The New Statesman Essay - The myth of John Smith the loser

Francis Beckett argues that an unmodernised Labour could have won in 1997

If anyone still believes, with Marx, that individuals do not change history, they might care to imagine what would have happened if John Smith had lived. Some things would be the same - we would have a Labour government with a comfortable majority. Others would be very different. Whenever the government had to decide if it should side with the rich and powerful, rather than with the poor, we would not have the sinking, miserable certainty that it would choose the rich and powerful.

A Smith government, or a Kinnock government, would not have been revolutionary, or socialist. But just occasionally, when Rupert Murdoch or the agro-chemical industry, the City or the CBI said "jump", it would have declined to answer "how high?".

New Labour has cultivated two myths, whose most recent expression can be found in Philip Gould's book The Unfinished Revolution: how the modernisers saved the Labour Party. The first is that Smith's tax policies lost Labour the 1992 general election. (For this argument, see the extract from Gould's book in the New Statesman, 30 October.) The second is that Smith was on course to lose the 1997 election, until he fortunately died and Tony Blair brought back the indispensable Peter Mandelson.

In the 1987 election, Labour ran the most professional campaign in its history. Polls showed that Neil Kinnock went down on television far better than Margaret Thatcher. But Labour won just a 2.5 per cent swing when 12 per cent was needed for a working majority. MORI's Bob Worcester wrote afterwards in the New Statesman that bridging the gap "will take more than being packaged like soap powder or dog food".

He explained Kinnock's weakness privately to the shadow cabinet. "Thatcher was seen as talking down to people but a capable leader," he says. "Kinnock never got 'capable leader', even though he got all the rest. I suggested the shadow cabinet should say 'capable' about him in their speeches."

But what the spin-doctors did instead was to change Kinnock, until it became hard to recall what an exciting politician he had been before leadership descended on him like a shroud. They wrapped him in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. They made him give up the simple, direct, passionate language that had won the hearts, first of his party and then of the nation. The man who had once said "If Mrs Thatcher wins tomorrow, I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old" was told to deliver his thoughts in vast, shapeless bundles of words. They told him that, when asked a difficult question, he was to flannel until the time ran out, and he did, though he felt foolish doing it.

Yet the new Kinnock still did not attract public confidence. During the 1992 election, only 36 per cent of voters thought Kinnock was a capable leader, compared with 52 per cent for Major and, if the communicators had understood their trade better, they would have known why. You can build on the product you have, but you can't pretend that it is a completely different product.

They seem dimly to have recognised their error because, in 1990, Philip Gould suggested at a top-level internal meeting that they should "let Neil be himself". But it was too late.

The previous year, they had got rid of Bob Worcester. Worcester had crossed Mandelson during the campaign by insisting on discussing party political broadcasts in front of Labour's campaign strategy committee when Mandelson wanted to present them with a fait accompli. In 1989 Worcester was told that he could no longer report direct to the leader, but must report to Mandelson and the Shadow Communications Agency. Worcester refused.

Labour entered the 1992 election with a fragile three-point lead. Somehow, between 24 March and 9 April, that turned into an eight-point Conservative lead.

Never was a result so desperately in need of a scapegoat. As the results were coming through, John Smith was already being elected to the post. His tax pledges were supposed to have frightened Middle England. But Worcester says: "Smith's tax pledges had already been discounted by the electorate - everyone knew what he was going to do for six months before the election." Two years earlier Labour had pledged to raise the top rate of tax to 50 per cent and remove the national insurance ceiling to pay for pensions and child benefit increases. If tax promises are fatal, how was it that Labour continued to lead in the polls?

So what did cost Labour the 1992 election? Worcester has no doubt that it was the Sheffield rally, just eight days before polling day. On the eve of the rally, three polls came out, showing a seven-point lead, a six-point lead and a four-point lead for Labour. That day, Labour peaked.

MORI later conducted, for the Sunday Times, a panel study of representative voters. It found that the proportion who made up their minds how to vote in the last week of the election campaign (21 per cent) was the highest it had ever recorded. After the election the Market Research Society's inquiry into polling errors concluded: "After the final interviews there was a . . . swing to the Tories. It seems likely that this was the cause of a significant part of the final error . . . We estimate that late swing . . . probably accounted for between a fifth and a third of the total error."

Worcester says: "I spoke just after the election to the 21 Conservative MPs with the most marginal constituencies. Every single one of them said that without the Sheffield rally they would not be in parliament. Labour candidates out canvassing that night, just after the rally went out on the news, had people saying: 'I'm sorry, I can't vote for you any longer.' Statistically and anecdotally, Sheffield was the turning point." If the cause of the election defeat had been Smith's tax pledge, which was given near the start of the campaign, then the polls would have had to be spectacularly and consistently wrong throughout the campaign, in a way that they have never been, before or since.

How did Sheffield turn the tide? The problem was less the event than the news management. The rally was timed to climax with Kinnock's appearance at exactly three minutes past nine, to catch the start of the BBC's main evening news bulletin. Spin-doctors get very excited about manoeuvres like that - so excited that none of them gave any thought to what the leader would do with his precious few seconds of prime airtime. But earlier speakers overran, Kinnock appeared ten minutes late, and the 10,000 keyed-up people in the hall erupted. Kinnock's repeated "awright" went down a treat in the hall, and came across like a Nuremberg rally on television.

But even without that, the gaudy triumphalism of the affair was damaging enough. And it seems to me that, if the spin-doctors had not kept the lid so firmly closed on the real Kinnock, the dam inside him might not have burst so suddenly and damagingly on that Sheffield stage.

If Sheffield had been a success, its real architects, the people in charge of Labour's campaign, would have taken the credit. As it was, the rumour was put about that the rally was the brainchild and organisational baby of one Jim Parrish. Parrish had worked for many years in Labour's communications department, under a succession of directors of communications. He was never influential, and did not have influential friends. His contribution to the rally would have been limited to carrying out such organisational tasks as were allotted to him. But, as a scapegoat, Parrish was perfect, because he was one of the very few survivors of those who had worked in Labour's communications department before Mandelson became its chief.

After the 1992 defeat Kinnock resigned and Smith became leader. New Labour loyalists argue that Smith's lead at his death in 1994 could have disappeared before the general election, just as the mid-term Labour lead had disappeared before 1992. But the two periods were completely different. After the June 1987 election the Conservatives stayed ahead in the polls for almost two years, until March 1989. When Labour took the lead, the electorate remained volatile. By January 1991 the Conservatives were in the lead again, and during 1991 the polls varied between a 6 per cent Labour lead and a 5 per cent Conservative lead.

After the 1992 election it was a very different story. Within three months the Tory lead in the polls was wiped out, never to reappear. Smith was the most popular and respected Labour leader since Attlee, whom he resembled in many ways. He scored better than Major in the polls on all counts, including the crucial "capable leader" criterion. Labour's lead steadily widened: from 4 per cent in July 1992 to 20 per cent in January 1994.

Smith died in May 1994 and it is true that, after Blair's election, Labour's lead was suddenly boosted, reaching an unbelievable 39 per cent for a few days in December 1994. But this was a honeymoon period, equivalent to the ten-point advance Labour made in the polls the week that Kinnock was elected leader in 1983. The lead narrowed slowly through 1995 until it reached once again the levels that Smith had enjoyed. At the election, it was 13 per cent.

Worcester says Smith would have won the 1997 election with a majority probably near to 100. Blair's 179 majority was the gift of the 4.5 million Conservatives who did not vote. Labour in 1997 polled fewer votes than the Conservatives polled in 1992.

If we could have won comfortably without new Labour, what was it all for? Dennis Potter, writing in 1993 about what was happening to the BBC, wrote: " . . . each age, even each decade, has its little cant word coiled up inside real discourse like a tiny grub in the middle of an apple. Each age, even each decade, is overly impressed for a little while by half-way bright youngish men on the make who adeptly manipulate the current terminology . . ." The passage is quoted by Colin Leys in The Socialist Register (Merlin, 1996). He says "the little cant word" of the 1990s is modernisation.

But the real trick, having found the little cant word, is to give it the Humpty Dumpty treatment: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." If you decide that modernisation means privatisation, or the Millennium Dome, or whatever crackpot theory the latest management guru has come up with, then, if anyone questions these things, you can say with a sneer: "You're against modernisation, then?" The same trick was used in the early 1980s by another group of "half-way bright youngish men on the make" who tended to pay homage to Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, because they thought Benn and Scargill were going to win. For them, the little cant word was "democracy". If you questioned their latest complicated formula to deliver the trade union vote for their candidates, they would say, with a sneer: "You're against democracy, then?"

They had the same cynicism, the same intolerance, the same enjoyment of the game and the power, and they, too, set arbitrary litmus tests for ideological purity, just as the Blairites do today. They did almost as much damage.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?