up in
Wimbledon and a Labour Party that won Wimbledon yet again
is no longer a Labour Party. Thatcher did not give a damn
for a large section of the electorate so long as she won.
Smaller majorities did not restrain her. Some of the Prime
Minister’s advisers (in the tradition of the 1640s
I do not criticise the King, only his courtiers) see New
Labour as the new party of Middle England. The long flutter
of ideological search to define a Third Way has now turned
into psephelogical concern to retain those seats lost by
Tory abstentions in 1997. Had we won by less we would be
stronger in carrying through fundamental social reforms against
the unchecked tide of a consumer society gradually growing
more and more stratified. Where is the egalitarian thrust
The ‘choice and trust’ agenda is, of course,
an agenda not for a more egalitarian society but for those
well able already to take advantage of the socially divisive
consequences of the thorough-going choice agendas for our
schools, and the mania for measurable standards - the betrayal
of what Lady Plowden years ago called ‘All our Nation’s
Children’, or Nye Bevan’s vision of the NHS as
equal and free treatment for all.
We need more debate within the party. We have nothing to
lose by open differences of principle.
This is an edited text of a speech to a STLP meeting in
Sir Bernard Crick is author of In Defence of Politics and
George Orwell: a life. He was DfES adviser on citizenship
1997-2001. He joined the Labour Party in 1946.