20 March 1997 Edition

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New Labour, new hope?

As the Westminster election campaign gets under way two writers analyse the implications of a possible Labour victory

Will a British Labour Government make much difference in Ireland? London-based journalist Nick Martin Clark is doubtful.

Since Kevin McNamara's replacement by Mo Mowlam as shadow Northern Ireland spokesperson Labour policy has drifted to the right. The wholesale adoption of bi-partisanship, the vote in favour of renewing the PTA, the slippage in doctrine from `unity by consent' to `consent' merely, the ineffectual nature of Labour initiatives over parades, the recent hullabaloo over Gerry Adams appearing in Westminster to launch his autobiography, the signs are numerous and clear.

On the other hand all his has taken place against a national and international background more favourable to genuine negotiations with republicans that at any time since 1974.

Within the Tory camp the broadcasting ban remains lifted despite the IRA resumption, the role of the US and Irish governments has been recognised, the sense of futility has grown, the sense of commitment has waned and the conviction that Britain's stance is doing its international standing any good has drained away. The feeling that the problem has entered its end-game stage is inescapable - which doesn't mean it's going to be solved quickly. Perhaps then, as the prospect of real negotiation looms, it is inevitable that Labour will become more hard-headed. They have to face up to the strength of the forces in Britain that stand in the way of substantive justice in Northern Ireland. Nobody should be in any doubt as to the almighty ructions that any serious challenge to those interests would provoke over here. Civil war is not completely unthinkable.

Any changes under a Labour government are likely to be ones of style, not substance. Mo Mowlam's good-natured directness will replace Patrick Mayhew's patrician flourishes and Michael Ancram's stolidity
The question is whether Labour's rightwing shift is here to stay or is it merely a tactic? Is the Labour party instinctively doing what it takes to win the election, aping the Tories over any number of issues but secretly intending to do as it pleases once in power? After all, George Stephanopoulos, senior advisor to Bill Clinton, has gone on record as saying that ``you can never be too right-wing in an election campaign'' and he has some influence over Labour now that they have, surprise surprise, imitated the Tories by looking to America for political inspiration. This question goes to the heart of the New Labour project. If you believe that the Labour Party has changed fundamentally you will conclude that Labour's stance is not tactical but genuine. If not, not.

My own view is that New Labour is a fact. The membership of the party is transformed and vastly swollen (it's now upwards of 300,000), discipline is much tighter, effective control over policy-making is very centralised and decision-making procedures are being constantly altered to shift power away from bastions of the Left and into `safer', more modern hands. The Labour leadership is now running a tight ship.

More important however, the issue of leadership and with it the question of Tony Blair personally, has come to dominate debate. The long shadow of a certain lady from the eighties hangs over all of this. No British Prime Minister since Churchill has made such an impact and the years since her departure have belonged not to Major or Smith or Blair but, politically speaking, to her ghost. Tony Blair has expressly modelled himself on her. He is a conviction politician of a sort - even if his own churchy brand of it can't quite match the god-like self-assurance of our very own mother of all housekeepers. And he has put his credibility on the line by refusing to promise more than he can deliver. Labour have only made five spending promises, none of which amount to more than a tinker, so they can afford to keep them. The gentleman's not for turning.

In addition, there is a further reason for expecting little from a Labour government on this issue in particular. Northern Ireland will not be a priority. There aren't many votes in it and anyway, an incoming Labour government will be rushed off its feet coping with its domestic agenda - limited constitutional reform, education and health - on top of negotiating the pressing European issue.

In `New Labour, New Life for Britain' Northern Ireland merits a paragraph in the context of strengthening democracy in Britain by supporting devolution to Scotland and Wales and backing a Freedom of Information Act.

As Garret Fitzgerald put it: ``....because there's a Northern Ireland Secretary people think there's a Northern Ireland policy - but there isn't.''

For all the lip-service paid to the importance John Major has attached to the issue this fundamental of British politics remains. How else can you explain the criminal irresponsibility of his decision to let the peace process disintegrate rather than spoil his electoral chances by going to the country earlier than he'd otherwise wish? A matter of life or death in Ireland is only ever a matter of cheese or cucumber in England. They may be desperate but that's no reason for us to be serious. Whatever the government, that is bedrock.

Any changes under a Labour government are likely therefore to be ones of style, not substance. Mo Mowlam's good-natured directness will replace Patrick Mayhew's patrician flourishes and Michael Ancram's stolidity. That has to be something. Whether or not it will be enough to rekindle the trust necessary for negotiations - assuming that something still survives of the peace process - is another matter.

Will the British Labour Party's plans for constitutional change strengthen the Union? Or will it lead to the eventual break-up of Britain? David Donohoe reports from Edinburgh.

With Labour having abandoned all pretence of meaningful socialist change and John Major choosing the constitution as the main battleground, the only policy on which there is `clear blue water' between the two main parties is the British constitution.

The Scottish National Party are unlikely to make an electoral breakthrough. Their support is spread too evenly. Under the first past the post system they are particularly disadvantaged - at the last election they received 21 per cent of the Scottish vote but won only three seats out of a possible 72.

Even if their higher poll rating, currently 26 per cent, which makes them the second party in Scotland in terms of votes, is fulfilled at the election, they are only likely to win, at best, a handful of extra seats. To make a meaningful advance the SNP would have to break out of their rural base and win seats in the urban Central Belt of Scotland with an overall share of the vote reaching 40 per cent plus. Realistically then, the only hope for any sort of home rule in Scotland, and Wales if they so decide, is a Labour victory.

However, Labour's `gerrymandered' plans for a partly-proportional 129 seat Parliament in Edinburgh would permit Labour to rule with a minority of the vote, and still leave Scotland with 72 MPs at Westminster.

Those MPs, the majority of them Labour, would be allowed to vote on matters like health, education and local government which only affect England, but English MPs would not be permitted to vote on the same issues that solely affect Scotland - that would be the preserve of the Scottish Parliament. This `anomaly', commonly regarded as unfair by voters in Scotland as well as England, is known as the West Lothian Question (the anti-home rule Labour MP who first raised it represented West Lothian in Scotland). It is John Major's big attack on Labour.

He thinks his best hope in the election is to play the patriotic card, defending Britain against foreign encroachment and internal subversion. On the one hand promoting the individualism of the market-place, and on the other, endorsing primitive ethnic fundamentalism. In his case, an ugly English/British Nationalism that is only too happy to accommodate Ulster-Loyalist tribalism.

Major thinks his call to the people of Britain to ``Wake Up'' to the dangers of Labour's plans worked for him at the last election and he thinks it can work again. For the Tories, absolute control has to stay with the Crown-in-Parliament. Hollow concessions like Grand Committees with no executive power can be made to Edinburgh, even Cardiff, certainly to `Ulster', but no irreversible shifts in power can ever be allowed.

This philosophy of absolute parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster view of executive power goes all the way back to Henry VIII's break with Rome. In a way, Major is trying to play the Orange Card.

Labour's response to this is, of course, pitiful. If it were serious about dramatically restructuring the anti-democratic nature of the UK state it would celebrate the dissenting democratic traditions that England can be proud of. The England of the Levellers and the Chartists. And more recently, the striking miners, the anti poll tax activists and the Liverpool Dockers. It would also challenge the unionist veto on political progress in the Six Counties.

Instead what do we have? Blair's first big test came with the Tory government's surrender to Loyalist intimidation at Drumcree. What did he have to say about it? Absolutely nothing. We have a `New' Labour Party that behaves like a bunch of old Tories.

Labour's home rule plans for Scotland are driven not by ideological commitment, or democratic principle but out of their own electoral interests at Westminster and a fear of the SNP. Unlike the Tories, Labour usually need a high Scottish vote to win at Westminster.

However, just like the former Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath, Labour Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan promised a Scottish parliament when in opposition, but failed to deliver when in office.

Labour's `plans' for a Westminster sub-office in Scotland may not bother the English electorate at the moment but if Labour win the election this will change.

The opinion polls show that over 70 per cent of both the Scottish and English electorate think it is only fair that if a Scottish parliament is set up, Scottish MPs should withdraw from voting on solely English affairs. This would make running a British government problematic to say the least. On some matters the `government' would have a majority and on others it wouldn't.

For years Labour has been claiming that the Tories had no `moral mandate' to enact contentious legislation, like the poll tax, in Scotland on the back of English votes, yet now they claim that Scots MPs in the future should have the right to decide on purely English legislation when the English can't do likewise with Scottish legislation. It just doesn't make sense.

Labour's refusal to answer the West Lothian Question properly may not lose them the election; if they win, the opportunity for constitutional instability is extended. If the unthinkable happens and the Tories win a fifth term then a huge swing to the SNP is guaranteed.

The only logical long term solution to this constitutional wrangling would be federal republics on national lines. English, Scottish and Welsh parliaments would decide their own affairs and co-operate on wider matters with whoever they wished
Assuming the polls are correct, a Tory opposition would be nothing like the feeble opposition that Labour have offered for the last 18 years. They would harass Labour at every turn on their devolution plans.

As a Constitutional Bill, Labour wouldn't have the same rights to guillotine debates. In theory, getting a Scottish Parliament on the statute book could take up a whole year of parliamentary time and that's assuming they are talking about nothing else.

If, like the last two Labour Prime Ministers, Blair fails to deliver on devolution the majority of Scots would be driven to voting SNP at the following election and unlike Labour, the SNP only have to win once to achieve their objective, an independent Scotland.

The other possibility, that they finally deliver home rule to Scotland is also problematic for Labour. The idea that Conservatives would meekly accept a swathe of Scottish MPs, mainly Labour, having the right to vote for English domestic affairs whilst they didn't have the right to vote on Scottish domestic affairs is Alice-in-Wonderland stuff. The hard-right of the Tory opposition would delight in stirring up English nationalism - in effect, demanding home-rule for England.

Either way, if Labour deliver or fail to deliver home rule, the prospects for the break up of Britain have never been brighter. In the struggle to identify what it means to be British, things seem to be moving our way. Just this week some highly respectable Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs have called for the abolition of the Union Jack because of its association with the Consrvative Party and the National Front.

The only logical long term solution to this constitutional wrangling would be federal republics on national lines. English, Scottish and Welsh parliaments would decide their own affairs and co-operate on wider matters with whoever they wished.

So where would that leave our bowler-hatted friends? David Trimble's publicly stated preference to link up with the Scots if they ever get independence went down like a lead balloon in Scotland. Perhaps one day he will be prepared to negotiate with fellow Celts closer to home - without preconditions of course.

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