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Naked and unashamed

Bernard Crick on halting the drift towards presidential government

I’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 finances?

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 of Labour?

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 July.

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.