Citizen Smith nails the fading red flag to the mast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am

AT LAST, seven months after he was elected, John Smith has nailed his colours to the mast. The Labour leader has come out with a new definition for his party, allegedly the party of the individual citizen where traditional links with state ownership, hightaxation and union power will vanish.

Only a few weeks ago Labour was wooing the US Democrats, asking the Clinton team just how was it that their man was so electable while the Labour Party has failed miserably for the past 14 years.

Then last Sunday at Labour's local government conference in Bournemouth we had the answer. Mr Smith, the quietly spoken Edinburgh lawyer, said that Labour would win again when it embodied the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people. He promised tobe ''bold, ambitious, pragmatic and practical'' on their behalf.

At one level it was what everyone had been waiting for - simply because party members and political pundits had very little clue as to whether the leader who replaced Neil Kinnock would be a traditionalist or go forward with a new-style Labour. He would seem to have chosen the latter course.

In effect he declared the famous Clause Four of the Labour constitution, that the means of production shall be put into the hands of the people. Nationalisation would be dead.

The debate about ownership of industry was irrelevant. There would be no commitment to nationalisation in Labour's future manifestos and the promises to take back the water and the power industry into state ownership, had been dropped.

It was not old Labour and not Toryism, but more social democracy that he was advocating. Things could not be left to the market. Nor could they be left to the state. There was a need for a mixed economy.

He appeared to chuck out years of dogma, replacing collectivism with a degree of individualism, recognising that the individual needs incentives.

In parts it was bold. But taken in perspective the Labour leader really had learnt very little from the parallel speech by the Prime Minister to the Tory Carlton Club last week.

Admittedly, Mr Smith's was projected as the first of a series of speeches which will define the new Labour Party but much of what he said could have been delivered by Hugh Gaitskell in the 50s or Harold Wilson (or even perhaps Ted Heath) in the 60s.

After all there is hardly anything new in Labour circles to talking about the merits of the mixed economy or to point out that nationalisation is no longer seen anywhere as the panacea for a nation's problems.

He made no mention of tax policy (and he was the advocate of the soak-the-middle-classes policy which hit Labour badly last April), he uttered no words on electoral or constitutional reform although he sketched out his party's commitment to a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act.

The Labour hierarchy would argue that he needn't go much farther now because he doesn't want to sketch out a manifesto four years ahead of time and that besides, there are all sorts of commissions and committees looking at the minutiae of policy.

But we didn't even hear him say what he wants to hear from them. In other words his leadership was still lacking, the vacuum at the head of the Opposition still remains.

And how long has John Smith got? Well to be honest, not much more than 18 months if he is to get his party in full fighting trim with a new direction and a new appeal. It may be four years to the next election but the conferences and party agreements have to be worked out much sooner.

Meanwhile Labour shows no sign of change at lower levels. Labour's challenge to the Government over the closure of Leyland-DAF, the British truck-and van-making wing of the Dutch company has been ham-fisted.

Some senior Labour officials were immediately crying for public money to rescue it - but there is none in recession-hit Britain.

Labour needs to think independently, to avoid knee-jerk reactions and come up with a real analysis based on the conditions of the end of the 20th century if it is to have any relevance.