creates new opening
FOR over twenty years, politicians have been prophesying the demise of the British Labour Party and the subsequent realignment of British politics.
During the whole of that time Labour has displayed a remarkable ability to patch-up its differences and to unite its unhappy bedfellows. Some of us would argue that it is precisely this cosmetic unity which lies at the heart of Labour's problems. What hope has a Party which cannot unite itself of uniting a nation?
While Labour is preoccupied with contemplating its own navel and spilling its own blood in interminable internigine battles it is unable to address its mind to the fundamental problems of our people. Maybe that is why, after 16 years of Labour Government in Britain since the Second World War, many of their objectives remain to be achieved. They last left office with l+million unemployed: their social contract with the Unions in tatters; a failed attempt at an incomes policy: a winter of discontent and in social terms a fairly dubious record: still over one million homes without ins■cle sanitation; fewer children going into further education than any country in Western Europe, with the exceptions of Portugal and Ireland. Internationally, Britain's stock had fallen to rock bottom: our European partners could not count on Labour's committment to The European Cornmunity — and now know that Labour are committed to take us out of the EEC. Despite a belief in disarmament, whether it be multilateral or unilateral, the last Labour Government, with Michael Foot as its Deputy Leader, authorised the renewal of our Independent Nuclear Deterrent, Polaris.
This was without Parliament's approval. The decision was taken in secret session of Cabinet; and while this holein-a-corner decision was being made, Britain continued to give about 0.5% of its Gross National Product in overseas aid to developing countries.
It isn't really a case of good intentions going wrong. Labour has simply been so preoccupied with the battles between its Left and Right and between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the National Executive that it has had no time to look at where it is going. Nor does it seem to have noticed that popular support has been withering away: the last Labour Government was elected with only 29% of the vote.
The next few weeks will probably determine whether Labour and Britain are to soldier on into more fruitless government — after years more wrangling and bitterness in opposition.
Three events will take place this month which are of importance. First, Labour will have a Special Conference to discuss the method of electing a leader. The last time they did this, at their Annual Conference last September, the session ended in a brawl. Secondly, Mr Roy Jenkins returns from Brussels having completed his term with the EEC. Thirdly, and not unconnectedly, a small group of Labour MPs will leave the PLP to sit as Social Democrats.
The first of these events will open the way to the Left, and in particular to Mr Tony Benn, to gain the popular support of the constituency parties and
some trades unions. He will not challenge Mr Foot yet but in the fullness of time Mr Benn knows that his hour will come — so do many Labour MPs who could never stomach his brand of Socialism.
The formation of a new Social Democratic Party is an idea canvassed by Roy Jenkins — himself a former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He returns to the UK to seek a new role and will set about developing a power-base within Parliament and a popular base outside. There are a handful of MPs within the Commons — men with the courage to break out of the strait jacket — who will join him.
Others will be ousted by their local Left-dominated parties under the new "compulsory re. selection" proceedure. They will then defect to the Social Democrats and stand against the official Labour candidate. Their less courageous exit will be messy. One factor which will ensure that many of them take their fight into the constituencies is that they will lose their redundancy pay if they do not contest.
There are three further factors which will determine the success of this initiative: the role of Shirley Williams; the co-operation of the Liberals; and the assistance of others who want to see a break with class-based doctrinnaire politics.
Roy Jeilions may have great intellectual capacity and his experience will give any new political grouping immense credibility. However, the natural leader and the politician with the greatest popular appeal amongst the Social Democrats is Shirley Williams. Even without her Parliamentary base she is still one of the most significant people in British politics. She mustn't waste her talents and ability or remain in the wilderness searching her heart forever. She says she cannot contemplate standing as a Labour candidate again because of their new policy positions, particularly on Europe. Shirley's courage has won her great admiration — she should now follow the logical next steps which will return her to the front-line of British politics.
As for the Liberals, they must be prepared to co-operate in and outside Parliament with the realigned Social Democrats. With 44 million votes, 1,000 Local Councillors, Local Authorities under their control, Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, a Parliamentary Party, Constituency Associations, fund-raising machinery and a popular national leader, the Liberals have a lot to give. Without their active agreement to a programme and close collaboration in and outside Parliament, the Social Democrats and Liberals could cancel each other out.
There are others from the progressive and radical sections of their parties who are immensely unhappy. The Nationality Law will present many liberal-minded Conservatives with a moral and political dilemma; the SNP and Welsh Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru, have within their ranks talented men and women who have become frustrated by the narrow appeal of nationalism. One of their MPs describes himself as belonging to the "hard centre". His radical brand of politics will wither on the vine so long as he and people like him are confined to their present positions.
Conditions for re-alignment have never been better in the past twenty years — two political leaders afflicted with a large dose of "foot and mouth" disease; both dogmatic; both blinded by their own rhetoric. If a new political structure does not develop in Britain everyone will plod on, and Labour might just oust the Tories next time. The paper will then peel off the cracks and we will all be back to square one.