This Leading Article is about a ‘Road Not Taken’ – or at least not taken very far. The election of John Major could have seen a recovery by the older sort of Toryism. Instead a majority of Labour MPs preferred to capitulate to Thatcherite values after Major unexpectedly won in 1992. Opinion polls had suggested a narrow Labour victory, and a very different future might have emerged had Labour under Kinnock not failed at the last moment.
With Labour surrendering much of what it used to be during the years of Blair and Brown, the Tories naturally reverted to Thatcherism. It had a series of bald foolish and unpopular leaders who are deservedly forgotten. But then gained the appearance of safety and moderation with David Cameron, who however continued the downward spiral.
Our forecast from 1991 remains of interest as a might-have-been.
Back to the Drawing Board
The ditching of Mrs Thatcher means that there has in effect been a change of government without a general election. No matter how similar Major’s policies may be to Thatcher’s, the fact that he is not Mrs Thatcher is his greatest asset in restoring the Tories fortunes by the next election.
This poses a big problem for Kinnock, who hoped to win the next election by also not being Mrs Thatcher. That was a reasonable attitude, though not a very inspiring one. It was fraught with dangers that L&TUR highlighted some time ago. (See the editorial in L&TUR No. 12, especially.)
Kinnock’s strategy is now defunct. The Tory party has always had many more resources at its disposal than the abilities of its leadership. It is also more than just the sum of its parts. What we have seen in action is an organism discarding part of itself that had become a hindrance to its survival.
Labour has got to get out of its ‘winning by default’ mentality. There is no evidence that this has happened. For instance, the party has continued to make education its ‘big idea’. But the Tories have changed their attitude on this issue, and there is now a convergence of the basic attitudes of the Front Benches on this issue. In any case, the general election was never going to be decided on education because, despite its importance as an issue it is a minority issue for the electorate as a whole.
The election is much more likely to be decided by the Poll Tax, and by the situation in the Gulf – especially if the Americans launch a war there.
But what is Labour’s attitude to the Poll Tax? It is not yet possible to get a clear answer, and while this is so, the Tories are likely to get away with all sorts of reviews and experiments. These will sound plausible to the electorate if no clear alternative is on show.
The only alternative is a tax on property in the form of rates. It is the only alternative that people will accept and understand. A tax on property is as fundamentally fair as income tax. The Poll Tax can never be fair in that sense. It is also simply impossible to compensate for the loss of income from high rated property by a flat rate on every adult. There are not enough adults available to fill the gap without massive bills and/or massive subsidy from the taxpayers.
Labour should also grasp the nettle of revaluation, and point out that this would only mean high rates for properties that had increased in value. It would mean less rateable value for properties that had declined in value. It is all perfectly fair. And as there is now a real rented housing market once again, it is now possible to be accurate about these calculations in a way that would have been impossible a year or so ago.
There is one reform that is necessary in the rating system, and that is that all payers should receive a yearly bill. Council tenants tended not to realise how much they were paying, and this reform would achieve all the accountability that is necessary.
Labour has developed a tendency to have impressive looking and impressive sounding policy documents which get more and more ambiguous, the closer they are examined. Their meaning is very difficult to sum up. They can also seem to be too clever by half. But when it comes to a form of taxation, any policy has to be translated into clear and simple concepts, because the net result for the taxpayers is always going to be very clear and simple.
On the Gulf, Labour has not yet developed a distinct attitude. Nothing definitely separates it from the government. Labour should be saying loudly and clearly that it is up to the Arab nations to sort out their territorial disputes. These disputes will only be exacerbated by the Bush/Baker approach. It took the European nations several centuries and several wars to sort themselves out. The Arab nations are likely to do a similar job much better if they are helped rather than bludgeoned by an American President who can find nothing better to do.
The Kinnock/Kaufman line up to now has been morally despicable – no Labour leadership should every have encouraged a war to support a royal family of slave-owners who had been made ‘legitimate’ by and for Western imperialist interests.
There is one further issue that is going to be significant in the coming parliamentary session transport. Labour is lucky to have its most competent parliamentarian, Prescott, in the shadow post. He has the great ability by his very demeanour to make his Tory opposite numbers appear pompous, incompetent and smarmy – that is, to make them appear exactly what they are.
Prescott has developed an excellent policy, and has seen off two Secretaries of State for Transport. He should be given every assistance to get his hat trick. Success like that is what makes a party fit for government, because it is only a good opposition that can be trusted to make a good government.
This article appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.